Manuela Sáenz is a curious case indeed. She was a Latin American revolutionary figure from the continent’s turbulent 19th century. The revolutionary times opened up a space for behavior defying gender, class and racial norms, which created the first seeds for emancipatory women’s movements. Since her passing, Sáenz has gained a heroine status. Her legacy has empowered various Latin American feminist and revolutionary movements to this day.
The life of Sáenz
Born in Quito, current-day Ecuador, in 1797 as the illegitimate child of elite class parents, Manuela Sáenz defied societal norms since her birth. She was informally recognized by her father who later found her a rich English merchant, who she married according to her father’s wishes. This marriage subsequently set off a chain reaction that destined her to become a revolutionary heroine.
Sáenz followed her husband and became a socialite in Lima, Peru. It is in these circles that she got involved in political and military affairs, leading her to bloom as a supporter of the independence cause. As a politically active member of the upper class in Lima, she initially engaged in the independence cause in ways acceptable for women. She informed independence leaders of any Spanish royalist actions and strategies that she heard of, and she was known to hold “tertulias”, intellectual gatherings, where independence sympathizers gathered to further their cause.
It was in 1822, at the age of 25, that Manuela Sáenz met Simón Bolívar, the Liberator, the most famous Spanish American revolutionary figure of the time. During the revolutionary campaigns, Sáenz worked as Bolivar’s personal archivist, informant and confidant, while also being his lover, companion and political supporter. Sáenz is also believed to have fought alongside Bolívar’s troops as an equal in one or more of the battles, thus contributing to the independence movement’s victories and to the consolidation of the independence of Spanish America.
Most memorably she also twice saved her confidant’s life. In 1828, Sáenz assisted Bolívar to flee would-be assassins who had made their way into Bolívar’s proximity. Her audacity and perceptiveness earned her the title ‘Libertadora del Libertador’ from Bolívar.
Women’s involvement in the revolution – the legacy
Although the life of Sáenz was incredibly eventful and full of departures from the norms of her times, she has been depicted most commonly merely as the lover and partner of Bolívar, thus not receiving the credit she deserves for her efforts and loyalty to the independence movement. This difficulty to reconcile with and accept her significance in the creation of an independent continent is arguably related to her break from traditional female roles and societal norms. However, since the turn of the twentieth century, a variety of scholars have sought to capture the deep scope of her life and efforts in the revolutionary processes, while recalling and re-evaluating her association with Bolívar and his movement.
Women were crucial to the Spanish American wars of independence. Most women, especially among the elite and middle sectors of society, conformed to the notion of “proper womanhood” even during exceptional times such as revolutionary struggles. These women supported the independence cause by giving monetary support, serving as spies, sewing uniforms, and by sacrificing their husbands and adult sons to the independence movement. Some women would follow armies in order to tend to the wounded, which was deemed as acceptable behavior for women, as they were seen as extending their supposedly natural instinct to nurture into an extreme situation in a time of crisis and sacrifice. Most of the women with the armies, however, were poor indigenous or mestiza women, who were the daughters, girlfriends, or wives of low-ranking soldiers. These women followed their men, feeding and comforting them as they fought for independence. Still, women in the aforementioned functions stayed in the accepted spectrum of actions regarding their gender, class, race, and status.
Manuela Sáenz departed from these standards. She was engaged in the revolution long before she was involved with Bolívar. Sáenz was a talented and dedicated revolutionary who was capable of manipulating existing gender norms – sometimes adhering to them, at others rejecting them – when she needed to advance her personal and political interests. The problem was that as the revolution ended, strong female revolutionaries such as Sáenz were expected to step away from their exceptional position they had gained during the crisis, and once again pertain to a more traditional role out of the realms of politics and military affairs.
Emancipation emanating from the revolutions
It is argued that Manuela Sáenz and other women like her participating in the revolutionary movements have been crucial in the revolution of women’s emancipation in Latin America.
Five factors have been identified that contributed to the emergence of Latin American women’s emancipation and revolutionary feminism, born of the various revolutionary movements. Firstly, engagement, such as that of Sáenz’s, in independence movements challenged the status-quo perception of gender behavior thus giving women more space to manoeuvre. Secondly, training in the ranks of the independence movements gave women unprecedented logistical skillsets that they were able to utilize in the organization of women’s movements. Thirdly, there was a political opening in a more chaotic state structure that gave women a chance to organize. In addition, this organizing was stimulated by unmet basic needs by revolutionary movements that women themselves felt a need to address; and finally, a collective feminist consciousness – subtle or not – needed to be present for emancipatory movements to gain strength.
In this context Sáenz was certainly ahead of her time, as great innovators often are. Instead of receiving recognition for her efforts, she was exiled and died a pariah. However, even after such degradation, Sáenz’s legacy subtly lived on, inspiring countless women to mobilize.
The life of Sáenz was that of norm-breaking behavior and extreme solidarity for a cause and commitment to the leader she deemed invaluable for the revolution. Sáenz found an opportunity to express her aspirations, desires and ambitions through the revolutionary movement, and by doing so she contributed to an independent continent and paved way for successive women’s mobilization.
By Anna Bernard
Osvaldo Gago #acampadasol (Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0))