The Good Foot Soldier

Sarah L. Henderson and Alana S. Jeydel’s Women and Revolutionary Movements, a treatment of women’s participation in revolutionary activity, argues that while women have been actively engaged in modern guerrilla movements across the globe, that their inclusion in revolutionary processes is “neither new nor isolated” (Henderson 72).

Women in these revolutionary movements usually seek to achieve ends through noninstitutionalized political means, often through the use of violence, such as suicide bombing (Henderson 73). The authors, while acknowledging the great difficulty involved in distinguishing a revolutionary movement from an ordinary social movement, articulate that the latter is often much larger in scope, as guerrilla groups commonly fight for “profoundly new societies” rather than select political rights (Henderson 73).

Women’s involvement in such movements is often overlooked; these women often assume “unacknowledged, supporting roles” such as in channeling weaponry, personnel, and information in a clandestine fashion because of their usual ability to avoid common security measures. Henderson and Jeydel attribute women’s roles in revolutionary successes as being able to exploit “traditional societal expectations” of an assumed “female” innocence and “women’s supposedly apolitical status” (Henderson 73).

While women are often deeply involved in these radical movements, ironically, their participation often does nothing to further the feminist platform (Henderson 73). The authors conclude that it is common for men in positions of leadership during revolutions to integrate women as an utmost priority to the success of their cause.

However, once recruited, women are commonly willing to sacrifice the platform of gender issues in hopes of first accomplishing a “more pressing” cause, and the male leadership usually fails to implement any serious reforms, contrary to their grandiose promises (Henderson 73).

A Storied History, Though Oft Neglected

Women have integrated into revolutionary movements in the past and played important roles that contribute to their successes or failures. However, it is rare to find women’s representation in revolutionary movements as exceeding one-third of participants (Henderson 77). Even in revolutionary movements, among guerrillas whose radical ideals look to shatter common societal norms, are women severely impeded from progressing past subordinate positions and into the realm of deep political participation.

The authors offer an encompassing examination of women in a variety of revolutionary movements, from Marxist, to democratic, to religious fundamentalist (Henderson 78). Marxist views of modern society involve heavy critiques of class, economic inequalities and gender relations; as such, women are often attracted by the Marxist appeal of revolutionizing society and offering new rights to political participation (Henderson 79).

Inclusion by Marxists and Liberal Democrats, Alike

Marxist leaders such as Mao Zedong (Tse-tung), Castro and Lenin have publicly voiced, with urgency, the need for women to be actively incorporated into their movements. Yet still, the authors conclude that, historically, Marxists’ class concerns have “trumped gender issues” (Henderson 80).

In democratic movements, major liberal writers have put forth philosophies that argue for natural equality, which would seem to grant women the best chance for increased political participation. However, the authors content that the principals of liberalism, while arguing for equal political treatment for all, are often applied exclusively to men (Henderson 81-82).

In religious fundamentalist revolutions, the authors have found it paradoxical that women have, in some instances, come to actively support radical regimes that often hinder political and gender rights. But, they contend that women offer support to such regimes when a utopian vision is offered that promises “political and social rights of women…” where they could gain “true freedom, dignity, and respect,” as with the Ayatollah Khomeini (Henderson 85).

Participation and Inclusion: The Glass Ceiling

Henderson and Jeydel establish several key terms and concepts that are vital toward better understanding women’s often violent participation in revolutionary movements. The authors first establish a general phrase pertaining to frequent limitations that women endure even when the revolutions they participate in succeed. This “glass ceiling,” as they refer to it, hinders the political and social benefits that women receive in lieu of revolutionary change. Men, the authors argue, tend to maintain “crucial positions of economic, social, and political power” (Henderson 73).

Henderson and Jeydel go on to dedicate an entire portion of their chapter to defining exactly what they mean by the term “revolution” (Henderson 74). How revolutions develop is of utter importance in understanding the role that women play within them. More than simply a “change in political leadership,” radical revolutions seek to institute sweeping changes through “violent forms of political expression” and other means of “noninstitutional politics” on the bases of new visions of “justice, and just society” (Henderson 76).

The authors describe women’s inability to transition into the political sphere from the role of auxiliary support and “guerrilla” in a revolutionary struggle by referring to them as women “foot soldiers” (Henderson 99). Even in cases of revolutionary success, like when a regime is toppled, women are completely disregarded from leadership roles. Thus, women in guerrilla movements are simply “loyal foot soldiers,” there to serve the cause when the cause is shared by men, but excluded from the political process when the men have obtained political power (Henderson 99).

The “glass ceiling” description of women’s limitations after revolutionary struggles is perceptive and appears to be accurate in describing the aftereffects on a women’s movement following a revolution. However, to what extent does the glass ceiling exist in these cases?

Questions that Arise about Women in Revolution

An interesting study would be to analyze women’s roles in different types of revolutionary struggles, including Marxist, democratic, or religious fundamentalist, and to contrast individual case studies’ effects on women’s political rights and participation:

  • Would there be particular glass ceilings that could be descriptively applied to revolutions of different political ideologies?
  • Is the glass ceiling “higher” for women in democratic revolutions than in Marxist or religious fundamentalist revolutions?
  • Or, rather, considering the ceiling pertains generally to women’s rights, are the limitations more universal, falling on the basis of gender more than the revolution’s political outcome?

Current social movements in countries where democracies have been implemented, such as Afghanistan and Iraq, would make for excellent case studies. Popular media has often portrayed to Westerners how women are oppressed and abused in some radical Islamic societies. Sometimes the oppression is not only culturally-induced, but also codified into law, as in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime. To what extent are women joining the political process in Afghanistan and Iraq?

As the nation-building process endures frequent violence, are women actively pressuring government for certain changes, through the power of votes and protest? Or, are these women more likely to assume private roles of mother, wife, and sister, in attempting to pressure, persuade, or encourage male family members to be active in the greater political process?

“The Good Foot Soldier: Women’s limited roles in Revolutionary change” is a political study by Dave Ursillo on women’s inclusion in revolutionary and guerrilla movements, originally published November 2007. Cited sources and other views copyright their respective owners. All Rights Reserved. Site your sources and do not plagiarize!

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