By Flora Leask-
Those of us who, in our souls, harbour a holy zeal for our nation’s greatness, and treasure in our hearts the ineffable love of a daughter, we cannot renounce the pleasant hope of seeing, shining on the brow of Mexico, this new conquest of liberty, and shining on the brow of our [female] descendants, this new conquest of progress,
- Laureana Wright de Kleinhans, “The Emancipation of Women through Education”
Laureana Wright de Kleinhans was a journalist, intellectual and outspoken advocate for women’s education and rights in post-colonial Mexico. She was born in Taxco, Guerrero in 1846, at a time when Mexico was swept up in numerous political reforms and revolts. During her lifetime she saw the Liberal Reform of Mexico (1855 – 1861) followed by the War of Reform (1857–1860), the brief installation of the Hapsburg Emperor Maximilian by the invading French (1867), and then his overthrow by Benito Juarez and the Liberals once again, leading to the Reformed Republic (1867-1876). The republic was sustained for nine years until the authoritarian rule of General Porfirio Díaz in 1876, which would last for 30 years. Throughout Mexico’s era of reform Wright de Kleinhans dreamed that after finally becoming liberated from the Spanish and the French, Mexico could give itself a new identity, where she imagined a place for educated women.
Wright de Kleinhans was born to an American father and Mexican mother who owned a mine in Taxco, in the southwest of Mexico. Due to her affluent family background, de Kleinhans was able to benefit from an extensive private education in Mexico City at a time when women’s schooling was catching up to that of its male counterpart as a result of the Liberal Reforms. Consequently, Wright de Kleinhans was amongst the new, educated generation of women that emerged as a direct result of these reforms and who simultaneously criticised the fundamental lack of female voices in intellectual and political spaces in Mexico. After marrying Sebastian Kleinhans, having a child, and divorcing him a year later, Wright de Kleinhans decided to focus on her writing and became a journalist for several well-known publications where she discussed the social and legal impediments to matters such as women's suffrage. She was one of the first Mexican writers to discuss how women add strength to society in both traditionally domestic and public roles; that educated mothers and children are just as important as politicians.
While her writing varied from patriotic poetry to philosophical writings on Mexican history, her political journalism became divisive after criticizing Porfirio Díaz's dictatorial regime and exploitative labour policies in a magazine named Diario del Hogar. As a result, Díaz wanted to exile Wright de Kleinhans from her beloved Mexico but was eventually dissuaded by his wife, Delfina Ortega Díaz, due to her and Laureanna’s friendship.
The year 1884 saw an important move for Wright de Kleinhans when she founded the journal Violetas del Anáhuac: Periódico Literario Redactado por Señoras [Violets of Anáhuac: A Literary Periodical Edited by Ladies] with an all-female editorial team. It was one of the first journals written by women, and aimed for an all-female readership that encouraged women to educate themselves and their children, and speak publicly about their rights.
Interestingly, the journal had originally been called Las Hijas de Anáhuac (The Daughters of Anáhuac) and although the name was changed after the discovery of a previous publication under this title, Wright de Kleinhans’ primary choice of ‘Hijas’ denoted a perceived historical and patriotic connection to pre-Hispanic society. The use of the Nahuatl name Anáhuac for the valley occupying Mexico city was also significant in portraying un-colonised, native Mexico as full of language and meaning. Despite the fact that many Mexican female writers at the time were trying to attain the standing of their European or North American sisters, which they perceived to be more “progressive”, Wright de Kleinhans’ use of Nahuatl reveals something of her attempt to move away from western notions of progress by creating an indigenous or mestizo (a mixed-race) identity within her writing.
Having said that, the rest of the magazine Violets of Anáhuac was entirely written in Castilian Spanish, and had to be, in order to be regarded as a ‘serious’ literary publication by the standards of the time. Furthermore, although there was pride in the reader’s reclamations as ‘daughters of Mexico’ and an overt glorification of indigenous culture, real indigenous communities such as the Yaquie Indians were facing systematic oppression under Díaz, and it is unclear how far the publication succeeded in improving the situation for these communities. This being said, Wright de Kleinhans had been compiling the histories of 29 indigenous women which were published posthumously in her final work Mujeres Notables Mexicanas [Notable Mexican Women]. This book contained more than one hundred biographies of different women, such as Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, dating from the Spanish Conquest until her current time.
Wright de Kleinhans was only 49 when she died, having dedicated her life to furthering the idea that women could be intellectually equal to men, while also venerating traditional women’s jobs such as motherhood and housekeeping in a post-colonial Mexico. She was the first woman to be appointed membership in several Liceos, or literary groups, as well as offered an honorary position as a Freemason, which she turned down due to the organisation’s refusal to acknowledge the equality of men and women. Despite the continued power struggles between the Liberals and the Conservatives, Wright de Kleinhans persisted in trying to create a more inclusive Mexico, a belief which she expressed through her writing and journalism – paving the way for the next generation of women writers and thinkers.
Wright de Kleinhans may have had the elite standing to criticise those in power and avoid repercussions - however, many Mexican female journalists and women in politics in the 21st century are often harassed or face violence for speaking out. Lydia Cacho, Anabel Hernández, and Sanjuana Martínez are just a few fearless journalists who have been working to expose Mexico’s corrupt institutions despite death threats, kidnappings, and assault, their gender being used as a way to insult and humiliate them. Not only that, everyday sexism still remains a challenge for women and creates misogynist working conditions, forcing females in media into underpaid jobs and into writing stereotypical stories about beauty and fashion. Wright de Kleinhans’ message remains as relevant as ever in the modern era – women must continue to uplift and encourage each other’s contributions to building a safer and more equal Mexico.