“Mexican Officials Kick On Women
in Knickers, Do not allow Oklahoma Tourists to Enter Mexico in Plus
Fours” El Universal (“English News Section”),
Mexico City, 14 July 1924.
This story appeared in the two-page daily English-language
supplement to El Universal, Mexico City’s most authoritative
newspaper at the time. The English-language supplement usually printed
news that El Universal’s editors believed would interest
English-speaking readers who lived in the city more or less permanently,
rather than tourists. Therefore the English-language pages generally
contained business news of interest to local representatives of foreign
firms, a smattering of political news from Britain and the United
States (usually translated from the main part of the paper), social
notes detailing the comings and goings of businessmen, diplomats,
and their families, and extensive coverage of tournaments and dances
at Mexico City’s elite country clubs. The supplement almost
never printed stories about crime, tourism, or the day-to-day workings
of government (neither in Mexico nor abroad.)
So this small story might catch a historian’s
eye because it was unlike the articles around it. As she examined
it, she would ask a series of questions:
A. Why did Mexico City’s most important
newspaper feature two daily pages in English?
The foreign business and diplomatic community
in Mexico City in the 1920s was not large enough to support a newspaper
of its own. Even if every English-speaking household in the city
had subscribed to El Universal, they would not have raised
its circulation figures appreciably. Furthermore, most people living
in Mexico City at the time did not read English. Including the English-language
section could not have brought new readers to the paper, then.
The supplement was expensive to produce, both
because it required hiring journalists, translators, and an editor
fluent in English—as few newspapermen of the time in Mexico
City were—and because the single largest fixed expense for
a newspaper in Mexico at the time was the cost of paper. Adding
even a single sheet daily to El Universal was a big investment.
No other Mexico City newspaper paid for a section in English, but
El Universal stuck with it for four decades. So why would
El Universal’s editors have decided to print a section
of the paper in English every day?
advertisements in El Universal provide one possible answer
to this question. They peddled high-end goods—often, imported
items ranging from tennis balls to automobiles. They did not aim to
reach many readers, but focused on a small number of wealthy ones.
This would include Mexico City’s community of English-speaking
resident foreigners, but also included the larger number of relatively
conservative, wealthy Mexicans who would see the inclusion of an English-language
section as a sign of the newspaper’s politics. In the aftermath
of the Mexican Revolution (during which the United States invaded Mexico and
Pancho Villa’s army invaded the United States), this gesture of affiliation
with the United States and its representatives in Mexico suggested
that El Universal did not entirely agree with the new, post-Revolutionary
government’s nationalist policies. This, in turn, would have
hinted at a broader conservatism that wealthier Mexicans, presumably,
would have appreciated. Advertisers in El Universal, therefore,
found the presence of the English-language section a reassuring sign
that they could reach a group of rich, powerful consumers.
All this, in turn, means that the English-language
section of the paper was not primarily intended as a news source,
but more as a way for the paper to sell itself to readers and advertisers
who would expect to find serious news in the paper’s main
sections in Spanish.
B. Was this story important at the time?
No other Mexico City newspaper covered this story;
nor did it appear in the Spanish-language part of El Universal.
This suggests that newspaper editors thought the story unimportant,
that it appeared in the English-language supplement of El Universal
only as entertaining “filler.” Just because this was
a very minor piece of news in 1924, however, does not mean that
the article lacks value as a historical source in the present day.
Sometimes, placed in their proper context, short newspaper articles
can serve as windows opening onto much larger historical vistas.
The challenge is in deciding what the proper historical context
C. How was this story related to other articles
printed in the newspaper at roughly the same time?
The story of Mexican officials refusing entry
to a group of women from the United States was not typical of El
Universal’s articles—neither those in the regular
Spanish-language pages nor in the English-language supplement—in
most respects. The paper did not ordinarily cover events at the
border. Even if it did, the crossing between Matamorros and Brownsville
was not an especially busy one and rarely warranted press attention.
It was highly unusual for an article—even a short one—to
report the deeds of consular officials so far from the capital.
Similarly, tourism rarely received media attention in 1920s Mexico.
The article, however, does fit neatly into a
series of stories and images that seemed to fill the paper in the
summer of 1924. There was a sudden rise of attention to women’s
fashion, particularly those fashions that came from abroad and seemed
to make women look masculine. The major issue of the time was the
length of women’s hair, but other aspects of women’s
appearance also caused controversy.
and images about the trend for masculine-looking women’s attire
sometimes appeared in the news—as when an Italian bishop announced,
in April 1924, that short-haired women would not be offered communion
in the churches of his parish, or in this article about women in “plus-fours”
(short, baggy pants strapped tight just below the knee). More often,
though, changing fashions appeared in newspaper advertisements (the
image of a “modern,” cosmopolitan woman was used to sell
everything from quack medicines to household appliances), in photographs
depicting athletes, celebrities, and high-society functions, and in
reviews of Italian, French, and U.S. silent movies about “flappers.”
People around the world took an interest in this
new vogue, but in Mexico it seemed especially important because
of the recent Revolution. Women taking up masculine-seeming fashions
symbolized larger change in women’s social roles and the opportunities
available to women, which in turn was part of an even broader upheaval
in social relationships caused by the Mexican Revolution. One of
the reasons that this story from the border would catch a historian’s
eye, then, is that it shows a representative of Mexico’s federal
government opposing—rather than supporting—the new,
“revolutionary” way in which some women were presenting
D. What was left out of the story? How can I
find out more?
This newspaper article is so brief that it raises
more questions than it answers. Historians might want to work on
three such questions when analyzing this story. First, what was
going on in Brownsville and Matamorros at the time? Second, who
was that consular official? Third, who were those women from Oklahoma
who wanted to cross into Mexico?
Looking in El Universal from the previous
month begins to answer the first question. President Calles had
visited the region and given a major speech that brought up, among
other things, the issue of women’s roles in reconstructing
Mexico after the Revolution. But once again this raises further
questions. How did people in the area—on both sides of the
border—respond to this speech? Did they even pay attention
to it? What else was going on there? A more complete answer to the
first question would require checking periodicals other than El
Universal, especially newspapers from Brownsville and Matamorros.
Researching the other two questions also requires
moving beyond the pages of El Universal, and eventually beyond
research in periodicals, although it seems likely that local newspapers
would tell more of the story than the newspaper from the faraway
capital of Mexico. To get a sense of the area at the time, tourist
guidebooks and contemporaneous maps are a fine starting point. If
the incident recorded in El Universal’s article became
notorious in the place where it happened, it might have been remembered
by local people in memoirs or oral histories. A visit to the historical
societies and municipal archives of Brownsville and Matamorros would
probably be productive. Documents of the federal government—especially
consular records from both sides of the border—would also
be a good place to search, both to tell more of the story and to
find out a bit more about this particular Mexican Consul in Brownsville.
Finally, to find out more about the women who tried
to get into Mexico while wearing pants will require making a guess
about who they were, based on further evidence from local newspapers
and from consular records. Perhaps they were trying to cross the border
in breeches as a political gesture. If so, they may have represented
an organization of some kind, perhaps a women’s club. The records
of that group would be in an Oklahoma archive. Or, as the conclusion
of the article in El Universal seems to hint, they may have
been prostitutes coming to work at one of the legal brothels (delicately
referred to as “nightclubs”) on the Mexican side of the
border. These bordellos were regularly inspected, and prostitutes
had to carry special licenses. Thus, they too produced many official
documents in which these women might perhaps be found.
This case study shows two aspects of using newspapers
as primary sources—the limits of what can be learned from a
single newspaper story, and the infinite possibilities of looking
at the newspaper as a whole.
The limits on what a single article can tell historians
are clear. In order to understand what the article might mean—or
even to see that it might be interesting in some way—historians
have to begin by knowing something about the newspaper in which the
article appeared. In order to analyze it, they have to look at related
articles in the same newspaper, look at different periodicals, and
then move on to other kinds of documents. For this case study, useful
documents included several kinds of government records, old maps,
and memoirs. Newspapers often give historians a good place to begin
their work, but are very rarely sufficient, on their own, for serious
Doing research in newspapers is full of possibilities.
In this case, by taking in a wide range of different periodicals and
by looking not only at the news stories, but also advertisements,
illustrations, movie reviews and other features, historians could
spot a pattern: Mexicans in the mid-1920s seemed to be concerned with
the issue of women who looked masculine. A single article might not
tell a historian very much in itself, but locating many such items
is one of the best ways to spot a broad cultural or social transformation.
In the end, like any primary source for historical
research, newspapers offer us imperfect, but exciting, glimpses of