Relentless Prudence – How Prudencia Ayala Challenged Salvadoran Gender Roles Decades Before Women Could Vote

Disclaimer: The following blog post is not a reflection of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s opinion on Prudencia Ayala.

By Gabe Sanders.

To be prudent does not mean to be timid. While prudence is often regarded as synonymous with caution, it also signifies wisdom, thriftiness, and foresight. Prudencia Ayala possessed all three, and she was anything but timid.

Born into a working-class indigenous family on April 28, 1885, in Sonsonate, El Salvador, Prudencia Ayala was introduced to activism at a young age. When she was 10 years old, her family moved to the city of Santa Ana in western El Salvador, where the unionist movement was campaigning for “reunification,” or the integration of Central American countries into one.[1] Although the length of Ayala’s formal education has been a point of contention, it is clear that her childhood was marked by significant poverty and that by some means she learned to write.

Ayala began to convert her writing skills to intrepid journalism in 1913. The articles and poems she published in local newspapers, which expressed support for Central American reunification, feminism, and anti-imperialism, drew harsh mockery targeted at her youth, indigenous background, and gender.[2] Ayala’s ability to withstand this ridicule would soon help her to become a pioneer of the movement for women’s rights in El Salvador.

In the primitive stages of any social movement, some will use their voices; others will use guns; Ayala used her pen. In 1919, she wrote multiple articles criticizing the Salvadoran government, including one accusing a mayor of corruption that led to her imprisonment.[3] Despite facing repression, Ayala continued to write and thereby defy the odds, authoring her first book, Escible. Aventuras de un Viaje a Guatemala (Escible. Adventures of a trip to Guatemala), in 1921 – the first of three she would publish spanning the 1920s.[4] After releasing her final book, Ayala returned to journalism, this time founding her own publication: Redención Femenina (Female Redemption).

In addition to funding and managing Redención Femenina, Ayala used the platform to vehemently advocate for increased recognition of Salvadoran women’s constitutional rights and oppose then-pervasive social norms dictating that women were only capable of cooking, cleaning, and childcare. In the editorial section of a 1930 issue, Ayala challenged the logic behind continuing to conform to these gender roles, writing: “La mujer ha gobernado en Europa en el sistema monárquico. ¿Qué de extraño tiene que gobierne en las Repúblicas del Continente indo-latino-hispanoamericano en el sistema democrático?” (“Women have ruled in Europe in the monarchical system. How is it strange for them to govern in the Republics of the Indo-Latin American continent in the democratic system?”).[5] That statement foreshadowed Ayala’s next audacious endeavor, which she would announce via her newspaper that same year.

Two decades before women gained suffrage in El Salvador, Prudencia Ayala launched her presidential bid. Ayala’s campaign, which was backed by the Unionist Party, was centered on six objectives: providing support to trade unions, increasing transparency in government, placing regulations on the sale of alcohol, guaranteeing freedom of religion, recognizing children born of wedlock as legitimate, and granting women the right to vote.[6] Unsurprisingly, the lattermost took precedence. During her candidacy, Ayala would use Redención Femenina to articulate her argument for an end to the implicit second-class citizenship of Salvadoran women. She contended – in accordance with other early-20th century Latin American feminists – that “the noun ‘ciudadano’ [meaning citizen] in the constitution was gender-neutral” and therefore applied to both men and women.[7] In addition to writing numerous articles on this subject, Ayala would make every public appearance an act of defiance against gender expectations by carrying with her a wooden walking cane. She explained, “No todos los hombres titulados llevan bastón. Yo lo llevaré como insignia de valor en el combate contra los ingratos que adversan mi amor, mi ideal, la vida que llevo” (“Not all qualified men carry a cane. I will carry it as a badge of courage in the fight against the ungrateful who oppose my love, my ideal, the life I lead”).[8]

For aspiring to be the first female president, reporters branded her “Prudencia, la loca” (“Prudencia, the crazy”). She was ruthlessly criticized for “abandoning her rightful place in the home,” and her indigenous features were exaggerated in comic strips to masculinize her appearance.[9] Nonetheless, Ayala refused to back down. Even after the government cabinet’s Council of Ministers upheld the illegality of women’s suffrage, rejecting her claims that the term “ciudadano” was gender neutral, Ayala continued campaigning for months before conceding the race. Although Prudencia Ayala died on July 11, 1936, never having held presidential office, it would be an understatement to say she was ahead of her time. Her form of peaceful protest was unconventional in that every aspect of her identity – as an indigenous female writer-turned-politician – directly challenged El Salvador’s oppressive social standards without entailing any retaliatory violence. It was Ayala’s relentlessness, courage, and yes, prudencia (prudence), that solidified her place in history.

[1] Isabel Castillo, “She Dared to Run: The Unlikely Story of Prudencia Ayala,” Americas Quarterly (blog), accessed August 12, 2021.

[2]Biography of Prudencia Ayala (Her Life, History, Summarized Bio),” accessed August 12, 2021.

[3]Biography of Prudencia Ayala (Her Life, History, Summarized Bio).

[4]Prudencia Ayala, The First Woman in Latin America Who Aspired to the Presidency,” ♀️Pioneering Women (blog), July 30, 2018.

[5] Jonás Aponte, Prudencia Ayala, accessed August 13, 2021.

[6] Jonás Aponte, Prudencia Ayala.

[7] Castillo, “She Dared to Run.”

[8] Jonás Aponte, Prudencia Ayala.

[9] Castillo, “She Dared to Run.”