The news today is dominated by the vast gender pay gap in the ranks of the BBC – the state owned British television broadcaster that is ironically regularly attacked by the more reactionary elements of Britain’s right-wing press for its perceived overzealous culture of political correctness. Continuing the theme of the 81st anniversary of General Franco’s coup we will briefly consider the battle for women’s liberation within the Spanish Revolution.
Following the outbreak of hostilities in order to combat the combined forces of Franco’s nationalist troops, Mussolini’s Italy and units from Nazi Germanys vast war machine the Spanish Republic was forced to mobilise society on a mass scale to the effort of defence. In this environment women were ever present from the factory floors to the front lines (Orwell, 1938). Franz Borkenau in his 1937 account of life in revolutionary Spain remarked on the attitudes of women in anarchist dominated Barcelona specifically the practice adopted by female militia volunteers of wearing trousers (Here we must bear in mind that what seems a trivial matter today was a revolutionary act in previously extremely conservative catholic Spain) and that across Spain many hundreds of women were at work collecting money for the revolutionary cause (Borkenau, 1937).
Albeit mostly driven by war time necessity the progress of women in the Spanish Civil war reached deeper levels within both society and the psyche of women. Shortly after the outbreak of war ‘Mujeres Libres’ was formed, an organisation dedicated to freeing women from “the triple enslavement of women, to ignorance, to capital, and to men”. The group broke from the mainstream view that women’s liberation would inevitably follow the liberation from class divisions and agitated for women to take a more proactive role in their own liberation (Wojtek, 2011). Mujeres Libres set up schools to educate women and would take on the challenge of acting against Barcelona’s huge sex industry by campaigning to eradicate prostitution through the education of sex workers (Beevor, 2006). On Christmas Day of 1936 the revolutionary Barcelona administration legalised abortion by decree becoming the first European state after the Soviet Union to do so.
The fall of the Republican strongholds and the eventual defeat of the Spanish Republic in 1939 brought with it a carnival of reaction in all areas, particularly against women. An epidemic of rape and sexual attacks would follow, women were paraded naked through streets some had their heads shaved or were forced to ingest castor oil (Richards, 1998). When the fighting ended and Franco’s right-wing government consolidated its position it moved rapidly to curtail the rights of women reforms were repealed, and further legislation was passed to entrench conservative traditions upon Spanish society. Spain would consider to be a right-wing dictatorship until 1977.
Richards, M. (1998) A Time of Silence: Civil War and the Culture of Repression in Franco’s Spain, 1936-1945. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
Borkenau, F. (1937) The Spanish Cockpit 1937, London, Faber and Faber
Beevor, A. (1982). The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936–1939, London, Weidenfield and Nicolson.
Wotjek (2011) “Separate and equal”?: Mujeres Libres and anarchist strategy for women’s emancipation [Online], Libcom. Available at URL https://libcom.org/history/separate-equal-mujeres-libres-anarchist-strategy-womens-emancipation (Accessed 19/07/2017)