UNSUNG HEROES OF SPANISH WOMEN’S HISTORY (WITH MY THANKS)

Isaías Lafuente’s non-academic essay Agrupémonos todas: La lucha de las españolas por la igualdad (2004) has been, as I explained in my previous post, a book I have devoured with great pleasure. And shame… that I didn’t know many of the women and events he mentions.

In the effort of trying to grasp the basics of US and UK feminism and women’s history as a specialist in English Studies, I have had no time to do the same for the Spanish and Catalan contexts. My secondary education should have filled in that gap, as it did for many other matters of local History. Yet, apart from the women writers (and not that many), and the queens, no other relevant Spanish (or Catalan) women were made visible to me. Lafuente is dismayed to see that the woman who brought the vote to Spanish women, Clara Campoamor, is not mentioned in the major Spanish biographical dictionary. I’m dismayed to realise that I only understood who she was when I saw Laura Mañá’s excellent TV movie entitled, of course, Clara Campoamor: La mujer olvidada (2011).

One thing I have learned from reading about women’s history is that it is hard to say whether the impact of pro-feminist legislation and social changes is, in the end, what matters most. It should be so, yet reading Lafuentes’ book I’m struck by how truly important are in the struggle to free women from our bonds things we take for granted: such as diapers, sanitary pads or even the mop. It is also peculiar to see how details I recall from my childhood, seeing my mother perform her household chores or worry about ‘adult’ matters, fit a much larger pattern than I assumed (perhaps because Spain has been quite a homogeneous country until recently). This ranges from her washing by hand all our clothes before the first washing machine was purchased to anxious conversations about the mysterious ‘pill.’

The hardest part of understanding recent women’s history in Spain is the realisation that we almost got it right. During the (chaotic) Republic of 1931 to 1939, when the Civil War was lost, Spanish women embarked in an often very fast process of equality with men. It is painful to see how all their achievements were brutally erased in 1939: often the distance between the first and the second woman pioneer in a particular field amounts to forty years. Also, even though the little conquests under Franco’s regime were often made by right-wing women, like Mercedes Fórmica, it is heartbreaking to see how much cruelty was poured on the bodies and lives of the ‘rojas,’ the women of the losing side. The split is so deep that we can say there are two histories of women under Franco, still to be fully written out.

I want to make a note here, then, of the unsung heroes who did the hard work for us, to remind those women who think we don’t need feminism that, if that is the case, which I very much doubt, it is thanks to their spirit and efforts. There are many others, it is just a small selection:

*María Elena Maseras, first woman to enrol for a university degree (1872, Medicine, Universitat de Barcelona) realising there was no formal prohibition against women.
*Dolores Aleu, first woman with a doctoral degree (1882, Medicine)
*Teresa Claramunt, textile factory worker and union activist, co-founder of the Societat Autònoma de Dones (1892)
*Carmen de Burgos (Colombine), journalist and first war correspondent. Published the first surveys on divorce and women’s suffrage (1900s-1910s)
*Emilia Pardo Bazán, major writer, denied three times a place in the Real Academia. In 1916 she was the first female full professor in Spain (by appointment): she never taught, as all (male) students rejected her. (Mª Ángeles Galino, was the second woman professor, in 1953).
*María Espinosa de los Monteros, co-founder of the Asociación Nacional de Mujeres Españolas (1920)
*Victoria Kent, first professional woman lawyer (1924), ‘Directora General de Prisiones’ under the new Republic (1931). She was the first woman MP together with Clara Campoamor, and Margarita Nelken. They were elected in June 1931 when women could not vote yet.
*Matilde Ucelay, first Spanish female architect, graduated 1936.
*Dolores Ibárruri, La Pasionaria, communist politician, Vice-president of the Republican Parliament.
*Federica Montseny, first woman Minister in Europe (1936).
*María Telo, lawyer, founder of the Unión de Mujeres Juristas, helped get back for women the full civil rights lost under Franco in the 1970s.

I’ll end with a reminder of the terrifying forty year gap:
*Vote for women: 1 October 1931. Re-instated in 1975.
*Divorce and Civil Marriage: 28 June 1932 (made illegal retroactively by Franco in 1939). Civil marriage was re-instated in 1978, divorce in 1981.
*Abortion: December 1936, legalised by the Catalan Generalitat. Made illegal in 1941, legalised again with strong limitations in 1985.
*Legal equality with men: 1937. Lost in 1938, re-instated fully only in 1981.
*Birth control: All methods made illegal between 1944 and 1978.

Until the 1975 legislation reform, women were regarded as minors to the age of 25 (21 for men). Married women were subjected to the ‘licencia marital’: they had to obey their husbands, who were entitled to their professional earnings (until 1981), and had to obtain their permission to sign contracts, open bank accounts, get a passport…

This, I’m sorry to say, is not History way back in the past but within living memory. Ask your grandmothers, if your mothers are too young.

Learn and remember… and thank those who fought for you.

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