Mujeres Libres: Women, Anarchy, and the Fragility of Democracy in Spain

Prime Minister of Spain Pedro Sanchez decided to call a snap election in April 2019 following the withdrawal of support by the Catalan separatists who were propping up his government. The short-term implications of another general election in Spain were great, as the lack of a stable government in recent years has impacted Spain’s social services and economy. But history is also at stake for the women of Spain. PSOE, Sanchez’s party, successfully won the election, although it failed to gain a majority. A loss, however, would have brought about another era in which Spanish conservatism could have attacked the efforts and gains made by the anarchist group “Mujeres Libres,” a 1936 Spanish women’s anarchist organization.

Sanchez’ government is unlike most in Europe. It remains one of the last left-wing holdouts on a continent that has taken a turn toward the right. Also at stake in the election was Spain’s majority female cabinet. Under Sanchez’s direction, women served in eleven of the seventeen available positions. This was the first time in Spanish history that the cabinet, the main source of political power in Spain, had a female majority. As with most parliamentary systems, ministers are in charge of dealing with specific issues pertaining to their ministry. For example, the Ministry of Health deals with the wellbeing of the population. Sanchez’ cabinet represents a historical benchmark, and comes seventy-two years after Federica Montseny, a novelist, anarchist, and revolutionary feminist, was the first woman to fill a cabinet role. She did this during the period in Spanish history known as the Second Republic (1931-39). Her time in the cabinet also coincided with the Spanish Civil War, which began as a military uprising against the Republican government.

In this sense, Sanchez’s government reflects the grueling uphill climb that leftist politicians have faced when reviving ideas and liberties established by the women and men of the Second Republic. Montseny and the other members of the anarchist Mujeres Libres (Free Women) fought long and hard to empower women. The Spanish Civil War (1936-39), which ended with dictator Francisco Franco’s rise to power, obliterated those successes. Now, eerily reminiscent of the rhetoric of Franco’s Nationalists, right-leaning politicians in Spain seek again to strike down women’s rights by repealing the very laws that these women had fought for.

Cover of the first issue of Mujeres libres magazine. (Wikimedia Commons)

Amparo Poch, Mercedes Composada, and Lucia Sanchez Saornil founded the Mujeres Libres magazine in 1936, and the Mujeres Libres organization in 1937, both with the dual goal of women’s liberation and social revolution.1 The work of Mujeres Libres was different than that of the mainstream anarchist movement, which believed that revolution alone was sufficient to bring women’s equality. In contrast, Mujeres Libres initiators knew that they needed to take more active steps to achieve equality. In total, Mujeres Libres had over 30,000 members, all anarchist women who, during the two year period of its existence (1936-38), supported each other and plotted politically to advance the goals of feminism in Spain.

The organization had two main strategies: to incorporate women more closely into the anarchist movement and to help women be more involved in the political sphere. For the latter, the organization set up “flying day-care centers” where women who wanted to attend union meetings but had childcare responsibilities could leave their children. These centers were critical. They allowed the Mujeres Libres to achieve their goal of incorporating women into the larger anarchist movement, and were particularly impactful for women looking to become union delegates.

Education, and specifically women’s illiteracy, was also at the forefront of their program. The group founded the “Casa de la Dona,” which, by 1938 provided lessons to between 600 and 800 women daily, on subjects ranging from basic reading to sociology and economics. The women’s college would go on to educate prominent figures within Mujeres Libres such as Pepita Carmena and Conchita Guillen. The Mujeres Libres had their own philosophy at the center of all the classes–independence for women.

Cover image of the ninth issue of Mujeres Libres. (Wikimedia Commons)

Federica Montseny, as the Minister of Health, was one of Mujeres Libres’ most powerful members. Her political career was dominated by the Spanish Civil War. She joined the Second Republic’s Popular Front, a coalition of anti-fascist groups, to prevent the wave of fascism encompassing Europe from taking over Spain. Montseny was also a keen novelist before she dedicated herself to the anarchist movement. From her earliest writings, she had a strong sense of commitment to women’s rights. In an interview in 1972, she asserted that her “novels … dealt with problems shocking to the mentality of Spain considered that it was a revolutionary task to fight against all the prejudices that limited women’s freedom.” Women’s rights were at the heart of much of her writing, and she channeled those beliefs into political organizing to tackle the injustices that she faced within Spanish society.

One of Montseny’s successes was decriminalizing abortion in 1937. But like so many of the laws spearheaded by leftist women during the Second Republic, Franco overturned legal abortion in 1941 — two years after taking power. While the government of Spain passed a eugenics-influenced law in 1985, ten years after Franco’s rule ended, allowing abortions in the case of a rape or physical risk to the mother or child, abortion was not legal. In 2010, the Spanish government granted women full access to abortion, but it is still a hot-button issue. Pablo Casado, the leader of Partido Popular, the main conservative party in Spain, has called for the repeal of current abortion laws. This attack on women’s bodily autonomy under the guise of unsubstantiated promises of “economic growth” by saving money on the cost of abortions reflects the challenges that women’s rights advocates would face had Sanchez’ government fallen.

Another success of the Mujeres Libres movement came following the Republicans loss to the (conservative) Nationalist faction in 1939. Mujeres Libres aided women who were attempting to flee to France. In her diary, Pepita Carmena wrote “I’ve never forgotten that act of sisterly solidarity that placed her own [Saornil] life in danger. Carmena used Lucia Saornil’s secretary’s car in her escape at the eleventh hour from Franco’s advancing army. The women of Mujeres Libres were revolutionary in many different ways. They called for progressive reforms, and, when trouble struck at home, they set a strong precedent for women across Europe to come to the help of their allies in need.

Federica Montsena herself ended up living out her life in the southern French city of Toulouse. Despite Franco’s amnesty to foreign exiles late into his reign, Montsena refused to return. She said that it would be a “betrayal” of her beliefs. Even after Franco died in 1975, Montsena only rarely returned to her home country. She died in exile, but among a new family she’d built in France.

The future of Sanchez’ government is uncertain. Economic crisis has made many Spaniards fearful, willing to listen to bigoted and sexist plans for “recovery.” But Spain’s women will not stand by and see their rights rolled back. On International Women’s Day in 2018, for example, protests took place across the country, including a general strike, and five million people participated in walk-outs. Among those protesting were pro-choice abortion activists speaking out against Mariano Rajoy, former Prime Minister and leader of the Partido Popular until July 2018, who had been trying to criminalize abortion on demand in the first trimester. Another group of protesters spoke out against domestic violence. Though Spanish feminists today are addressing some of the same issues the Mujeres Libres were in the 1930s, they are now central to political life, and they will not be marginalized again.

Pedro Sanchez’s government is crucial to the continued advancement of gender politics and women’s rights in Spain. The right seeks to roll back and decimate socialist legislation aimed to protect the vulnerable. Sanchez’s government is just beginning to fulfill the goals that anarchist women laid out over seventy years ago, and it can serve as an example for Europe to put women’s equality at the forefront of their policy.

Notes

  1. Monica de Ayguavives, “Mujeres Libres: Reclaiming their Predecessors, their Feminism and the Voice of Women in the Spanish Civil War History,” (Master’s Thesis, Central European University, 2014) 29-33. Return to text.

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