The Spanish Civil War of 1936

The Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939, and the subsequent dictatorship of Francisco Franco that lasted an arduous 34 years, were both periods of extreme change and political turmoil in which the Spanish people had to endure loss of both liberty and of identity.  One of the many groups of people negatively affected by these changes was women.  Francisco Franco, a war-general-turned-dictator, was a strong advocate for traditional extremist right-wing values and, as a result, enforced new laws that encouraged the extreme oppression of all those who came into conflict with his conservative ideals of authoritarian rule. 

During the dictatorship of Franco, women suffered immense repression; as a result, the first wave of feminism in Spain began to evolve.  The principal reason for this evolution of feminism was a desire to resist the sexist and oppressive societal standards put in place by the dictatorship.  Franco created laws against women that diminished their rights to such an extent that they came to be seen as second-class citizens and were treated as though they were nothing more than property, destined to be owned by their husbands. 

This may not come as a shock to many, considering that sexism was ubiquitous in the early 20th century; however, it must be noted that before Franco’s seizure of power, Spain was developing into a progressive and modern state.  For example, reforms introduced by the Republicans in the early 1930s consisted of introducing quality education for both young boys and girls with the goal to reduce the Spanish illiteracy rate (in 1860, only 1 in every 4 Spaniards was able to read and write, a number that increased significantly to 3 in every 4 in the 1930s); this consisted of rigorous training for teachers, and increasingly structured syllabuses.  The Second Republic also introduced universal suffrage in 1933, an area in which Spain was ahead of countries such as Switzerland (1971), Italy (1945) and France (1946).  Before the rise of the dictatorship, women were advancing in Spanish society and gaining rights such as the ability to hold high ministry positions, and bodily autonomy that came as a result of the regulation of abortion. 

Due to Franco’s authoritarian rule, it was extremely difficult for women to unite in order to fight against sexism and the repressive laws of the time.  They were expected to stay at home, raise children, and assume responsibility for mundane domestic chores.  The section of the Falange named ‘la Sección Femenina’ explicitly laid out the rules of what was expected of women during the Francoist period.  For example, it stated ‘Ten preparade una comida deliciosa para cuando el regrese del trabajo; especialmente, su plato favorito’ which translates to ‘Have a delicious meal ready for him (the husband) when he returns home from work; especially, his favourite dish’.  This demonstrates how the development of Spanish feminism, or any form of female freedom for that matter, had to be treated with extreme care due to the risk women were putting themselves at by ‘rebelling’ against the social constructs of the time.   

To put the extent of female oppression at the time into perspective, it should be borne in mind that Franco passed a law that permitted a husband to lawfully execute his wife if he caught her in the throes of an affair.  This exact same law was present in ancient Athens, and allowed a kyrios, male head of the household, to be exempt from any sentencing if he were to kill his wife for adultery.   

As would be expected, any woman wishing to pursue her own personal interests, such as writing, art or performance was at risk.  Women who were seen to be exercising any form of freedom were viewed as threats to the State and were very often subject to punishment, including torture or even death.  Seemingly unbeknownst to Franco, this would have a detrimental effect on the intellectual development of Spain, with many writers and artists being forced to abandon their work out of fear of prosecution.   

As exemplified by writer Silvia Mistral 1914-2004, many writers, especially female, fled to neighbouring countries, in particular to refugee camps in the south of France, in an attempt to regain their artistic liberties.  At the age of 18, Mistral was a writer for newspapers Las Noticias and El Día Grafico; however, her timing was unfortunate, and only a short while after beginning her career as a writer, she was forced to stop as the Nationalist forces began to take over Catalonia. 

Mistral was exiled to France in 1940, where she kept an account of her experiences of the dictatorship in her diary; she was later exiled in Mexico where she remained for the rest of her life.  Mistral collated her diary entries from the time of the Spanish Civil War which described, from a first-person perspective, the struggle of growing up during the war period as a young woman with hopes and ambitions.  

Silvia Mistral later went on to publish her diary as a book – Exodo Diario de una refugiada española was a form of resistance against the severe oppression faced by women across Spain.  Mistral is just one example of many female writers who used their skills and courage to fight against the sexism that plagued the majority of 20th century in Spain.

Saskia, Deputy Head Girl 

Photo Credit:
Spanish dictator General Francisco Franco (1892 – 1975)
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