By Clodia Khullar, a Sixth Form student at Westminster School.
Following the fall of Primo de Rivera’s dictatorship in 1930 and the establishment of the Second Republic the following year, the future of women in Spain looked positive. During El Bienio Socialista (1931-33) women’s rights were extended to include divorce, access to higher education, maternity leave, civil marriage and the vote. This progress was rescinded by the Franco regime, which promoted traditional family-orientated roles for women, in accordance with the doctrines of the Catholic church.
The Civil War was a time of transition between these two models. Women’s status changed in two major ways during the conflict: on the one hand there was a loss of female autonomy and power, which continued during the ensuing thirty-six years of Franco’s dictatorship. On the other hand, the War was also a time for women to show their true potential and make a palpable contribution to society, both on the Republican and Nationalist sides. Leading opposition groups, fighting on the front line, running the home as single mothers all meant that the image of women changed dramatically.
On the frontline women took on combat roles in large numbers for the first time in any western war. Women and children were also used by the army on both sides as bargaining chips to gain support internationally. Women would be lured out of their houses and their cries would be used as evidence of civilians under siege. Rape was so common that often women did not know the identity of their children’s fathers.
On the one hand, the Spanish Civil War was a pivotal moment for women globally, as never before had their work on the frontline and within their communities been so desperately valued. Mujeres Libres was an anarchist organisation that aimed to empower working-class women. It was initiated by Lucia Sanchez Saornil and Mercedes Composada who both felt disillusioned by the way in which women were treated by more mainstream socialist groups such as the CNT. Education was viewed as a key aspect of this, as they believed that educated women would be less likely to turn to prostitution. By 1936, Mujeres Libres had formed a unified network of anarchist activists and were ready to fight: they had even constructed a day-care service for mothers who supported the cause.
Some of the most inspirational women from the Civil War period came from the Republican camp, who, despite being on the losing side of the battle, still persisted in their struggle against Fascism. Las Trece Rosas were thirteen women executed at the hands of the Fascist regime for their membership of the Juventud Socialista Unida (United Socialist Youth). Though the war was at its end, the women were arrested and murdered without trial, dying as martyrs for their cause.
As well as building up resistance, ordinary women turned to prostitution as a way of making ends meet. Many had been left alone when their menfolk went to the frontline, leaving them for the first time to provide for their whole family. As explained by Mirta Núñez in her book Mujeres Caídas, the desperation that led to prostitution did not end with the war. Women were forced into sex work after the war as well, as a way to rebuild their lives. At the same time, prostitutes were harshly condemned, due equally to the staunchly Catholic views of the dictatorship and the increasing fear of sexually transmitted diseases.
Republican female prisoners often faced worse conditions than their male counterparts. Women were frequently raped by prison officers, their children taken from them and put into care or left to live on the streets. Nursing mothers had to deal with unsanitary conditions and even rats, leading to the deaths of ten to fifteen infants a day.
In summary, in other countries, such as England and France, women were rewarded for their enormous efforts during wartime. In Spain the opposite occurred: women lost rights and status in the wake of the conflict, only to regain them from the end of the dictatorship in 1975.