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Study Notes

Life for Women during the Civil War


Last updated 13 Aug 2018

Experiences of women during the Spanish Civil War were dependent on whether you lived in Nationalist or republican territory.

The differences in the status and role of women in each zone reflected the ideological differences between the two sides, for example women were expected to be treated as equal to men in Republican areas, particularly those dominated by anarchists such as Barcelona, whereas in nationalists zones women were expected to fulfil their 'traditional' roles in the home and thus enjoyed much less freedom than Republican women.

Women in Republican zones

A number of features of life in Republican Spain suggest there was a shift in the role and status of women in society.

Politically, women became better represented at the top of government. Anarchist Federica Montseny, for example, became the first female cabinet member in Spanish history when appointed as minister for health by Largo Caballero in 1936. Montseny worked to legalise abortion in Catalonia, a reform that was way ahead of its time. Other women such as Dolores Ibárruri, a high ranking member of the Spanish Communist Party, also yielded significant political influence – she coined the phrase ‘No Pasarán!’ (the fascists shall not pass) in her famous call to arms during the Battle for Madrid in November 1936. Generally, women lived a more independent and liberating life, they were accepted into the workplace and were not expected to be accompanied by men when going out.

Women also entered the military in some Republican areas. POUM and CNT militias were particularly keen to allow milicianas (female fighters) to fight for the Republicans. Mika Etchebehere, for example, was democratically elected to lead POUM militias. However, the Popular Army was less enthusiastic about women participating in combat and thus as the war progressed, opportunities for women to become involved in the military became more limited. Nevertheless, over 1000 milicianas served in Republican militias, indicating a huge change in attitude towards women.

Women in Nationalist Spain

Whilst Republican women saw their status improve and their freedoms extended, women in Nationalist zones experienced the opposite. Francisco Franco and the Falange held very conservative views on what position women should have in society and their thinking lead to women in Nationalist zones losing status within Spain. Nationalist women fulfilled traditional roles such as charity work and food production that reflected their ‘natural’ qualities. These attitudes fed into changes in the education system as girls were taught a separate curriculum to boys that prepared them for domestic life.

Sex outside of marriage was officially forbidden, although prostitution was widespread because many women who had lost their husbands during the Civil War had no other source of income. Opportunities for women to work were limited. From October 1937, women were required to help run youth centres and soldier canteens but the Labour Charter of 1938, one of Franco’s ‘Fundamental Laws’, sought to exclude women from industrial work.

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