Women in the Spanish Civil War: Part 2 – Federica Montseny Mañé

A name synonymous with anarchism and feminism during the Spanish Civil War is Federica Montseny. With a powerful voice and even more powerful convictions, the anarchist cause owes a great deal to Montseny.

Federica Montseny Mañé was born February 12, 1905 in Madrid, the only surviving child of strong anarchist parents. Her mother, teacher Teresa Mañé Miravet (aka Soledad Gustavo) was an anarchist activist, and her father was Juan Montseny Carret (alias Federico Urales) a tunneling worker turned propagandist and anti-authoritarian writer, who had spent time exiled for his beliefs (hence the need for aliases). Together they were editors of La Revista magazine for anarchists from 1898 until 1905 before moving home to Barcelona in 1912 to write libertarian propaganda.

Montseny’s parents were enthusiastic in education, which stayed with their daughter her whole life. As well as the usual basic subjects, Montseny was also educated in arts, politics, dance, philosophy, languages, history and classics. She grew up in a rural environment, and became strong in self-reliance, independence and freedoms not many girls were able to enjoy. She became a writer at an early age, and found her youth of being concerned with herself changed to wanting to share her independence and free thinking with the population. In a country where social, political and feminist freedoms were largely non-existent, anarchism was a way for Montseny to express her views. As with many feminists throughout time, she believed that equal rights cannot exist until women’s rights are addressed. Montseny could see from an early age that women were oppressed in Spain for a variety of social and economic reasons, and social revolution was in dire need.

Montseny published her first novel, Horas trágicas (Tragic Hours) in 1920, at the age of only 15, and another 50 would follow. She was living in a time of huge social upheaval, peppered with violence as workers rose up to the government and landowners alike. She fought to insist women gain the right to choose who to marry, if at all, if and when to have a family, and a woman’s right to choose the father of her children. She also fought for women to be educated in women’s health and pregnancy, which most women were denied. As women were given all responsibility for pregnancy and raising of a baby, Montseny believed that a woman should be given education in order to fill that role as best as possible.

Another view Montseny advocated was free love, rather than the usual view of marriage, which oppressed women in Spain during the era. She entered into a relationship with Josep Esgleas Jaume (aka Germinal Esgleas) and while they would never marry, they remained together for life, with a daughter born prior to the Spanish Civil War, a son during, and a daughter after the war.

The Second Spanish Republic came to Spain in 1931, which paved the way for revolution, and many organisations, such as anarchism, were given more power and confidence that true social changes could be made. The Socialist Republic pushed for changes, with Montseny there to help arrange regional and nationwide meetings to collectivise the people and their needs and ideas. She travelled across Spain, discussing  workers’ rights, women’s rights, how people could stand up to their government, and the need for all to come together for social revolution.

The trouble was that women were still not given any rights during this time. Women were not supposed to travel on their own, or be doing anything that was not controlled by a man. Attending rallies alongside men and spending time with men without a husband or father meant she was not always given the time she deserved – the same as the men advocating for rights. When the government turned conservative in 1933, changes stumbled, and with fascism creeping into Europe, people like Montseny could see the trouble awaiting them.

Montseny supported the Popular Front government went they won the 1936 election, though as an anarchist, this was not an easy decision. Anarchism was not part of the collective group of left-wing parties in the Popular Front at the time. When war broke out in July 1936, it was clear that a violent strike against the rebels was needed for both survival and to protect the left-wing government from fascists.

In November 1936, Montseny was chosen by Prime Minister Largo Caballero to be Minister of Health and Public Assistance, and she joined the Popular Front, despite anarchism still not supporting the government. She was the fourth female government minister in western Europe, (after one in Denmark and two in Finland). While in times of peace this would have been an excellent role for her, during war it was a struggle. Hospitals, doctors and nurses were overrun with wounded and dying from the front lines, and people were refugees in their own war-torn country, moving constantly to try to stay alive. Food and medical supplies were far too sparse to help, and the number of orphans quickly skyrocketed. Health problems broke out as people did not have access to clean water and sanitation. The front lines needed all supplies available, fighting in ‘peaceful’ areas was constant, and the Popular Front began to collapse as the factions brought together fell apart. The anarchists/powerful CNT were reluctant supporters, and the Communists could not agree with either group. All the programmes that the Minister of Health could oversee were in complete disarray.

Despite the situation, Montseny pressed on, and kept up with her support for women’s social revolution. She joined the Mujeres Libres, which arranged schooling for children as their mothers fought in the war effort, were trained with useful skills and educated on multiple subjects. She fought to ensure women who wanted out of prostitution (let’s face it – all of them) could be helped, educated and trained for new roles in society, in a time where women were needed everywhere. New mothers were cared for and pregnant women were also educated in women’s health. She went to anarchist Juan Garcia Oliver, Minister for Justice, to make sure children of unwed mothers were made legitimate, as neither the women or their children deserved to be treated with such disrespect by society. Under her charge, abortion was made legal (Franco destroyed this law immediately after the war).

But with factions on the left collapsing as the war pressed on, Communist pressure  forced Montseny from her post in May 1937. She returned to anarchism, even though many hated her for ever leaving, and continued to help in the war effort to kill fascism. As the war went on, she was forced to accept food packages from friends in the Netherlands. When Barcelona was bombed in 1938, she feared either that or raids by Franco supporters would see her and her family killed. When the Nationalists finally broke Barcelona in January 1939, she, her partner, their daughter, their newborn son and both of her parents fled north through the snow, walking to France. Montseny’s mother died on route, which forced Montseny to leave her body, and the country, behind. Many refugees were now in France, and kept in internment camps, where death swept through those displaced. They lived near Paris, trying to help Spanish refugees, but then the Nazis invaded, forcing them to hide in Toulouse.

Franco was after Montseny specifically now, wanting to execute all those who opposed him and the Nationalists during the war. In 1942, the same time Montseny’s father died in an internment camp, Franco asked the French government to help catch Montseny for extradition. But Montseny was pregnant and the French government refused to send a pregnant woman home to be killed. Spanish refugees were trapped in France, the French pinning them in, and allied countries were of no help.

Montseny and her family were forced to stay in Toulouse, where on top of her 51 novels, Montseny finished 22 nonfiction works, and wrote regularly for two French magazines, despite only learning the language after her exile. She did not return to Barcelona in 1977, two years after Franco was dead.

Montseny addresses the first CNT meeting in Barcelona since the war, in 1977

Montseny did not stay in Spain; she continued with her life in Toulouse, publishing her final book, Mis primeros cuarenta años (My First Forty Years) in 1987, and died aged 88 in 1994. She lamented that she was unable to instill her ideals about gender into her children, in particular her son, as the change in generational shifts came too late.

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This is not a detailed analysis, just a highlight of the Montseny’s life. Things get lost in translation – Feel free to suggest an addition/clarification/correction below. The more the world remembers, the better. All photos are linked to source for credit

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Francoist Street Names Are Out. Women’s Accomplishments In Spain Are Finally In

2016 saw the 80th anniversary of the start of the Spanish Civil War, and the 41st celebration of Francisco Franco‘s death. Yet on many streets all over Spain, the men who fought and assisted Franco though his 39 years of war and dictatorship are still revered with street names, vile and cruel men who harmed untold thousands. It is long past time to remove these names, and the opportunity to name streets after women has finally arrived.

Spain’s political situation is a hot mess – the December 2015 election ended in a stalemate, and subsequent efforts for coalition and even new elections have produced not a lot. The left-wing Podemos party, made of newcomers and small groups coming together to gain power, have found their place in some cities, such as Madrid and Barcelona. Spain has the History Memory Law, enacted in 2007, which provides rules to allow the reburial of SCW victims, and removal of all Franco (and Franco cronies) monuments, dedications and street names (the law has a wide range of powers; this is just an example). While many cry about leaving the past in the past, those with a wider view want to put right as much as can possibly be done. It is time to use Article 15 of the memory laws to change the streets named after men who murdered their way to power and used fear to stay there.

Some examples of names changes is in Calle de Soledad Cazorla (Spanish link), named after Spain’s first female public prosecutor, who used her position to fight gender violence. Until now, the street was named after Andrés Saliquet (Spanish link), an old-school General and fascist party member, serving in the war and the dictatorship. The notorious General José Varela loses his street name to journalist Carmen de Burgos in Granada, likewise Federica Montseny, Spain’s first female minister, will replace Colonel Chápuli.  Madrid’s Plaza Caudillo (if you’re new, Franco was referred to as the Caudillo, the leader) will be Plaza Mayor in El Pardo.

Places like León have just 5% of female street names, Cadiz has just 3%. People ask why it matters – the naming of a street in your honour is a great privilege; it shows prominence. The lack of female names shows that they are considered better at home than out in the world. Women’s achievements are simply not being recognised in this traditional way of having a street in their honour in Spain. Madrid has 137 streets which are named after the Virgin Mary, but not streets named after real women. Women’s roles are confined to being imagined virgin saints, not actual accomplished members of a community.

Valencia has a new law, meaning that 80% of new names, or streets in need of a change, must be female names. In the Poblet area in the west of the city, eight new streets are needed, and are being decided by public suggestion. Author Carmen Martín Gaite is in the running, along with Las Trece Rosas, 13 women murdered by a firing squad in Madrid in 1939.

The northern city of Oviedo has 22 new streets, a majority going to women. Alicante has a new law ensuring women are included while 50 Francoist streets are removed, and northern Bilbao and southern Cadiz now have mandates in place guaranteeing female names. Cadiz has only eight female street names, all saints, a situation about to be rectified.  In Santander, a motion is in place to remove Francoism from the city and celebrate women, a move which has faced steady criticism (aka fascist man tears).

Without surprise, all this comes with its complainers. The usual cries of ‘that’s just complaining feminists, don’t indulge them’ is rife, with machismo still strong in Spain. Giving women the same rights and rewards as men scares many, as does the notion of altering traditions, even when traditions are inappropriate. Somehow, giving a street name to a fascist murderer is okay, as is keeping the name because ‘tradition’. Changing the name to erase an evil man from memory, and embracing a successful woman still frightens many delicate flowers.

The 2007 memory law has had little success in its nine years. Granada alone has 4,000 victims still dumped in mass graves, Seville has only reburied two of the 104 mass graves in the region. You only need to look at the maps of each region on the Historical Memory Association website to see how many mass graves (fosas) country-wide are ongoing. As family members of the victims pass away themselves, voices are becoming lost and the commitment to the past needs to be honoured. Trouble is, Europe is doing its terrifying swing to the right. Spain is no stranger to the Hitler-fascist salute, regularly done at Francoist sites (especially Valle de los Caídos), and Nazi groups have been springing into violence recently in Madrid. Spain needs to be un-Francoed as fast as possible, and that level of hate needs to be eliminated.

It can be easy to say that what happened in the Franco years is in the past and no longer relevant. But as long as dedications to remarkable women like Dolores Ibárruri are opposed by those in power (due to her left-wing work), the past is still haunting the present. Guadalajara, near Madrid, has the highest number of female street names at a tiny 9.5%, all-but named after virgins and saints. The names are dedicated to women who are bound in legend and many hundreds of years out of date. Women are overlooked in history, so inaccuracies are ever-present. Meanwhile, Spain has a plethora of successful feminists, leaders, scientists, teachers, and modern sports stars who could be honoured, yet are forgotten.  Why not Calle Maruja Mallo (artist), Avenida Clara Campoamor Rodriguez (suffragette), or Paseo Margarita Salas (biochemist). Spain needs more streets named after women like Ángela Iglesias Rebollar (Spanish link), murdered by Franco’s killers, remembered for their struggles.

It’s not like Spain isn’t in need of change; young women need role models, advertised the way men are exposed to their role models, and largely take for granted – because they’ve always been right in front of them. Why have streets and plazas named after Nazi-style killers when you can have streets named after María Mayor Fernández de Cámara y Pita, who fought against the English in 1589, or Manuela Malasaña Oñoro who saw off the French from Madrid in 1808, or pianist Alicia de Larrocha from Barcelona who was an extraordinary composer, or Rosalia Mera Goyenechea from A Coruña who became the richest female entrepreneur worldwide and used her riches to help other women, as such as fighting anti-abortion laws.

Another issue is not just the lack of female names, it’s irrelevance of those that do exist. Margaret Thatcher was given a plaza in Madrid, hardly a popular move. Madrid also has Calle de Quiñones,  homage to the first female run printing workshop, but without her full name, how can anyone look up Maria de Quiñones from the 17th century (did any of you reading this know that until now?).

Galicia is leading the way by looking through historical information to find forgotten women, as is Barcelona, and making sure people can find information about all people awarded a street name. The southern city of Córdoba has passed a law saying 50% of new names must be female, which currently boasts just 6% of female names.

My personal suggestions (in addition to the ones above) –

Isabel-Clara Simó i Monllor – Valencian writer, one of the most important writers in the Catalan language

Clara Campoamor Rodriguez – women’s right campaigner

Federica Montseny Mañé – first female cabinet member – minister of health

Carmen Amaya  – influential flamenco dancer

Alicia de Larrocha – extraordinary pianist and composer

Margarita Salas – biochemist and geneticist

Rosalia Mera Goyenechea – world’s richest female entrepreneur, co-founder of Zara

Rosa Montero Gayo – journalist and author

María de los Ángeles Alvariño González – fishery research biologist and oceanographer

Magdalena (Magda) Bermejo – primatologist

Emilia Espinoza Hazelip  – pioneer of the concept of synergistic gardening

Patri Vergara – professor in Physiology, first woman President of the International Council for Laboratory Animal Science

Dolors Aleu i Riera – first female Spanish doctor

Ana María Matute Ausejo – writer and member of the Real Academia Española

Emilia Pardo Bazán  – Galician novelist, journalist, essayist, critic and scholar

María Josefa Crescencia Ortiz Téllez- Girón/ Doña Josefa Ortiz de Domínguez – insurgent and supporter of the Mexican War of Independence

Rosalía de Castro – Galician writer and poet

It’s not about women being elevated above men, it’s about women being given their due. It’s about successful people (yes, women are people) not being forgotten, their accomplishments out there for all to remember.

Sign at entrance to town of Águeda del Caudillo. Photo: Gaceta de Salamanca