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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Ten Things I Learned About Writing

Yes, I do actually do things other than try recipes, or write about visiting Spain. Here are my ten very unscientific tips for writing, written in my slightly rant-like prose, complete with gifs.

1) It’s okay to write for women

When I started writing, I must admit that I didn’t think about my target audience. I started simply writing for whoever wanted to read free stuff on the internet. As it turned out, my site filled with free reads had 3247 subscribers, all of them women. When I then went out and wrote Nights, all my readers and reviewers (that I know of) were women. I didn’t care in the least. Then, I wrote BITVS, and men started to read my work, and they didn’t always like it. It was ‘girly’, too ‘feminine’, too ‘geared towards what a woman would do’. (Disclaimer – not all men thought these things.) Duh, many of the characters are women! The main characters are women. I am a woman, so yes, how a woman would react to a situation is relevant. I had this discussion with a lot of people and they gave varying answers, from ‘don’t worry about it’, to ‘you alienate male readers who want to read about the subject’. It did cause me to doubt my work. But my husband, the world’s most relaxed person, said, ‘you’re a woman. Women like what you write. Women make up half the world’s population and buy a lot of books. If you write for women, then it sounds like you’re winning’. So, I’m going with that. Men are welcome to read my writing but if my work seems geared towards women, so be it. Women like to read and like lead female characters who have brains.

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2) I write about love… because the subject can still be explored

I make no apologies for writing about love. I write about war, and death, and violence, and drugs, and pain… and love. Everyone wants to be loved, have love, make love. Love comes in so many varieties. Someone blasted my work, saying it was boring to have characters besotted with one another. Hello! Of course they are besotted, they just met. Two people in a new relationship are going to be besotted; they aren’t looking for the commitment/companion type of love that a couple of 50 years have. If you have yet to experience love that makes you feel bewitched, you haven’t lived. The love that comes from a solid relationship is wonderful, it’s intimate, trustworthy, steady and reliable. But no one starts out with that; love starts out as a rollercoaster that leaves you feeling shaken. I write about all forms of love, from male and female points of view, and if you find love boring, you’re simply expressing it and receiving incorrectly.

Dave

3) People asking questions always sucks because nothing is ever good enough

This theory could be applied anywhere in life. When you are writing, people want to know when the book will be done, what it’s about, etc, etc. Then you publish, and the questions instantly go to what you will be doing next. The initial book is already forgotten, because ‘more’ is always needed. It’s like being in a relationship, and the questioning about marriage comes up. As soon as you’re married, the questions about having kids starts instead. What comes after that? No one asks if you’re going to be getting a divorce. With writing, there is no limit, so people keep asking about more books, making more money and having your worked adapted for the big screen. “You’re published… but how many have you sold?”  That question annoys me. What number is ‘good enough’? Nothing seems to be good enough, not at the first 100, the first 1000, or the first 5000… you get the idea. The pressure never seems to end. It’s important to remember what your own goals were and if you achieved them.

4) Friends won’t necessarily support what you write

I never expected every person I know to bankroll my writing success. Never. But there are two things to remember –

a) Some people don’t like to read, or don’t like to read the genre you write. Don’t feel bad that they have no interest in your work other than a polite congratulations. I understood this from the beginning, however, I can see how others could feel offended by people who had no intention to hurt them.

b) Beware of false friends. Writing a book can attract others who have similar ideas. Writing friends can be eager to know what you’re doing and praise you and your efforts, but they could be lying. People lie, everywhere, every day. I had a ‘friend’ whose constant criticism knew no bounds. Her own writing became stuck in a wasteland and she seemed truly offended when I made an attempt to publish. She has done nothing but criticise every single thing I have written since. The world has enough nastiness on its own  – don’t give time and air to people who are jealous and ruin the writing that makes you happy.

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5) Being defensive is part of the job

The last point brings me to the next point – criticism. It’s everywhere. The internet is filled with trolls who have no concept of the hurt they spread. While criticising writing is small compared with some of the stupid, ignorant and misogynistic material available in the world, it still hurts. You can’t please everyone. Everyone knows and accepts this, but still, criticism hurts. A lot. Every. Time. You. Receive. It. No matter how many times you tell yourself it’s inevitable, and no matter how many times people tell you forget it, you don’t. You can’t. It’s natural. Everyone gets bothered by negativity, and that makes you human, especially when you have poured your heart and soul into something, and sacrificed things to do the best you can. You’re not perfect, and the person who is (virtually) wiping their ass with your work isn’t perfect either. It’s okay to feel hurt. Will it help you write in the future? Probably not, it will probably whisper in your ear and make you feel insecure with your next book. Constructive criticism comes with proven tips; but most criticism is just drivel that should, but can’t be, forgotten. Write anyway.

AND IF YOU WRITE DIALOGUE IN A WAY THAT ISN’T “THE QUEEN’S GODDAMN PERFECT ENGLISH”, IN ORDER TO MAKE IT SOUND REALISTIC, GOOD FOR YOU. SCREW PEOPLE WHO PICK ON YOUR CHOICES.

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6) Planning can be useful and pointless

A story needs a plan, otherwise it veers off in any old direction and you end up with chapters that don’t let the story flow. That is writing 101. However, it’s the planning of time that I found to be useless. My time to write is at a premium; I don’t have designated time, or have much time on my hands. Writing is not my ‘day job’. What I have done is try to scratch out a schedule that includes writing time, and to set myself deadlines for my work. This only ever made things harder. I may schedule in 10am – 2pm to write, but what if I have no inspiration to do so? I know, you must sit and write, just keep going and force yourself to do the work. I disagree. If I don’t feel like it, I just don’t write. If something comes to me at 11pm, then I will sit down and write it. Waiting for a right moment usually gets me ten pages written in record time, and the ‘scheduled’ time can often leave me with a few paragraphs. If I write nothing for two weeks and then complete 20 pages in one sitting, then I’m happy. It always works out. The stories get written and the books get finished on time.

7) Writers block is far more dangerous than I thought

I have never suffered ‘writers block’. I assumed it was a myth made up by people who can’t write what they want. Why are you stuck? I kept asking. Stories just pour out when I sit down and write… until recently. With multiple projects going on, I began to worry about how one book flew out at a cracking pace, and another stopped dead in the water. So much so, that I read back through what had been written, and I hated it. Uh oh, has the magical writers block hit? Nope. The problem is, I have lost my passion for the subject, and that was the main inspiration for getting the project completed. I have decided to just let it go – either it will return to me when it’s ready, or it won’t. I could force out chapters, but they will be terrible. Instead, my other project races ahead and I’m happy with the product. I may have writers block, but it stems from lack of passion on the subject, and for me, that is very serious. If I simply had a lack of motivation to write, I would be happy.

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8) Publishing isn’t always fun

Writing is fun, editing is fun (most of the time), having a book with your name on it, out on sale and going well is fun. People so often ask where my ideas come from, and it’s an answer that I have well-rehearsed. The thing is, coming up with storylines is the easiest part. There is the process of getting it written, getting it edited and having the layout done and the cover made to get through. Then the worst part – promotion. The market is flooded with books and every genre has so much to choose from. You have promote your book and yourself all the time. I have one author on my Twitter and Facebook pages who is a master of promos, if being the master meant throwing the book in everyone’s face several times a day. I wish him and his book well, but there is more than just pushing your book to your friends via social media each day. I wish it was that easy. I would like to disappear from the world and get writing, but there is a certain amount of interaction with readers and future purchasers that needs to be done. People want to talk, read, review and talk again. Sites need details and updates. I like it and I feel happy when people come to me, I do. Please, don’t stop! But writing is the easy part of the process when compared to book promotion.

9) Mistakes happen

Do they? Hell yes, they do! You only have to look at my first edition of Nights to figure that out. The thing was ripped to shreds in the editing process and I ended up with a book I wasn’t totally happy with, and  I regret that. Once the next edition came out in Dec. 2012, I felt at peace with it. Now I can move on. I have done my best and not sit and think of books out in the world that I’m not totally proud of. Another writer recently said that she felt the same but didn’t have the will to go back, re-write/re-edit the book and improve the product. We all have to live with our mistakes. I accept all my mistakes, and I shouldn’t dwell on them, since there are other people out there all too ready to point them out. Mistakes are food for trolls, and they smell it from miles away.

10) I will never be an expert

I have two books on the market, so do I know what I’m doing? No! I don’t know if the ‘I can do this’ moment will ever come to me. I will continue to write the way I do, in my ‘kiwi’ English instead of proper British English or with a book full of Americanisms. I am who I am. Some people love it. Some people moan that I write footpath when it should be a sidewalk (not where I’m from, and none of my books are based in the States!). My characters will talk the way I think they should, based on who they are, where they are, and what they’re doing. After all, 99% of people don’t care either way. I write because I enjoy it, and if my style and subjects are an acquired taste, so be it.

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See ya!

PS – this blog is not a democracy; hate messages get deleted (unless I feel like running your hate posts just so others can laugh at you)