Working Class Women in the 1931-39 Spanish Republic

Women have traditionally been regarded as a backward layer of society and a bulwark of the Church and reaction. This "backward" character, however, is not something innate to women, as the bourgeoisie would like us to believe. The explanation for this is not to be found in any biological differences, but in the double exploitation that women suffer under capitalism. As Bebel succinctly put it, "The female sex suffers doubly: on the one hand suffering under the social dependence on men... and on the other hand, through the economic dependence to which they are all subject, as women in general, and as proletarian women in particular; in the same way as proletarian men." (A. Bebel, Women and Socialism, - an abridged version of this work is available at http//

However, history has shown that during revolutionary periods, women have always been in the forefront of the struggle, and in many cases have played a decisive role. During the French Revolution of 1789, the women of the Third Estate took part in all the important events, demanding the right to work, struggling against the increasing cost of living... The women of the Paris suburbs took an active part in the storming of the Bastille, and in the march on Versailles. During the Paris Commune of 1871, they were on the barricades with their male counterparts, and successfully blocked the advance of the troops sent by Thiers to seize the cannons at Montmartre and Belleville. The same occurred during the events that led up to the Russian Revolution of 1917. Women's International Day was celebrated in Petrograd with a demonstration of 10,000 female textile workers, who were then joined by the whole of the working class and thus it developed into a general strike. This was the beginning of the February 1917 Revolution. We saw this same fighting mood of the women in the events that unfolded in Spain in the 1930s.

In contrast to other industrialised countries such as France, Germany, Britain, Italy, etc., women came into the labour market much later in Spain, but when they finally did, they put their own stamp on events. At the beginning of the Twentieth Century, Spain was economically underdeveloped, with two-thirds of the population working in agriculture. Because Spain had remained neutral in the First World War it meant that an increase in incoming foreign investment took place, because the foreign investors were looking for new and safer markets in a Europe at war. This favoured an economic boom that led to the development of industry. This growth, however, did not directly translate into benefits for the working class and peasantry. On the contrary, it had the opposite effect.

The Exploitation of Women

In 1930 there were approximately six million families, of which, 85 percent were working class or peasant families. In five million of these, the women were doing exclusively housework. The employment of women was fraught with difficulties. Women had a level of illiteracy greater than that of men - over 50 percent - this meant that when they did get work they were forced to take less skilled jobs than men. On top of this there was no type of infrastructure to cater for women's childcare needs in the workplace. There were no infant schools where young children could go during the working day, and in general there were not enough school places for children, least of all for the children of workers and peasants.

The bourgeoisie did nothing to improve this situation, as it was in their interests to keep women at home, limiting their role to that of rearing the family and reproducing the next generation of workers. In spite of all these difficulties, however, the active working female population was gradually on the increase. One of the reasons for this was that with industrial and urban development, young and single women emigrated to the towns looking for paid work, and economic independence, which was difficult to find in the countryside. Also, the increase in unemployment in the rural areas, due to bad harvests, and the huge number of large uncultivated estates, meant that many women were excluded from getting work in the countryside, where some of the landowners even went so far as to specifically exclude women from being employed.

In 1930 the female active population was 24 percent of the total and 80 percent of these were single women and widows. When a married man died his widow was obliged to work to bring up the families, because no type of widow's pension existed. Married women found themselves in an even worse position; there were laws which made access to work for them more difficult. They had to have their husbands' permission to work, and could not dispose of their salary freely. If the husband did not wish his wife to collect her salary herself, he could collect it himself, and this was the case even if they were legally separated! Two-thirds of working women were either temporary workers or were in domestic service (which involved having no rights whatsoever), and the other one third were skilled workers. Of the latter, 82 percent were mostly in textiles and clothing. The labour laws that did exist gave few rights to women, if any at all.

Hopes in the Second Republic

The Second Republic in 1931 brought enormous hopes for Spanish workers and peasants, and in social terms some advances were made, especially for women. In the 1931 Constitution, women won the right to vote, and also the right to be elected to any public office. In 1932 laws on civil marriage and divorce were introduced. For the period they were the most advanced in Europe for they recognised divorce by mutual consent, and the right of women to custody of children. This was a severe blow to the Catholic Church, which saw its role and influence within the family reduced. An enormous improvement was achieved for women as they were thus able to escape from the of influence of the Catholic Church.

In 1936, the Generalitat of Catalonia legalised abortion. It is no coincidence that this was in a region where women were a much larger part of the industrial workforce.

In 1935, prostitution, which had previously been recognised by law, was declared illegal. Until then, a woman's body was legally considered as a commodity by the bourgeoisie, like a sack of potatoes or a chair. In the field of general working conditions, some improvements were achieved, for example, the right to freedom of association and the right to belong to a union. On 1st July, 1931, the 8-hour working day was decreed. Night work was regulated, obliging bosses to allow 8 hours of rest, and the Sunday Rest Law was granted to all workers. However, this did not include domestic work, which was overwhelmingly done by women.

Women were legally banned from doing dangerous or heavy work, that would undermine their health or their future motherhood. In spite of all this, working conditions remained harsh for all workers, and for the majority of working women, it did not represent any major improvement. The one third of women working in the domestic sector were excluded from the 8-hour day, and the Accidents at Work legislation, and had no right to social security, unemployment benefit or maternity benefit, working in conditions of virtual slavery for the "Ladies" of the bourgeoisie.

Other industries did not apply the 8-hour day, but forced their workers to work for more than 9 hours a day. This was the case, for instance, in 35 percent of the weaving industry. In textiles, clothing, garment, etc., whilst men were paid for the hours worked, women were paid on a piece work basis, per kilo or units produced, thus forcing them to work at faster rhythms if they wanted to get a decent day's pay.

Women, to all intents and purposes, could not get unemployment benefit. In 1933, 200,000 workers were getting benefit, of which only 100 were women (0.5 percent of the total!). In order to get unemployment benefit, one had to join a Mercantile Society, but casual workers were not allowed to join - this thus excluded the overwhelming majority of Spanish women workers.

Another constant problem was the wage discrimination that women suffered, something that continues to this day. In 1930, the salary of a female olive pickers was 50 percent of that of men's, for the same work. A female metal worker got 41.3 percent of her male counterpart, and in the textile industry, the difference was 47.6 percent. In every sector, the maximum salary for women never reached the minimum for men, for the same work. Furthermore, to this work, one has to add the work which was considered "women's" work, i.e. housework, which involves the longest hours, and is the worst paid. In spite of all this important rights for women with children were won, such as the Maternity Law, which regulated the breast-feeding period, and maternity leave, etc.

Women and the Class Struggle

In the rural areas, the situation was no better. Twenty-four percent of working women worked in agriculture, and in many cases they received no pay, and had no working rights, because this kind of work was considered as " helping the family".

Throughout all these years, there were many strikes and workers' struggles to improve their living conditions, and women took an active part in all of these. They did this on two fronts: alongside their fellow male workers, demanding better pay and working conditions, and also at home in their role as wife, mother and sister of the worker, trying to maintain a dignified lifestyle. In 1932 for example, 97.1 percent of women workers participated in strikes together with 95.2 percent of men, and in 1934, more than 50 percent of hours lost through strikes were in the textile, tobacco, food and garment sectors, where women workers were the majority. Housewives led many struggles and demonstrations during this period, above all against the rising cost of living. This was a constant source of worry in those years, especially when the price of bread rose, this being the basic food of workers. Between 1931 and 1934, bread was subject to numerous increases, due to the scarcity of cereals produced during bad harvests. There were not only demonstrations. In the first few months of 1933, trains, lorries and trams transporting food were raided and the food was confiscated and shared out among the workers' families in Vizcaya, Almeria, Malaga, Granada, Valencia. In Madrid the women even went as far as raiding the food markets.

Growing politicisation

Thus women had abandoned their previous passive and resigned attitude, and had started to play an active role in the struggle. As the number of women working in industry increased so did the number of women taking part in strike action. This led to an increased participation of women in the unions and workers' parties. Up until 1930, women who did join a union had been concentrated in the Catholic unions, which had 35,000 women members. But as the level of struggle increased this led to a growing radicalisation. In these conditions the Catholic unions not only stopped growing, but they actually lost members, both among men and women, but at the same time there was a corresponding strengthening of the class unions (i.e. the Socialist UGT and the Anarcho-syndicalist CNT).

The workers' unions began to see the need to recruit women and to attract them to the class struggle to transform society. In the 1932 Congress of the UGT, it was agreed to lower the membership fees for women, to make it easier for them to join. This was due to the fact that their wages were lower than those of men. They also agreed to increase propaganda among women workers, whereas this had previously been very limited. The Congress also raised the slogan "Equal Pay for Equal Work" for the first time. The orientation towards women workers quickly led to growth among women. The UGT had 18,000 women members in 1929 and by the first few months of 1936 this figure had shot up to 100,000. The anarcho-syndicalist CNT (National Confederation of Workers) had similar results, and by 1936 it had more than 142,000 women members.

One of the most striking features that flowed from the greater number of women taking part in the struggle was that the class issues were always in the forefront. No bourgeois feminist demands ever emerged. In fact, Spain was the European country where the Suffragette and feminist movements had the least echo. The PSOE (Socialist Party) soon started to include the demands of women workers in its programme, and thus they were united with the rest of the workers. This unity of the working class was the only means by which they could achieve equality, and this could only be achieved through the socialist transformation of society.

In 1902, the Agrupaciones Femeninas Socialistas (Socialist Women's Branches) were formed, but not as autonomous bodies of the party. They were not set up with the sole function of solving women's problems. They were party branches, the members of which had three basic duties: to carry out propaganda of socialist ideas and principles, to read and propagate the workers' press, El Socialista, and to participate in all the public actions of the working class.

However, there were sectors within the PSOE that were enormously confused on the women's question. This was in spite of its parliamentary programme published in July 1931, which included "Equal rights for both sexes", and defended the need to "create nurseries" and to "achieve all women's rights", including the right to work, and it also stated that this would only be achieved by the building of a socialist society. (PSOE Parliamentary Programme, July 1931.)

There were serious differences in the party regarding women's right to vote. Indalecio Prieto and Margarita Nelken, among others, opposed this, because they thought that women were still not ready for such responsibility, and to grant it would mean to give more votes to reaction.

Inside the Anarchist movement, the development of the women's question was more difficult because there were different factions with their own distinct positions. At one extreme there were those who maintained that the only role of women was to support men: "The woman must play an accessory role of support for the male activist. Her central role is to care for her children and her partner." (Tierra y Libertad, "Land and Freedom" Delia, 5/12/1931.) "Her role is to encourage the man, and to act as a guiding angel." (La mujer y sus ideas, "Women and their Ideas", Salvador Majó, Solidaridad Obrera, 18/6/1932.). There were those, like Federica Montseny, who struggled against any kind of feminist ideas, and went as far as even denying that any specific women's issues existed at all. On this basis they stated that there was no need to give much attention to this question. On the other hand, there were also other layers that wanted to add specific women's demands to the programme of the CNT, such as defending women's right to work, to vote, etc.

Women during the Civil War

From its very foundation, the Spanish Communist party (PCE) had a clear orientation towards women, campaigning to win them to the Communist movement. The number of women in the PCE grew from 179 members in 1936 to 4,203 in 1938.

It was the Civil War, which broke out in July 1936, that was to produce a qualitative change. As thousands of militiamen were mobilised to the front, women had to take over the jobs left vacant by the men. This represented an important increase in women's class consciousness because this involved working outside of the home, and in many cases achieving economic independence, which they had never achieved before.

Women also went to the front, not only as nurses and laundry workers, but also as soldiers. The first women who took part in the actual fighting were members of the Anarchists, the UGT and the POUM (Worker's Party of Marxist Unification). The Spanish workers' militias were the second army in the world to have women soldiers - after the Russian Bolshevik Soviets in 1917.

It was precisely in this period that the greatest number of women joined the workers' organisations. There were even mass women's organisations linked to, and controlled by, the workers' organisations. Mujeres Libres (Free Women) was an organisation linked to the CNT-FAI. It developed as the voice of a small group of anarchist women activists, whose sole purpose was to bring out a paper and distribute it in the anarchist movement. In May, 1936, it had only 500 members, but as the war and the revolution advanced, this organisation grew rapidly, and it became one of the most important women's organisations, growing to 30,000 women members in 1938. Its aim was to struggle for the creation of services that would make it easier for women to work: nurseries, canteens, etc. and that at the same time would provide them with technical and professional training, so that they would be able to get better qualifications to get work.

The Union of Anti-Fascist Women

The most important women's organisation in those years was the Union of Anti-Fascist Women (UMA). This was founded in 1933, as the Spanish section of "Women Against War and Fascism," created by the Communist International, after the triumph of Hitler in Germany. It started to gain strength in 1934, but after the October events (i.e. the Asturian Commune when the workers in Asturias held power for a short period), it was outlawed, although it continued under the name of "Pro Infancia Obrera" (Pro-Working Class Children), an organisation dedicated to supporting the wives and children of the miners killed or jailed in Asturias after the 1934 insurrection.

It changed back to the UMA in 1936, and grew substantially when the Republican government declared a Female Auxiliary Commission (Comisión de Auxilio Femenino), as a subsidiary organisation of the UMA. Its role was to organise the women working in the military rearguard, and it depended directly on the Ministry of War. Although its membership was heterogeneous (80 percent UGT militants, 16 percent PCE, and 4 percent CGT), its policy was always determined by the PCE and the Unified Young Socialists (Juventudes Socialistas Unificadas), that had a majority in 35 percent of the UMA committees. At that time its president was Dolores Ibarruri (more famously known as 'La Pasionaria').

However, Stalinism in denying the perspective of a Spanish Socialist Revolution, subordinated all actions of the proletariat to the bourgeois democratic republic, and this had its practical consequences in the politics of the UMA. In July 1936, it had 50,000 members. However, instead of uniting women with the rest of the working class in the unfolding revolution, and making them conscious that their liberation could only be achieved through the emancipation of the whole of the working class, it limited the role of women to supporting the actions and decisions of the Popular Front government. This brought with it the immediate disbanding of the workers' militias, and as such, put an end to the role of women in direct combat.

The UMA and the PCE opposed women actively fighting on the front. They maintained that the role of women in the struggle against fascism should be limited to rearguard activities such as kitchen and laundry work, nursing and work in the factories. For instance, in the Columna Pasionaria, there were more than 25 women within its ranks, but their role was limited exclusively to these tasks (i.e. they were limited to doing what they had always done at home), and they were also banned from taking up arms.

The POUM's policy was different. The POUM's Women's Secretariat did not stand for a separate women's organisation. Instead they stood for a Revolutionary Front of Proletarian Women with a revolutionary programme. Its principal objective was to attract women to the party and to explain that the women's struggle should be united to the struggle of male workers, as the only way of defeating the system, and of achieving a victorious revolution. Its war activity consisted of waging propaganda in favour of women going to the front, not only as nurses through the Socorro Rojo (Red Aid, created by the POUM to provide medical aid at the front), but also as soldiers. They provided women with military training, and they also gave them other war time supply tasks. Its work was plagued with difficulties. At each step it was boycotted by the Stalinists. The Second Women's Conference of the PSUC (Catalonian Communist Party) in 1938, stated clearly that among the 15 principal tasks of women communists, was the "struggle against ambushes, provocateurs and trotskyists", in clear allusion to the POUM and other layers of the revolutionary proletariat (Treball, 4/10/1938).

When Largo Caballero (Minister of War in the Popular Front government, which was supported by the PCE, and later by the anarchist leaders) decreed the prohibition of women fighting at the front, and that their duties be limited to domestic tasks in the battalions, it produced enormous disappointment, disillusionment and frustration amongst thousands of those women who had gone to the front seeking equality. Now they saw that they were being forced to do the same old things they had striven to leave behind.

However the women were not the only ones to be disappointed. The male workers also opposed this, and the union leaders had to intervene to put an end to this discontent at the front. The Popular Front leaders, aided by the leaders of all the workers' parties, by applying this, and other measures, succeeded not only in failing to achieve victory by putting a brake on the revolutionary impetus, both of the female and male workers, they actually achieved the opposite: they prepared the defeat of the revolution.

After the victory of Franco's fascist counterrevolution, more than 400,000 workers were jailed or put in forced labour camps. Some 30,000 were shot after the war; between 1939 and 1940, 30,000 women were jailed. In the Ventas jail in Madrid alone, 1,000 women were shot.

The Franco regime reserved various forms of punishment for women (not only for those women who had taken an active part in the struggle, but also for the militiamen's wives, daughters, mothers, etc.). They were imprisoned, their heads were shaved and they were marched through the streets of their home towns and villages. Women's rights were pushed back by half a century, with the loss of all the rights they had won: the right to abortion, divorce, civil marriage. Furthermore, they were practically banned from working through the "Fuero del Trabajo" (Franco's labour laws). Thus the position of women was pushed back to what it had been in ' past, confined to the home.

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