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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Mujeres Libres: Anarcha-feminist organizing in the Spanish Civil War (2007)

by Sylvia Sierra

Anarchist movements have traditionally had the goal of breaking down all existing hierarchical power structures in society. They have rejected the idea of one person or a group of people having control over others in any form, whether it is a presidential administration controlling the people of a country, or an owner of land having power over those who work it. Clearly, the dominance of men over women in society has been a pervasive hierarchical power structure for thousands of years and in many cultures, but since it is so imbedded in our minds it is difficult for even anarchists to recognize how to best reconstruct unequal gender relations.

During the Spanish Civil War in the 1930’s, thousands of communists, socialists, anarchists, and others fought to achieve a freer Spain. The Spanish anarchists of this time were effective in many ways, and attempted to break down many types of power structures within their circles. However, the women who participated in the movement felt that they were being excluded and that even anarchist men perpetuated the sexism that they sought to fight against. Women were not receiving the liberation they had expected to come as a result of the anarchist movement, and in 1936 a group called Mujeres Libres, or Free Women in English, was formed to confront sexism and to fight for women’s emancipation in Spain. This organization of libertarian women worked hard to raise awareness about women’s subordination, to support women’s activism, to educate and employ women, and to free them from the subjugation of the past. The contributions of Mujeres Libres were substantial, and although the context of the war did not allow them to achieve as much as they would have liked to, they left a lasting impact on the women involved and the people affected by their actions, and help us understand today how to mobilize women to defeat sexism within social movements.

Women in Spain faced many inequalities in areas of work, pay, education, and political positions during the early 1900’s. According to Mary Nash in her book, Defying Male Civilization; Women in the Spanish Civil War, this discrimination was based on the idea of “domesticity which reinforced male supremacy, the sexual division of labor, and the restriction of female activities to the private sphere” (7). She also mentions that the slow development of social and economic structures in Spain during this time contributed to keeping women in traditional positions, along with the fact that the ruling class were devout Catholics and very conservative (Nash, 7-8). Under the Restoration, traditional ideas about women were reinforced, and a series of legal restrictions further limited women’s roles in society. The most popular view of how women should behave was defined by the idea of the perfecta casada, or perfect married lady in English, which was the idea that women should be angels who love and take care of their families and make the home a warm and safe place (Nash, 10-11).

Illiteracy and poor education were huge problems for women in Spain. By the beginning of the 20th century, the female illiteracy rate was 71% compared to 55.57% male illiteracy. By 1930, female illiteracy was at 47.5% and male illiteracy was at 36.9% (Nash, 18-19). While this was clearly an improvement, almost half of the female population was still illiterate. Most of the education women received, if any, pertained to the topics of motherhood, and the high illiteracy rate kept women from being able to find decent employment (Nash, 17-18). Also, women had the “double burden” of caring for children and housework while also earning a wage doing a separate job, so they had little time to devote to learning new skills. Even women with higher education were rarely able to pursue careers (Nash, 20). Clearly, the disadvantages Spanish women faced were extremely unfair and unjust, but for many years they could not do very much to improve their situations.

In the beginning of the Spanish labor movement, however, many women took part in the labor strikes, which is not surprising, considering that women earned less than 50% of the money men earned at the same jobs. At these strikes and at meetings, women started to bring up gender-specific issues that had previously been ignored (Nash, 30). In this way, Spanish women started to learn about activism. New maternity insurance plans, labor legislation, education reform, civil marriage laws, and the establishment of divorce occurred during the liberal period with the Second Republic, which started in 1931, and these changes improved women’s situations in many ways. Although women were making progress, they were still discriminated against and patriarchy prevailed (Nash, 41). Fortunately, the Civil War would introduce a new context in which social change could happen more quickly and in which the mass mobilization of women would be facilitated (Nash, 42). Women might have thought they would be treated more fairly in the growing anarchist movement in Spain, but there were still many challenges women would face in the war.

The goals of the Spanish anarchists were to destroy fascism and to revolutionarily transform society, and for women, it seemed natural that these goals would include the deconstruction of patriarchy, but instead they noticed “overt machismo in the behavior and mentality of Spanish men, including anarchists” (Nash, 81). It soon became clear to women that there were contradictions between the theory of the Spanish anarchist movement and the practice of the theory. Although anarchism officially supported women’s rights and gender equality, gender power relationships still persisted and were common in the movement. Most male anarchists were more interested in cultivating women’s talents as cooks or in their sexual relations than they were in liberating them. Lucía SÁnchez Saornil, a major feminist thinker among Spanish women anarchists, said she viewed the problem as one perpetuated mostly by men, not by women. MarÍ­a Luisa Cobos, another female anarchist, believed that there were thousands of women who wanted to be involved in the anarchist movement, but said that men in the movement discouraged them from participating fully (Nash, 80). In Martha A. Ackelsburg’s book, Free Women of Spain: Anarchism and the Struggle for the Emancipation of Women, she states that active women in the anarcho-syndicalist union, CNT, or in the youth organization, FIJL, were always a minority, and that the CNT did not put very much effort into organizing women workers (88-89). Despite the inequalities women faced, many anarchists denied that women were oppressed in any ways that required specific attention. They thought that it was the responsibility of women to look inward and learn to respect themselves, and that revolution would liberate all men and women equally (Ackelsburg, 90).

Many women, however, did not believe that their liberation would result from revolution, or did not think it was necessary to wait for the revolution in order to be treated as equals to men. One of these women was LucÍ­a SÁnchez Saornil, who proposed the creation of an independent branch of the anarchist movement just for women. A few months later, in April 1936, Mujeres Libres was formed shortly before the war started. Saornil, Dr. Amparo Poch y GascÓn, and Mercedes Comaposada formed the initial caucus of the organization, and started a journal, Mujeres Libres, which was supposed to attract women to social issues and to anarchist ideals (Nash, 80). The first issue of the journal sold out quickly, and 13 more issues were published. (Ackelsburg, 100). The first goal of the journal was to educate women and to provide them with information about politics so they could become involved in anarchist activities, and it also served to give women professional training so they would have better employment opportunities. Through this journal, Mujeres Libres efficiently spread the organization’s policies and viewpoints and played and important educational role (Nash, 81).

Besides publishing this journal, Mujeres Libres used many other methods to disseminate their ideas. They set up committees that focused on culture and propaganda, and there were regular radio broadcasts in Barcelona. Also, some of the members traveled to the Catalan countryside to speak to women who did not have radios or access to written propaganda. Since almost all of the activists in Mujeres Libres were self-taught, they used direct action and “learning by doing” to teach women how to become active in the anarchist movement (Ackelsburg, 121-122). They were the first mass women’s organization to put anarcha-feminism into practice, and their ideas gained recognition and momentum during the war. Originally there were just a few hundred members of Mujeres Libres, but they ultimately reached 20,000 members. There were more than 168 local groups throughout republican Spain, with more groups in central Spain and Catolonia (58 and 46 groups), and groups in Aragon, and Valencia, Andalusia (35 and 29 groups) (Nash, 78-79).

The ultimate goal of Mujeres Libres was female liberation from the “triple enslavement to which [women] have been subject: enslavement to ignorance, enslavement as women and enslavement as workers” (Nash, 78). They thought women needed a separate organization because they believed that only if women organized themselves would they realize their own potential and be able to participate as equals in the movement. They also believed that it was up to women to deconstruct patriarchal relationships and inequalities between the sexes (Nash, 84). In their organization, they concentrated on connections between economic, cultural, and sexual subordination. Their reasoning was that women’s economic dependence contributed to their sexual dependence, and their dependency made them uneducated and culturally backward, which in turn led to their dependence on men. Mujeres Libres believed that no one thing could set women free, and that it was necessary to address all the problems that kept them subordinate (Ackelsburg, 117). Since the organization did not accept that women’s liberation would be delivered automatically when the revolution came, they “endorsed the use of specific pressure and direct strategy to implement change in the terrain of personal relations and women’s social and personal identity” and wanted women to be seen as a “progressive force and as agents of change in the revolutionary process (Nash, 82).

Mujeres Libres had two related goals ““ capacitaciÓn and captaciÓn. CapacitaciÓn means empowering women to feel more self-confident, educating them more about themselves as women, and preparing them for better employment. CaptaciÓn was the “organizational and ideological context of capacitaciÓn,” or increasing women’s involvement in the war effort and as militants in the CNT and FAI (the Iberian Anarchist Federation). The CNT and FAI were more interested in captaciÓn and did not think that capacitaciÓn was very important or needed special attention, while Mujeres Libres thought it was impossible to have one without the other, because without capacitaciÓn women could not work in the movement as equals with men (Nash, 115-116). The organization worked toward these goals, but according to Tabea Alexa Linhard in her book Fearless Women in the Mexican Revolution and the Spanish Civil War, although Mujeres Libres was more radical than any of the other women’s organizations, they made their slogans and their image more traditional during wartime and emphasized motherhood and the nurturing nature of women (39). The fight against the Nationalist troops during the war was so desperate that this radical group had to fit its goals and tame their ideas to fit the war atmosphere.

One of the many things Mujeres Libres concentrated on was consciousness-raising and the support of women’s activism. Members of the organization wrote articles in many different publications about women’s achievements and about the adventures of outstanding women, and they also made booklets, pamphlets, and pictorial expositions in Madrid and Barcelona about the topic (Ackelsburg, 126). According to Aileen O'Carroll in her article Mujeres Libres, the women in the organization “...created networks of women anarchists.” Attending meetings with one another, they checked out reports of sexist behavior and worked out how to deal with it, and day-care centers were set up in efforts to involve more women. Their concerns with capacitaciÓn and the self-development of women is one of the major ways Mujeres Libres was different from the other women’s organizations like the AMA (Antifascist Women’s Association and the POUM (Workers’ Party of Marxist Unity). These other organizations’ primary goals were to train women to replace men at their jobs during the war, and they did not address self-development or women’s activism (Ackelsburg, 128).

The main way Mujeres Libres wished to teach women how to be activists was through their numerous education programs. Education was central in Mujeres Libres’ goal of capacitaciÓn, and according to Ackelsburg, their education programs reached thousands of women ““ between 600 to 800 women were attending classes each day in December 1938 at the Casa de la Dona in Barcelona (120). These programs concentrated on illiteracy, and also set up the first courses in “social formation,” or topics that would help women understand the formation of societies and politics. There were courses in literacy, languages, nursing, childcare, elementary education, agriculture, and many other subjects. Courses were taught in Barcelona in the Mujeres Libres’ offices in the Plaza de CataluÑa, the Instituto Mujeres Libres in the Calle Cortes, and the Casa de la Dona Treballadora, and were offered both in the day and at night for working women, and in both cities and neighborhoods (Ackelsburg, 119-120).

Another form of educational programs offered by Mujeres Libres were employment and apprenticeship programs, which helped prepare women for skilled work where they could be paid decent wages. Equal pay for equal work and equal access to jobs were very important to the women in Mujeres Libres, but they also believed that a new society would allow work to be seen as a way to express creativity and to achieve things for the community. If women could participate in this kind of work, they would have the chance to be seen as productive members of society, which would boost their self-esteem and change the way they were perceived by society (Ackelsburg, 123-124). Mujeres Libres prepared women for work in factories, public services, domestic service, health, commerce, clerical work, and rural production. They thought that the community should be responsible for childcare, so they set up childcare centers in places of work and spread the word about this idea. Through these employment and apprenticeship programs, the organization encouraged women to join Mujeres Libres and to join unions (Ackelsburg, 124-126).

The women in Mujeres Libres had mixed views on how motherhood fit into the idea of the new liberated woman. Ackelsburg explains that although they insisted that women’s only purpose was not just to be mothers, many of their programs still assumed that motherhood was important for most of the women involved, which was probably true. Most of the members wanted mothers to at least be self-conscious and to be women before mothers (128-129). To meet this goal, the organization set up hospitals with birth and postnatal care, along with classes on motherhood and sexuality, nursing education programs, and birth clinics (Ackelsburg, 130-131). On the subject of child education, Mujeres Libres thought that it was essential for children to be curious, enthusiastic, and adventurous since they were the future. One member said, “children cannot, and ought not, be Catholics, socialists, communists, or libertarians. Children ought to be only what they are: children” (Ackelsburg, 132). The organization believed that education should be nondirective and should allow children’s curiosity to lead them in their learning (Ackelsburg 132-133). These ideas fit well with the child education goals of the anarchist movement as a whole, and show how important it was for the anarchists to build a new and improved society.

In order to start creating a better society, many Spanish anarchists advocated free love, but according to Ackelsburg, they rarely acted on the idea and did not see sexuality as a political issue (133, 138). Mujeres Libres saw sexuality as something very personal, and perhaps it is for this reason that their publications and programs contained very little information about sex, combined with the fact that the organization did not want to appear too radical and to scare women away (Ackelsburg, 139). The one thing that Mujeres Libres focused a great amount of attention on related to sexuality was prostitution. They believed that prostitution was a result of capitalism, and that it subordinated women sexually as a result of their economic subordination (Ackelsburg, 135). Indeed, Mujeres Libres was the most active group fighting against prostitution, and accused antifascist soldiers as those who were purchasing services from prostitutes. They created liberatorios de prostituciÓn, or centers to liberate prostitutes. The four goals of the liberatorios were “Medical and psychiatric research and treatment, psychological and ethical care in order to give the pupils a sense of responsibility, professional guidance and training, and moral and material support at any time even after their rehabilitation” (Nash, 163). Although Mujeres Libres was so passionate about this cause, Nash concludes that the liberatorios could not change the traditional patriarchal views and sexual standards of men in Spain, and that the pre-existing views on sexuality remained unchanged despite the organization’s hard work to counter them (165).

Like any other organization, Mujeres Libres had their share of difficulties. They faced some amount of opposition from within the anarchist movement, with some anarchist militants feeling that women were not competent enough to run an organization, while the main argument against the organization was that an independent women’s organization would weaken the whole movement and create disunity among the working class (Nash, 88). While neither of these objections seems to hold much validity, Mujeres Libres had other problems. Since the group was so revolutionary in its views, it was difficult to attract non-political women, and since it focused so much on the working class, it failed to attract prominent women or intellectuals (Nash, 90). Nash notes that although the organization addressed a wider range of issues that the AMA, one are of weakness in Mujeres Libres was that they did not look at the sexual division of labor and women bearing sole responsibility for children, and they never openly addressed abortion or family planning and birth control (91). The exclusion of these topics did not hold Mujeres Libres back very much, but it is interesting to see how their priorities were different from those of modern feminists.

The main conflict that Mujeres Libres faced was the fact that they were the only organization that demanded institutional autonomy, and wished to be independent of the larger libertarian organizations, although they still wanted to participate in the congresses and in the decisions made in them (Ackelsburg, 149). They refused to be dissolved into the AMA or to be replaced by the SecretarÍ­a Feminina, or women’s bureau, set up by the FIJL. Mujeres Libres fought to be recognized as an official organization, but the other anarchist organizations treated Mujeres Libres as a member of the movement rather than an equal (Ackelsburg, 151). In 1938, when the group petitioned for official recognition from the national and regional committees of the Libertarian Movement Congress, the delegates denied their request. The arguments for not giving Mujeres Libres organizational status were: 1. anarchism and syndicalism admitted no differences between the sexes, so an organization of only women could not be libertarian 2. Mujeres Libres was causing confusion because they were doing work that should only be done by unions and 3. Mujeres Libres should not be an autonomous organization, but it should be “operating within the unions and cultural centers” (Ackelsburg, 159). Since Mujeres Libres lacked sponsorship and official recognition, it remained more isolated than other women’s organizations, and it could not successfully challenge the sexism of anarchist organizations at an institutional level (Nash, 90, 89). In one of Emma Goldman’s visits to Barcelona she wrote, “They receive no aid whatsoever...Mujeres Libres is being left behind on all fronts” (Ackelsburg, 153-154). Overall, its insistence on autonomy is why the organization was not officially recognized as an organization (Ackelsburg, 160), and this isolation from the rest of the anarchist organizations seems to have been Mujeres Libres’ main impediment.

While Mujeres Libres faced frustrations and disappointments such as this one, a more important point is that they had a positive and lasting impact on the women involved in the organization. The mobilization of women through the organization aided the growth of “feminist consciousness, self-identity, and self-esteem for the many thousands of working class women who participated in its activities” and provided women with education and opportunities to develop their own abilities and potential (Nash, 92). In the reflections of women who were members of Mujeres Libres, they said that along with experiencing self-empowerment, energy, and enthusiasm, they also were able to see what people can achieve if they work together (Ackelsburg, 162). The organization left this impact because it provided women with space where women could come together and work with each other to increase their confidence and knowledge, and it provided women with a framework to view their struggles and experiences with (Nash, 92). This shows how important it is to let women use their personal experiences in a social context and share them with other women to build solidarity, which in turn empowers individual women as well (Ackelsburg, 164-165). During this time, women showed that they could be politically committed to social change and well-organized; perhaps more importantly, they proved that they had the ability to overcome their silence as a collective (Nash, 181, 178).

Unfortunately, the success of the organization could only extend so far. Even though this was a time of revolution, the amount women could do to emancipate themselves was still affected by their culturally established attitudes about gender, and the regrettable outcome of the war prevented them from making more progress in this area. On April 1, 1939, the republican forces were defeated and Francisco Franco became the dictator of Spain for the next 40 years, and everything the anarchists had worked for was crushed. During Franco’s regime of strict hierarchical structure and national catholicism, women’s contributions during the war and attempts at achieving emancipation were covered up or dismissed as something that revealed women’s corruption during this time of immorality, and their “voices were lost, their organizations disbanded, and their newly gained presence in the public arena disallowed” (Nash, 183). This sad ending to the war basically reversed everything Mujeres Libres had worked to create, except for the memories and legacy of the women involved.

It was not until the early seventies that Mujeres Libres’ achievements were rediscovered by women’s history historians, and Spanish women activists were able to learn from and become influenced by the organization’s commitment to women’s liberation (Nash, 185). Indeed, Mujeres Libres has a great deal to teach modern feminists and activists about empowerment, relationships between individuals and communities, and many other things (Nash, 163). The group believed that women should be encouraged to bring their own special viewpoints as women to society, and this point is especially strong among contemporary feminists. Also, a sense of community is still important among activists today, and they can look at Mujeres Libres to see how the organization worked to achieve a cohesive group with a strong sense of community by working together to reach a common goal (Nash, 166). Mujeres Libres also shows us how the collective is only as strong as the individuals that make it up, that direct action and self-activity is important for social change, and that ideas are made to be changed and developed as the social situation changes (O'Carroll).

It is extremely important for feminists and other activists to continue to learn lessons from Mujeres Libres, since many of the problems that existed during the war still exist today, such as the fact that there is still sexism in social groups and movements and that society is still male-dominated. Since Mujeres Libres was not able to make any lasting revolutionary changes because of the context they were working in, it is crucial for activists to continue their efforts by acknowledging that these problems can be overcome if we work together, if people are not forced to pick between two commitments or two groups, such as being an anarchist or a feminist, and if instead of being content to work within the corrupt hierarchy that now exists, we work to challenge the hierarchical system. If activists keep these things in mind and study historical organizations like Mujeres Libres, we will be much closer understanding the steps we must take to create a more equal, democratic, fair and liberated society.


Works Cited

Ackelsberg, Martha A. Free Women of Spain: Anarchism and the Struggle for the Emancipation of Women. United States of America: AK Press, 2004.

Linhard, Tabea Alexa. Fearless Women in the Mexican Revolution and the Spanish Civil War. Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 2005.

Nash, Mary. Defying Male Civilization; Women in the Spanish Civil War. Colorado: Arden Press, Inc., 1995.

O'Carroll, Aileen. "Mujeres Libres." June 1998. Workers Solidarity Irish Anarchist Newspaper. 30 March 2006. http://flag.blackened.net/revolt/ws98/ws54_mujeres_libres.html.

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