Spanish Anarchist Women: Fighting For Equality, and Also Killing Fascists Way Before the Rest of the World Decided It Was Cool
(For this post, I am invoking my "I don't care if this subject is not actually from the 19th century, it's my blog and I do what I want" policy.)
Which brings me, as so, so many things do, to Spain in 1936. The Spanish Civil War was going on, which meant that the Republican forces, consisting of anarchists, communists, socialists and others were all fighting against the fascist Nationalist forces. A lot of countries that didn’t actually care much for fascism, ostensibly, including France, the U.K., and the U.S. had decided not to get officially involved in this one, because apparently, France, the U.K. and the U.S. weren’t killing fascists before it was cool. Some of their citizens showed up in Spain as volunteers though which was kinda cool.
I’m not here to talk about what various countries were doing, though. I’m here to talk about anarchist women of the Spanish Civil War. You can tell from my title.
There were plenty of women in all the revolutionary parties of the Spanish Civil War, but women tended to be most active in the anarchist movement, because that was a movement that actually went out of its way to challenge the oppression of women and actually, in many cases, fought for women’s equality. So not only was it a movement that called out to women, it was a movement that allowed them to do shit, which means that there are a lot more awesome anarchist women out there than there are, for example, fascist women known for their contribution to their movement. The anarchists established collectively run day care centers to better allow women to participate in politics, for example, which just makes me really happy; I think you can effectively judge a society based on how easy they make it for women to, as they choose, get out of the home and do shit. It also became more usual to see women wear pants in public. Women were suddenly allowed to, you know, own property. And go around without a male chaperone. Stuff was changing!
But many anarchist women had little time to enjoy their new childcare, fashion, and walking-around-in-public options, because they were also, as necessary, taking to the streets and storming armories in order to arm the militias, then joining them and heading off the front to fight some fascists.
I am not a military-type historian (or indeed an historian at all, though I am educated enough to know that the phrase is “an historian” not “a historian” so I want points for that), so I am not going to be using words like “tactics” or “feint” or, I don’t know, “flanking maneuver.” Instead, I am going to be talking briefly about anarchist women who joined the fight against fascism, and I am going to be using words like “badass” “amazing” and “so fucking amazingly badass.”
There were, according to some people better at history than me, probably around 1000 women in the militias that formed up to fight against the fascists. I would dearly love to be able to tell you about every individual one of them and their heroic awesomeness, but I can’t, because I would only be able to give them like, one word each within this article, and that seems silly.
So. Like I said, when the fighting first started, women just kind of joined as a matter of course. The militias were pretty unmilitary at that point, so there wasn’t anything to stop them. I mean, they used guns and shot people and all of that stuff, which is fairly military I guess, but they didn’t salute, officers were elected by the other soldiers, and they generally tried to keep the whole thing informal and nonhierarchical. To the extent possible, personal autonomy was respected. Unsurprisingly, that kind of setup, rather than the traditional militaristic one, kind of lent itself to women joining in in the traditionally male role of soldier. Off to battle they went. Some of them joined the militias with male relatives, including fathers, brothers, or boyfriends. Others met men they would end up marrying while in the militias. These were men who they met in a world where they were both treated as equals, something that hadn’t ever really been possible in excessively traditional, excessively Catholic Spain. Some of the couples were even married in uniform, which I think is just an awesomely direct way of showing how on equal terms with each other they were.
You know how the first reaction to change is always “aaaah! HELP! CHANGE IS HAPPENING MAKE IT STOP”? Well, interestingly enough that is so not what happened in this case. Instead, the milicianas (militiawomen) became icons and propaganda pieces. “Look how awesome the fight against fascism is,” the militias would say (not in those words) “it’s so awesome that even women want in on it. And don’t they look good doing it?” Yeah, not gonna lie, there was a bit of objectification that went into that turning of women into icons. Like, a picture of men in a militia would show them firing guns, but a picture of women from that same militia would show them posing with their guns and smiling at the camera. Like ya do, in a war. Stupid shit like that. In my view, there’s no reason to try to make someone in an anti-fascist militia look sexy; they’re already doing the single sexiest thing it’s possible for a human being to do. (Does this even count as a fetish? If so, it must be ridiculously common.)
A recruitment poster. See how she’s like an amalgamation of Rosie the Riveter and the Uncle Sam “I Want You” only way more badass?
Now when I say that women were fighting on equal footing with men, that’s not strictly speaking accurate. They were fighting as milicianas, but they were also frequently doing something that the men weren’t; taking on domestic duties like laundry, cooking, and even medical care, stuff that the men weren’t expected to spend their time on. They were essentially doing double duty, though in some militias the dudes actually tried to keep them doing nothing but the domestic duties. Some of milicianas eventually rebelled against that; one woman, identified only as “Manuela,” had been with the Pasionara column, where “they never wanted to give guns to the girls. We were only good for washing dishes and clothes.” When trying to join another militia, she announced “I did not come to the front to die for the revolution with a dish cloth in my hand.” The entire militia burst into applause, and she was welcomed in. It’s worth noting that the captain of that unit, a woman named Etchebéhѐre had put a stop to the men expecting the milicianas to do all the cleaning by asking if they expected her, their captain, to wash their goddamn socks. They did not.
Some women started out with traditionally female roles, and ended up with very different ones. An anarchist seamstress named Carmen first came to the front to do laundry and repair clothing for the militiamen, but she ended up picking up a weapon and joining the fight. I feel like there’s a limited amount of time most anarchist ladies could spend sewing up ripped clothes when they could be joining the fight themselves.
Women even came in from other countries to join the fight. One writer remembered meeting a young German Jewish ambulance driver named Margaret Zimbal, and trying to persuade her to stick with the somewhat safer, and more traditionally female job on the ambulance, rather than go to the front with the militias, only to have the young woman laugh, tweak the writer’s nose, and go back to the front, where she worked as a scout. She came back safe, and was working peacefully in politics until one day she saw her old unit in the street, heading back to the front. She jumped up from a table in a café, and ran after them, shouting “Wait for me! I’m coming too!” She would ultimately be killed on the Aragon front, with, presumably, not a dishtowel in sight. (Hey, not all of these stories can be happy.)
There were other women who straddled the line between traditional women’s roles and men’s roles in interesting ways. A communist named Josefa Rionda served as a very literal combat nurse on the front at Colloto, tending the wounded in the trenches and firing on the enemy at the same time. I would criticize her for undermining the non-combatant status of medics, except that I kind of want someone to write a comic book with her as a superhero.
For the most part, men were pretty comfortable fighting, and living, alongside women as equals. One male reporter seemed shocked when he described a Swiss woman who had volunteered for the militia swimming naked with an entire company of male soldiers. He asked her if it didn’t embarrass her, and she replied that the men were “quite harmless. Of course,” she added, “sometimes one or other of them does a little masturbation, but so respectfully that one has really nothing to say.” That seems to me to show a refreshingly open, sex-positive environment and a nice lack of shame about the human body. Mostly though I really like the idea of someone masturbating “respectfully.” I’m kind of curious as to what she meant by that…did they tip their hats before and after or something?
Really, zero people had any complaints about how women did when it came to fighting on the front lines. But then…well, someone always has to complain, don’t they? So naturally some people, notably not the ones actually fighting (and swimming, and respectfully masturbating) alongside them started to piss and moan about the presence of women in the militias, particularly those on the front lines.
They had a few reasons for objecting. I will list them in order of increasing hilarity.
1. Women belong in the home, doing women things, while men belonged at the front, doing men things. This gave rise to the slogans “men to the front, women to the home front!” and “men to the vanguard, women to the rearguard!” I have no response to this argument that isn’t “shut up.” So I won’t make any.
2. Women at the front are all prostitutes, not soldiers. This was pretty much refuted by being not true. Funny, that. I mean, there WERE prostitutes, but they didn’t so much wear uniforms, pick up guns, and go where they could be shot at. One miliciana, Sanchez de la Mora, who seemed really personally offended by this implication, pointed out that it is a hell of a lot easier and safer to be a hooker somewhere where bullets aren’t flying, so why the crap would a hooker be at the front?
3. Women should not be at the front because the men might have sex with them, and men needed their sexual energy to fight fascists. See, I like this one because it works off the assumption that men were using the same energy for sex as they were for fighting. Apparently in the 30s, men fought using mainly their penises, and couldn’t put up a good antifascist fight if their penises were too tired from the night before. This argument also falls down if you remember that there were totally female nurses at the front, and that no one had a problem with them and their powers of penis-depletion.
4. No women at the front, because Don Quixote. This is by far my favorite, because it is stupid like a stupid thing. Basically, the argument ran that Spanish men were just way too chivalrous to fight alongside women, because if anything bad happened to a female soldier, her male comrades would immediately go into hero mode and risk themselves to try and save her. Women pointed out that was kind of the dudes’ problem, but as usual, they were ignored. Men to the vanguard, women to the rearguard.
(It’s worth noting that some of these arguments, particularly the first and last, are still totally in use today. Not so much the one about penis-fighting, though I hear some athletes still get into that one.) It was in 1937 that women ended up being removed from the front for real. But of course, the army still wasn’t all that organized, and a lot of women didn’t get the “stop killing fascists and go home and raise babies” memo, and kept right on doing what they were doing. Or at least, they and their comrades would later claim that they didn’t get the “stop killing fascists and go home and raise babies” memo. It’s entirely possible that they did, and were just like “well screw that,” because seriously, you gonna tell an anarchist lady what to do? Especially if what you’re telling her to do involves, (for fuck’s sake) NOT killing fascists?
But of course, it wasn’t just on the frontlines that women were able to kick ass during the Spanish Civil War. They were also getting into politics in a big way. Let me tell you about the Mujeres Libres. Does everyone have enough Spanish for that? That’s the Free Women, if you don’t. (Did anyone need that translated? I kinda hope not, but just in case. Learn Spanish; it pisses off the Republicans. Not the ones from Spain, the ones from the United States, who are racist and homophobic and hate poor people. Those Republicans.) . The Mujeres Libres were an anarchist group set up to fight for women’s liberation. They did this, notably, in really awesome, effective ways. Like, through education, and getting women more actively involved in politics. Not, you know, by asking men to please let them be equal, please, which has been the approach of a lot of people.
The women who started this group were a pretty amazing crew. They were Lucía Sánchez Saornil, Mercedes Comaposada, and Amparo Poch y Gascón. Amparo was a doctor, Mercedes worked in film, and Lucía was a poet and an open lesbian. Lucía was probably the most radical of the bunch; she believed that real social reform wasn’t possible without redefining the whole concept of “women’s roles” in the home and family. She was also, did I mention, was an OPEN LESBIAN in the fucking 1930s in excessively traditional, excessively Catholic Spain. More than any of the other women in the group, she really believed that the concept of a different role for women than for men was total crap.
So she and the others went and founded the Mujeres Libres, a truly cool group that, among other things, fought for all of the ideals of anarchism and social revolution while at the same time opposing the sexism within the anarchist movement. They established schools, publications, hospitals, and social groups, all aimed at women, and all with the specific goal of preparing women to step up within the anarchist movement, and to fight both fascists and what are today known as “manarchists” and their patriarchal bullshit.
Amparo even started a school specifically to educate women who wanted to stop being prostitutes. It was a little paternalistic in its approach, but it sure sounds like a more effective way of combatting the exploitation of prostitutes than getting female soldiers off the front lines, don’t you think? And it recognized that prostitution was usually the result of women having limited options, not the result of, like, a moral failing that needed more religion to make it better. (Also, while we’re on the topic of prostitution in anarchist Spain, I should mention that an English writer reported seeing a sign outside a brothel instructing men that they were “requested to treat the women as comrades.” Isn’t that just awesome? Yes, yes it is.)
And of course, if I’m going to be talking about non-fighting women of the Spanish Civil War, I would be sorely, sorely remiss if I didn’t mention that Emma Goldman put in a significant appearance, despite being 67 when the war started, and the fact that she was still mourning the recent death of Alexander Berkman. She visited Spain, and what she saw of the revolution there actually helped to give her her old fire back. She became the director of English-language propaganda, and when the fascist forces ultimately won, she helped get refugees to safety.
Oh. Yeah. That was the part of this article I didn’t want to write, because it was going to get sad. Obviously, we all know that the good guys did not win the Spanish Civil War. A lot of these amazing women I’ve been talking about (those who weren’t killed in battle) ended up captured, tortured, raped, imprisoned, or killed once the fascists took over. Many others lived out their lives in exile or in hiding. The advances Spain had seen towards gender equality were rolled right the hell back under Franco. I wish the story had a happier ending, but it doesn’t, because that’s not the way history went.
So I’m going to leave you with a story of one of these women, continuing to be an utter badass post-Spanish Civil War. How’s that for compromising on the whole happy ending thing? Remember Etchebéhѐre? The miliciana who was like “seriously, if you assholes-I-mean-comrades-I-mean-assholes think I’m washing your socks just because I’m a woman, you are probably better off in the other army, k?” Well, she fled to France after the Civil War, but had to leave there too pretty quickly (she was Jewish. And, you know, a radical communist with anarchist influences) but she waited out the war in Argentina, and ended up back in France eventually. During the protests in Paris in 1968, she, by then an old woman, saw students tearing up cobblestones. She went over, and gave them gloves so that they wouldn’t have physical evidence of their activities on their hands for the cops to see and arrest them. Later, a cop escorted her, a harmless little old lady, to her home through the disturbance in the streets, completely unaware that her handbag was full of dirty gloves.
Milicianas and their comañeras were an incredible bunch of people. They were brave, they were radical, and they fought a doomed fight. The least we can do is to remember and take inspiration from them; work for equality, combat oppression, value education, and always, always fight the fascists.