A friend recently asked me about the situation of women sympathetic to the Republic, who, after February 1939, were condemned to endure the harshness of the Franco regime. The case of the men is well documented. Many of those who didn’t make it to Latin America, the USSR or Britain were sent by the Vichy government to Nazi concentration camps such as Mauthausen and Sachsenhausen. Other ex-combatants were persuaded to accept a supposed offer of pardon from Franco and, on arrival in Spain, summarily tried and executed, or condemned to work as slave labour for the Franco government, the Catholic Church and private enterprise.
However the situation of Republican women was markedly different. While men avoided reprisal by fleeing to the mountains, most women were forced to remain in their homes where they had to care for children and dependents. So they were in a far more vulnerable situation.
Historian Loida Díaz Jiménez, on the website CuartoPoder, states that “women during the Second Republic found themselves identified with a pattern of behaviour that enabled activity, decision-making, the active and necessary participation required of them—whether as mothers, or as militia when war broke out— in a profoundly innovative way.”
The conservative and fascist forces behind the coup saw this as a “monstrous deformity” which the Republic had wrought in morality. The fascist mentality viewed the humanitarian ideals flourishing under the Republic as a malaise or cancer to be surgically removed from Spain’s ailing corpse. Women, seen as embodying the morality of the time—as many contemporary posters illustrate in which they represent the ideals of justice, peace or patriotism—became the target of a zealous crusade in moral reform.
As the “liberation” of villages and towns by the Francoist army progressed, exemplary punishments were meted out. Paul Preston, in The Spanish Holocaust (Harper Press, 2012), emphasises the high numbers of men suspected of Republican sympathies who were tortured then executed. It was a campaign carried out with “gratuitous cruelty”.
But the punitive measures against Republican women tended to focus on scenes of public humiliation, rape, sexual abuse and the permanent marking of women’s bodies. A common practice was to shave the victim’s head, force her to ingest castor oil to produce constant diarrhoea and then parade her around the main streets of her village or town in a macabre spectacle. “Red” women were portrayed as “red demons”.
After the war, according to Díaz Jiménez, “rape and sexual abuse became commonplace in police stations, civil guard barracks and prisons in an attempt to objectify and dehumanise those whom the victors considered the root of Republican wickedness”. In the early post-war years, thousands of women were subjected to cruel physical and psychological abuse.
However, cases of Republican women being shot and buried in shallow graves, similar to their male counterparts, also occurred. These include cases of pregnant women.
The practice of separating children from their “red” mothers was common. The historian José Pizarro documents the situation of María and her daughter Rosario, along with seventy-three others, who were tried for being members of the anarchist CNT union and the leftist Frente Popular government of Seville. They were given a summary trial and convicted in June 1938 to twelve years of hard labour. Twenty-year-old Rosario died of tuberculosis in prison in 1941.
María remained a prisoner while her other children were separated and sent to different provincial orphanages. The family was able to reunite in the early forties, but María, weakened from the poor health conditions hunger and overcrowding that were standard in Francoist prisons, died in Cádiz in 1944, aged just fifty-five.
Another interesting source is As Silenciadas, a 2011 documentary by Pablo Ces about the struggle of women in Galicia against the violence and repression of the Franco dictatorship following the war.
So the situation of women was far from easy. Throughout the forties and fifties, the Franco regime promoted an image of the Spanish woman based on Andalucian cultural stereotypes, a figure who was passionate yet demure and home-loving—a strong mother though one who bowed to her husband and authority in all things. And it is an image of Spain that has endured internationally, in detriment of a richer, more complex understanding of Spain’s many varied cultures.