Tag Archives: Franco

Red Devils: Republican Women Under Franco

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.”

Women from Oropesa, Toledo, their heads shaved for belonging to Republican families. (sbhac.net)

Women from Oropesa, Toledo, their heads shaved for belonging to Republican families. (sbhac.net)

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.

Contemporary poster for the UGT union: "She is alert against fascism"

Contemporary poster for the UGT union: “She is alert against fascism”

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.

As Silenciadas, a documentary by Pablo Ces

As Silenciadas, a documentary by Pablo Ces

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.


It’s July, so where’s the revolution?

I first published this post two years ago. However, yesterday, the 19 July, was the Barcelona anniversary of the military uprising whose failure led to the Spanish Civil War (the mutiny starting in Morocco on the 17th), so I thought it was appropriate to bring this post to the fore again (19/07/2014).

July is nearly over and I can’t help wondering where the fireworks are? While popular images of the Spanish summer include blasting hot days, clear skies, greasy paella and treacherous sangria, it is worthwhile remembering that Barcelona was also a key city in the development of Anarcho-Syndicalism – the tying of Anarchist thought into a cooperative structure. It is in fact the sole place in the world to have enjoyed an Anarcho-Syndicalist government of any kind, as related in George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. And it all started in July.

July is a key month in Spanish history. Traditionally, you either start a revolution or go to the beach. During the First Spanish Republic, back in July 1873, there was Cartagena’s Cantonal Revolution and Valencia’s Petroleum Revolution. Then in 1909 came what was known as the July Revolution, an Anarchist-influenced worker uprising in Barcelona, dubbed la setmana tràgica, or “tragic week”, by the bourgeoisie as they saw their opulent Modernista world tilt dangerously and their churches set on fire. The infamous uprising of 17–19 July 1936 saw General Mola’s failed coup develop into the three-year conflict of the Spanish Civil War. Sparked off by the coup, an ensuing worker revolution was decisive in foiling it, resulting in Catalonia’s revolutionary government which lasted until the Communist mid-war takeover in May 1937.


Churches burning across Barcelona during the setmana tràgica, July 1909.

July fireworks isn’t just a Spanish thing. This is the month when the Bastille was stormed and in which Belgium also gained its independence. Closer to the equator, Columbia, Venezuela and Peru all gained their independence in July while the Sandinista and Cuban revolutions exploded. Argentina’s independence further to the south, where it was winter, puts a dent in my theory that it is the heat that makes this such a volatile month.

Last year in Barcelona, the 15-M movement of indignados – inspired by the book Indignez Vous! By Stephane Hessel, one of the fathers of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – was a response to Spanish political events that have seen many people become angered and disillusioned with Spain’s out-of-touch political party system in the context of the ongoing economic crisis. In May and June, we thought great events were afoot. However, by mid-July, it seemed that everyone had slunk off to lie on the sand.

This year, things seem to be following a similar path. Early in the month, Rajoy’s government introduced the harshest set of cutbacks and revisions that this young democracy has ever seen, sweeping away many of the rights and advances that unions and workers fought desperately throughout most of the twentieth century to win. Now July is almost over. While the continual protests and demonstrations have settled into a certain routine, no revolution is yet apparent, but it is a scorching day… so I am off to the beach.

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