For some women, the Spanish Civil War was genuinely emancipatory. Young women on the Republican side joined trade unions, engaged in politics, took up all sorts of war work, and even briefly served as soldiers in the militias. The necessities of war and the outbreak of social revolution combined to open up these new roles. Even in the traditional culture of Nationalist Spain, young, middle-class, Catholic women found they could go out without chaperones, and many of them worked outside the home for the first time, supporting the war effort. Images of the Virgin Mary were everywhere in Nationalist Spain - in churches and homes, on banners, medals and schoolroom walls. She was honoured by Franco's armies, and was the crucial role model for women, who were expected to be devout and concern themselves with home and children. But the war needed women's participation as nurses, relief workers and secretaries as well.
For a third group of women, too, the Spanish Civil War presented new experiences. These were the foreign women who came to Spain. There were journalists, such as the American Martha Gellhorn, who began her career as a war correspondent there, and volunteers, like Nan Green, who left London for Spain to work as a medical administrator for the Republicans, or Thora Silverthorne from Wales, who nursed in operating theatres behind the Republican lines.
Sara Berenguer was 17 years old when the Spanish Civil War began. Her memoirs were published in 1988. She was the eldest of five children in a working-class family that lived in the Las Corts area of Barcelona. Her father was a labour militant who had been in prison for his activities. Sara herself had gone to school only until she was 12, and had then become a seamstress. She had also attended a few typing classes. But in 1936 her greatest pride was her electric sewing machine.
The first she heard of the national crisis was when she was walking down the street to go to the beach on 19 July, and someone said, 'The revolution has begun.' Her father did not return home on the 19th or 20th, and had a gun when he briefly returned on the 21st, to prepare for the Aragón front. He took Sara to the revolutionary committee that had been established in Las Corts, and told them, 'My daughter wants to take part in the revolution.' The revolution is what she continued to call it, and her comment about that first involvement explains her own attitude very well: 'From that night on, I began to serve the cause of liberty.' She did a little guard duty in the neighbourhood, and then worked typing out guard rotas.
It is interesting that she was quite unfazed by the violent anti-clericalism that seized Barcelona. She recounts simply how she and a friend went out of curiosity to check what had happened to churches and convents, and 'to see the exhumed bodies of nuns in their shrouds' that the revolutionaries had torn out of their tombs and displayed in the street. Perhaps the message in this bizarre act was that there was no place now for convents and their alleged evils, or just that the revolutionaries were no longer bound by the usual norms of respect for the dead or for anyone else. Whatever it was, it did not dismay her.
A young woman collecting for the Nationalist armies in Salamanca in March 1937. But even in Nationalist Spain, women found themselves involved in helping the war effort in ways that were much less traditional than the one shown here. (Topham Picturepoint)
Similarly, she recalls quite dispassionately how she occasionally went alone to the local morgue in the morning, to see the one or two 'dead fascists' brought in each day after the previous night's killings.
One of the committee leaders told her to join a union, meaning by this one of the unions affiliated to the revolutionary Anarchist CNT, which was very strong in Barcelona. So little did she know about politics that at first she joined the textile section of the Socialist UGT. Her political understanding rapidly became more advanced as she spent her evenings at a centre for Anarchist youth. Meanwhile, signs of the new proletarian style were evident. Her father wrote to her mother asking for some socks, and for the first time ever, addressed her with the Anarchist term compañera. Her mother also made Sara the obligatory blue overalls.
For a while, Sara worked in the revolutionary committee's child-care centre, which had been taken over from nuns, and in which a few nuns, now in secular dress, continued to work. But she soon moved on to become the committee's secretary, receiving the same pay as everyone in the militias, 10 pesetas a day. She also gave classes to children, and attended further evening classes in typing, paid for by the committee.
Within days, Sara's life had been changed beyond recognition. She likened the revolution to a burst of light, which showed women a way forward that had been closed to them. She got home very late from the Anarchist centre. Some of her younger siblings were out all the time too. Young men and women began to have gym sessions together. Sara found herself involved in discussions about whether being a free woman meant being a sexual libertarian. To the disappointment of some of her male companions, she thought not. Couples began coming to the revolutionary committee to get married and acquire a marriage certificate. Religious marriage ceremonies, of course, were no longer possible. Anyway, the people she knew all hated priests. But, although things had changed and free love was being widely preached, many still wanted their relationships formalised.
Harsher realities of the war soon bore in, with her father's death at the front in October 1936, the first bombing raids on Barcelona in February 1937 and then the May days of 1937, when Communists and others opposed to social revolution fought on the streets of Barcelona with the Anarchists and the POUM. The building where she worked was later bombed. Meanwhile, she was drawn to the Anarchist feminist association Mujeres Libres (Free Women) because she was so angry when she saw young men laughing at a poster advertising a woman speaker at a Mujeres Libres meeting. The main focus of her activities, however, became the Catalan section of International Anti-Fascist Solidarity, which concentrated on social assistance and supporting men at the front. With Solidarity, she visited the front several times, and worked in an ambulance helping a nurse after bombardments.
Sara noted the general loss of earlier enthusiasm as the war dragged on. The Anarchist Youth organisation was weak in 1938, because even very young men of 17 were called up to fight. Women and children who were refugees from fighting elsewhere lived in awful conditions in Barcelona and other Catalan cities and towns. Sara represented Solidarity at the farewell ceremony for the International Brigades in Barcelona on 15 November 1938. The Brigaders were given a hero's farewell at this last parade, not least in La Pasionaria's great valedictory speech, in which she declared, 'You are history. You are legend.' But the disbandment of the Brigades was another sign of how different things had become from the early months of enthusiasm.
At about the same time, Sara agreed to leave Solidarity for full-time work with Mujeres Libres, serving as Propaganda Secretary. She learned to give public talks, and to organise propaganda. But it was late for this. Barcelona fell to the Nationalists on 26 January 1939. Sara, like so many others, began the traipse to the frontier, and a lifetime of exile. The revolution had failed. She was still only 20 years old.
Maria Rosa Urraca Pastor was already a veteran of national politics when the Civil War began. She was a Margarita - that is, a member of the Carlist women's organisation - and was as completely committed to the Nationalists as Sara was to the Republic. Because Maria Rosa ended the war on the winning side, she was able to publish her war memoirs almost immediately. Her story could be told in Franco's Spain; Sara's could not.
Maria Rosa was Basque, but hated Basque Nationalism, and especially the decision of its leaders to side with the Republic in the war. In April 1931 she wept when the Second Republic was announced, and was soon involved in public demonstrations against its anti-clerical policies. She was fined the large sum of 500 pesetas in 1931 for promoting an unauthorised public meeting of women in the church of San Vicente, in Bilbao, to protest against the May church-burnings in Madrid. She became a skilled public speaker, and stood, unsuccessfully, for a seat in parliament at the general elections of November 1933.
Maria Rosa was obviously not a typical conservative woman. But she represents thousands of Spanish, middle-class women (her father was an army officer), who were politicised by the Second Republic. It is significant that before joining the Margaritas, she was involved in the women's section of Catholic Action, and that the 1931 protest was convened through Catholic Action, and took place in a church. The defence of religion and tradition was the central issue for many conservative women, who experienced the Republic as the imposition of an alien culture, in what Maria
Rosa herself called in a radio broadcast during the war, 'a shameful parenthesis'.
At the beginning of the Civil War, Maria Rosa went from Burgos to the Somosierra pass with the Nationalist forces, and spent a year at the front as a nurse. This was exceptional, a product of the first phase, when medical facilities were virtually nonexistent, and of her own determination. Other Margaritas, however, acted similarly if less dramatically as they took up work in hospitals, workshops and canteens. She left the Madrid area to accompany the Nationalist advance into her native Vizcaya, and was then appointed an administrator of the Nationalists' relief organisation, Aid to Fronts and Hospitals.
In her wartime talks and broadcasts, Maria Rosa argued that although she had been at the front, other women should not emulate her. She rejected the equality of the sexes, and argued that a woman's glory was to be a mother and the 'queen' of her own home. But she passionately wanted social justice for the poor, a classless society and national reconciliation after the war. The Franco regime espoused none of these.
Sara Berenguer and Maria Rosa Urraca Pastor were both exceptional women, but both also represented widely shared experiences of the Civil War. They knew its hardship and confusion. Their high ideals for a better society co-existed with dedication to political movements that were ruthless and vengeful. They belonged to different cultures and different value systems, and yet had much in common. Maria Rosa had worked to gain better conditions for female textile workers before the war. She and Sara both wanted better education for women. The fact that they were deeply committed to different sides, and that the victory of one was the tragedy of the other, is in microcosm the horror of the Spanish Civil War.
How the war ended
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