Images of Republican vs. Nationalist women during the Spanish Civil War: Have historians got it right?

Introduction

As Civil War fervently tore through Spain between 1936 and 1939, the image of women played very different roles. Several historians such as Frances Lannon, Judith Keene and Lesley Twomey vouch for the contrast between the image of women on the Nationalist and Republican sides of politics. However, research by Mary Nash suggests that this contrasting image of the Republican woman fighting for the feminist cause and the Nationalist one remaining at home is to be contested.

The Nationalists
The image of women on the Nationalist side of politics seems to have a clearer consensus amongst historians. The Nationalist woman was virtually invisible throughout society; there is no evidence to suggest that she mobilised for the war at all. Kenwood creates a very passive image of the Nationalist woman at the home front; she would stay home and embroider while she waited for her man to return home. According to Mary Vincent family was of utmost importance for the Nationalists, at the forefront was the man. His responsibility was to demonstrate his ‘manliness’ throughout the war. Therefore the Nationalists followed a very patriarchal structure where their women experienced suppression and control at the hands of the ‘dominant’ men of Spanish society. The Nationalists had a view of Republican woman similar to the one some historians have today, as agents of revolution. As Franco’s troops covered more territory across Spain the Republican woman was depicted in a very negative light. She became known as the “Red whore” because a small number of them had been known to support sexual liberation which contrasted drastically with the Catholic influence that dominated the Nationalist side. As a result according to Preston, the Republican women suffered immense cruelties at the hands of the Nationalists; their goods were confiscated, they were executed, “they were dragged through the streets with shaven heads and forced to ingest castor oil so they would soil themselves in public”. These atrocities were acted out in the name of the Francoist concept of redemption and this may be the reason so many historians have such a fierce representation of the Republican woman as an agent of revolution. The Nationalists themselves painted this picture during the war and at the end of the war when Franco established his dictatorship all the memoirs and writings by Republican women were supressed until the death of Franco in 1975. Therefore the Nationalist view of the Republican woman was the only one available to historians for a long period of time.

Nationalist Femininity depicted by Saenz de Tejada
The Republicans

A selection of historians including Magnini, Esenwein and Nash have recognised that the Republican side in terms of the image of women and the role they played was extremely divided. Amongst this research similarities can be drawn between the Nationalist and the Republican beliefs which question the contrasting image those other historians such Lannon have provided. The image of the aggressive, revolutionary woman was one that existed in the early years of the war according to Nash and these images were actually designed to pressure the Republican men to enlist in the war rather than to encourage women to take part. The maternal image was used very differently to the Nationalist side as it was used to draw women to female organisations such as the Agrupacion de Mujeres Antifascistas which were forming in the name of the anti-fascist cause. As a result women amongst the Republican side were much more visible than their Nationalist counterparts, they had a role in the war but it wasn’t the revolutionary one that many vouched for, they simply united in an anti-fascist cause with the exception of one organisation. The Mujeres Libres association was the only female organisation with a goal of female liberation and therefore the term “agents of revolution” is a term most relevant for them. However, this was only one of many female organisations and one that never received any political recognition on the Republican side due to their so called ineptitude. Therefore male dominance is still evident amongst the Republican left and this is supported by the primary sources available. This poster released by the Spanish Communist Party reminds women that the food they are growing on the fields feeds their men at battle. Her shadow is depicted by a soldier; therefore her responsibility is to him which sounds very similar to the situation on the Nationalist side. The patriarchal belief in male dominance also existed amongst the Republican side as major female leaders such as Dolores Ibarruri encouraged women to commit to being a mother. The main difference between the women on the Nationalist and Republican sides is their visibility. The Republican woman had more of a role in the war even if it was in the name of the anti-fascist cause, their presence is evident. On the nationalist side the women are a silent, maternal face hidden behind closed doors.

Source: Fergui. Communist propaganda poster for farm women. Posters of the Spanish Civil War. Southworth Collection. University of California at San Diego.
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One comment on “Images of Republican vs. Nationalist women during the Spanish Civil War: Have historians got it right?

  1. narmadanatkunaratnam says:

    This is a very interesting read. It was a topic that i had no knowledge about but through your work was able to learn a lot. In your post i liked how you contrasted the two representations of women during the Spanish Civil War. By doing this it makes it easier to understand the individual roles that nationalist women and republican women played. Also once the roles are understood you are able to contrast them within your mind. Once again a very interesting and informative post.

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