Some believe that religious institutions discourage women from political participation. But on the contrary, history has shown that religion is also able to open doors for women. This is especially true in right-wing movements, and, in particular, the Spanish fascist movement of the mid 20th century. Professing fervent devotion to traditional Catholic notions of women's sacrifice and obedience to men, Spanish fascist women came to hold incredible power and realize their chief mission: champion social justice in the Spanish society.
Manel Rovira de Vilobí del Penedès (Cataluña)
Women of Sección Femenina of the Falange parade on the streets of Guardiola, Spain.
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City Hall of La Bisbal del Penedès
Women of Sección Feminina of Bisbal del Penedès pose in company of the founder Pilar Primo de Rivera. Pilar is in font-center, holding a purse.
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Organizing themselves in 1934 as Sección Femenina (Women's Section) of the political party Falange Española, fascist Spanish women became a formidable political force that boasted 680,000 members.
From 1939, until the death of Spain's dictator Francisco Franco in 1975, the Sección Femenina became the sole state organization with authority over women. During their decades-long reign, they built a "massive organization through which almost every female in Spain--willingly or unwillingly--was eventually channeled," says Historian Victoria L. Enders.
The Sección Femenina (SF) was the women's branch of the Spanish fascist party Falange Española. The party was founded in 1933 by José Antonio Primo de Rivera, the eldest son of the former Spanish dictator General Miguel Primo de Rivera. SF, in turn, was founded by José Antonio's younger sister Pilar Primo de Rivera.
José Antonio extolled fascist ideals such as the Catholic religion, family, nation, and most important, Spanish imperialism. But he equally embraced socialist principals such as workers' rights, labor unions, anti-capitalism and social equality and justice.
Falange never became a mainstream political party and in 1939 it was absorbed into Franco's right-wing umbrella party Falange Española Tradicionalista. However, Falange's Women's Section remained independent and became one of the most highly organized, mass women's organization in Spanish history. Why did women feverishly join the SF ranks when the all-male Falange boasted a much less flattering head count?
Historian Victoria L. Enders offers one possible answer. Falange women leaders she interviewed between 1987 and 1991 told her that they were, above all, attracted to the party's hybrid ideology. For the first time, religious Spanish women encountered a political party that allowed them to combine their faith with their desire to affect social change.
One of the original leaders of the SF, Concha, explained: "We weren't of the right, but neither were we communists. So it was necessary to search for balance: to take the good part of communism, the sense of social program, as well as the good part of the right, with its sense of patria, of religion, of the family, and of the tradition. Of course, it was about uniting the two things."
Pilar Primo de Rivera sensed the religious women's pent-up desire to participate in re-building Spain and she gave them an outlet. One early adherent, interviewed by Victoria Enders, explains the women's itch to participate in something larger than themselves: "All the women, even those who had not done anything, were full of enthusiasm, of the necessity of doing something, of contributing, sacrificing, of whatever was needed." To this woman, taking part in Sección Femenina was "so exciting, so exciting to be at the service of Spain. To establish social justice was an obsession."
From the onset, the women's main concern was establishing social justice in post-Civil War Spain. In 1939, after three years of fighting, the country's infrastructure was left in shambles, poverty was rampant and social assistance non-existent. The SF created Auxilio Social, a nonpolitical social-assistance organization that provided food, clothing and shelter to widows, orphans and the poor. They taught mixed farming and alimentation classes to farmers. They organized a mass campaign of vaccination and inoculated more than 1.5 million children.
Although the SF women's main mission was social justice, they are largely known, and criticized, for their adherence to the traditional principles of the Catholic Church. They were self-professed anti-feminists who took to heart José Antonio's directive that women should not be feminists but feminine. During their forty-year reign they tried to shape Spanish women into their model of the ideal woman: a Catholic, dedicated, self-sacrificing mother and obedient wife.
Records of Pilar arguing for women's quiet sacrifice and subordination to men abound. She is quoted saying that "the true duty of women to the Patria is to form families...in which they foster all that is traditional...What we will never do is put ourselves in competition with men because we will never attain equality with them and instead will lose all the elegance and all the grace indispensable for harmonious living together."
Although modern-day Spanish feminists have accused them of setting Spanish women back by promoting notions of women's inferiority and subordination to men, women of Sección Femenina believed they created a new, highly esteemed Spanish woman. The fascist society, they argued, considered women an indispensable and venerated part of the society. Women's centuries-long role as mothers and wives was finally appreciated and respected. As a result, they disagreed that the Catholic perception of women as humble wives and mothers was regressive or repressive. Quite the contrary; it was empowering, says Concha, an SF leader:
"In the Sección Femenina the old taboos, or all these prejudices, were broken. A new woman emerged; brave, open, free, but with a great concept of religion, of the patria, of duty. Then that mixture formed us. The Sección Femenina formed us, all of us who passed through."
The death of Francisco Franco in 1975 brought an end to fascism and, consequently, to Sección Femenina's influence. Before exiting the political scene, however, the SF helped bring about an important victory for women: In 1961 they helped pass a law that insured equality between men and women in the political, professional and economic spheres.