This article appears in issue 37: Oppression and Resistance

The upheaval of the Spanish political sphere in the 1930s saw the emergence of two opposing women’s movements—the nationalist Sección Femenina (Female Section) and the anarcho-syndicalist Mujeres Libres (Free Women)—the aims of which varied immensely. 

Formed in 1934 and amalgamated with The Falange Española de las JONS Party under the 1937 Unification Decree, the Sección Femenina became the official women’s political movement of Francoist Spain. The movement grew in popularity, amassing an estimated membership of 580,000 women by 1939. During the 1936-39 civil war, members of the Sección Femenina took up wartime roles such as hospital work, and many were later decorated with the Recompensas ‘Y’ (Reward ‘Y’) in recognition of their efforts. 

After the war, the Sección Femenina quickly became a vital tool in the reconstruction of the Nuevo Estado (New State). The Franco regime intended to return Spain’s former pre-republican, patriarchal society by reconstructing a conservative Catholic nation. The women of the Sección Femenina became ambassadors for such a reformation and the movement became central to the readoption of strict conservative gender codes. Through the establishment of education programs, welfare centres, social campaigns and even the use of folklore, the Sección Femenina was essential to the “political indoctrination of women,” as is argued by historian Stanley G. Payne. 

In stark contrast, the anarcho-feminist Mujeres Libres sought to break women from their subordinated societal positions. Established in 1936, over the course of the civil war the movement is speculated to have attracted between 20,000 and 60,000 women. The Mujeres Libres aimed to enlighten, empower, and mobilise Spanish women, particularly those within the anarchist movement. 

Unlike the women of the Sección Femenina, at the outbreak of war women of the Mujeres Libres movement joined militias, and took up arms. Even on the anarchist front however, women were discouraged from joining the political sphere, often finding themselves in menial roles within the militias. Faced with slogans such as, “Men to the front, women on the home front,” the Mujeres Libres challenged the contradictions within the anarchist movement surrounding the roles of women and sought to oppose such marginalisation. 

Like the falangist Sección Femenina, the Mujeres Libres opted to utilise programs of education to pursue their cause. However, while the Sección Femenina used education to entrench gender roles and feminine domesticity, the women of the Mujeres Libres recognised that education, “job readiness” and “consciousness raising” could empower women. Historian Martha Ackelsberg argues that by educating women on topics such as birth control and motherhood while helping women to improve their literacy, women could break from the confines of their domestic roles. 

Despite using similar approaches to meet their aims, these analogous women’s movements were diametrically opposed. The Sección Femenina served throughout the Franco era to entrench ideals of feminine domesticity while the Mujeres Libres advocated female empowerment and liberation.

By Elysia Heitmar

Image: via barcelona.cat