For almost 40 years, throughout the Franco dictatorship, the Sección Femenina was the organisation in charge of controlling Spanish women. Every aspect of women’s lives were politicised in order to promote ideal femininity centred around motherhood and domesticity. This article will explore to what extent the Sección Femenina contributed to the creation of these gendered ideals, and to what extent these ideals were disempowering. 

The Sección Femenina was founded in 1934 in Spain, and they represented the women’s branch of the Falange political movement. Under the 1937 Unification Decree and the formation of a single-party state (FET y de las JONS), the Sección Femenina became the official women’s political movement of Francoist Spain. Thus, the Sección Femenina was responsible for defining womanhood, and gained popularity in the years 1936 to 1939, due to the Nationalist’s desire to restore society to how it was pre-Republic.

These ideals were centred around Catholic values, which created strict societal roles for women. The values began with the idea of the perfect family, so preparing women to become mothers was one of the key aspects of the Sección Femenina. The organisation did this by promoting domestic values through visual imagery, such as the constant repetition of images of Saint Teresa who represented religious devotion and female subjugation to eternal life as a mother figure. In fact, St. Teresa was the Sección Femenina’s patron Saint.

However, it could be argued that the images of St. Teresa also promoted intellectual independence, as she was an author of spiritual writings and poems, founding numerous convents throughout Spain to encourage religious education. Significantly, women were not left out of education in Francoist Spain, they were actively encouraged to partake in higher education to fulfil an individual duty to the State and its agenda. Furthermore, the image of Queen Isabel I as a role model for the Sección Femenina, showed women that they could be activists as well as wives and mothers as part of their Catholic destiny, an idea argued by historian Inbal Ofer. Isabel became an emblem for the Sección Femenina’s monthly journal, through the decorated images of the letter ‘Y’ to represent her initials. Through this, it could be said that the Sección Femenina was not entirely disempowering for Spanish women, as they promoted education and independence, yet within religious constraints.

This paradox between political independence and domestic motherhood is further exemplified through the Sección Femenina’s leader, Pilar Primo de Rivera. Pilar was the sister of the founder of the Falange Espanola, reflecting her familial political background. Despite her life as an independent woman, childless and unmarried, she placed motherhood and traditional submissive roles in the family at the forefront of the Sección Femenina’s ideals, and in her own words, asked women to “not pretend to be equal to men”.

Pilar argued that service to the State was the most important thing a woman could do, and this directly mirrored orders from Franco himself to reconstruct the Fatherland. An example of service to the Fatherland is seen through the formation of the Escuela Superior de Formación de la Sección Femenina (a school) in the Castillo de la Mota. In this school, women and young girls were trained in hygiene, embroidery, cooking, singing patriotic hymns, and saying prayers. Interestingly, women needed to complete the Sección Femenina’s social service program to get a passport, or driver’s licence, gain educational titles, or join an association. Examples of acts of social service consisted of engaging in activities at children’s canteens, workshops, or hospitals, and participating in physical activity like gymnastics or approved women’s sports. There could be no independence outside of the Francoist ideology because they created no space for it; women could only achieve independence through the acts of quintessentially domestic services. Even the space itself, the Castillo de la Mota, trapped women in this Catholic ideal, through its historic past with Catholic monarchs and their prevailing iconography.

In May 1946, the Sección Femenina began a weekly radio program that was an hour long and aimed to focus on female writers. This provides evidence for an innate understanding within the organisation that women could reach the same educational potential as men and had the power to promote cultural and political change. Unfortunately, most of their interviews focused on state goals, reinforcing women’s roles as wives and mothers rather than emphasising their capacity to be creative, independent writers.

During the 1950s, the Sección Femenina began to lose prominence, as there was less need for producing propaganda and more need for workers to contribute to the struggling economy. They maintained some prominence, but only in sectors of women’s education and social welfare of the state; both reiterating the very domestic features they promoted from their origin. However, in 1968, they played a key role in passing the law that allowed married women to vote and run in local elections.

The Sección Femenina was formally dissolved in 1977, two years after the death of Franco. As this article has highlighted, the paradoxical nature of the Sección Femenina meant that the policies they promoted created a feminine ideal which subjugated women to ideas of motherhood and domestic wives. However, there is some evidence of an understanding within the organisation that women did have the same capacity as men, but these ideas could not turn into action within a state that was so tightly controlled by religious ideals.