It would be hard to consider the Spanish women’s movement independently of recent events in Spanish politics.footnote The death of General Franco in 1975, the gradual dismantling of the authoritarian system imposed on the country after the Civil War, together with the rapid rise to power of the Socialist Party, psoe, all exercised a crucial influence on the way the movement evolved, shaping its achievements and failures. Therefore it will be fruitful to study the women’s movement from the point of view of its involvement in the political life of the country and its specific contribution to the democratization of society. This is not to overlook other approaches. An analysis of the nature of Spanish patriarchy, with its particular form of gender domination, and of the characteristics of Spanish capitalism, could also be used to explain the evolution of the movement. The situation of Spanish women is certainly also conditioned by the country’s level of economic development and the prevalent culture of feminine acquiescence and self-sacrifice. A third possibility would be to view Spanish feminism as part of the wider international women’s movement which has its own time and rhythm of development—that is, in terms of its share in the history of twentieth-century women’s liberation. Simply, at this relatively early stage of research and reflection on the Spanish movement, a political account is a necessary first step. It also best reflects my own experience as a member for five years of the psoe women’s caucus Mujer y Socialismo.

This ascendancy of national political factors can be traced back to the last years of the dictatorship. The existence of a regime which denied citizens the right to virtually all forms of meeting and association made it much more difficult for the ideas and actions launched by women in other parts of Europe and North America to catch on in Spain. Indeed, the clandestine origins of the movement; scattered with experiences of fear and secrecy, meetings broken up by the police, detention, court cases and even exile,footnote1 probably make it unique in Europe.

Although the first meetings of women to discuss the situation of women date back to the late sixties, these were few and far between. They were concerned with both consciousness-raising and the need for women to carry on a separate political struggle.footnote2 But the bulk of the efforts at organizing women in those days and throughout the first half of the seventies were not inspired by feminism or an understanding of gender conflict. They were designed to bring women who were not part of the labour movement into the anti-Franco struggle at the level of their neighbourhood. Such activities were chiefly organized by the Movimiento Democrático de Mujeres (mdm), one of the mass fronts of the illegal Communist Party, and mainly reflected the pce’s belief that food prices, the need for a pedestrian crossing, or solidarity with their persecuted menfolk, were the only issues on which housewives could be mobilized.

Yet the ideas of women’s liberation gradually took root, and in 1975, International Women’s Year, the United Nations call for non-governmental organizations to take action over sex discrimination encouraged and to a certain extent protected the already emergent Spanish movement. This was also an eventful year in Spanish politics: there was an upsurge of activity by the illegal opposition parties and trade unions, particularly Comisiones Obreras, with widespread protests and strikes; and General Franco, having refused to reprieve five activists under sentence of death despite an international outcry, went into the terminal phase of his illness. Two weeks after his death, the women’s movement held its first national conference in Madrid, in an atmosphere tingling with political excitement, heightened by the new king’s announcement the day before of a pardon for certain political prisoners and by the urgent feeling that reform could be achieved if the opposition and the labour movement played its cards right and acted with strength and unity.

The situation for the women’s movement was by no means easy, since the opposition parties of the Left now tried to control it with arguments about political priorities, backed up by dogmatic analyses that women’s liberation was a deviation from the more urgent task of building democracy and socialism.footnote3 Most feminists were sensitive to the fact that without a complete overhaul and renewal of the political system, the deeply engrained structures of sex discrimination would not begin to be eradicated. Their outlook was very political.footnote4 Nevertheless, they struggled to establish themselves virtually as an opposition within the opposition, in argument against the Left’s entrenched theoretical notions and paternalist practice.footnote5 At its worst this attitude implied that only working women or the wives of workers were deserving enough to be brought out of the cold of their marginal existence into the sunnier climes of men’s world, the rest being considered too backward, or too bourgeois. Debate in this pre-democratic period therefore centred on the notion of the specificity of women’s oppression, over and above the division of class, and on the need for an autonomous organization independent of the political parties.footnote6 Within the women’s movement itself, the discussion went further and opinions divided over the question of doble militancia, of whether women should spend their time being activists in a political party as well as in a women’s group, or whether they should devote their energies exclusively to the latter, a position defended by the more radical feminists and those who argued that women were an exploited class.

In their fight for political legitimacy, feminists were further undermined by the difficulty of drawing on two potential sources of conceptual support. On the one hand, Spanish feminism had had a fairly unremarkable history. In its first stage it had been a subdued phenomenon in which conservative women, liberal men and the Catholic Church played rather too prominent a part. There had been no epoch-making suffragette movement, a fact not unconnected with the country’s turbulent political life which excluded most forms of suffrage for long periods.footnote7 It was not that women’s struggles had no history but that they shared it almost entirely with men. The past which women could relate to was the same as that of the male left and the labour movement: the change of political system represented by the Second Republic, between 1931 and the end of the Civil War. But the gains for women at that time—suffrage, constitutional equality, better education and more jobs, the right to divorce and even abortion—were the outcome of battles between male-dominated parties of right and left rather than of the pressure of a powerful women’s movement.footnote8 They were also extremely short-lived, for Franco abolished them all in favour of a sex-role ideology that reflected the most philistine aspect of the traditional Catholicism with which the new authoritarian state was imbued.

Secondly, the new feminism was not backed by a democratic culture sympathetic on principle to the notion of equal rights. No current of liberal or bourgeois feminism had survived the dark ages of dictatorship, so that the ideas of feminism fell on almost virgin soil and sounded more radical than they really were.footnote9 In this way, the movement emerged solely from the political traditions of the Left, from whose analytical framework and type of practice it began to take a critical distance. The risk of isolation was considerable. Most early feminists were members, ex-members or sympathizers of one or other of the left parties, from the democratic-socialist psoe to the armed separatist eta, which still constituted a minority force in Spanish politics.footnote10 They were also part of what is known as la progresía —the progressive set which considered itself modern, open-minded and sexually tolerant. A double minority, Spanish feminists were initially at the opposite end of the political and cultural spectrum to the bulk of Spanish women, who were even less experienced, politically conscious and able to be mobilized than the average male.footnote11