More Than Just Nurses: Women in the Spanish Civil War 1936-1939

Artice by Rob Russell, Edited by Ellie Veryard, Additional Research by Jack Barnes.

War is very often viewed as being the sole domain of men, from the films, history and quotations which surround us it is an almost inescapable concept. Whether it is Arthur Koestler stating ‘The most persistent sound which reverberates through men’s history is the beating of war drums’ or Heraclitus of Ephesus’ quotation that ‘War is father of all and king of all: some he shows as gods, others as men; some he makes slaves, others free’, few place women within the discourse of war. When they do, one still struggles to look beyond these women in traditional roles, such as the perceived view that their only involvement comes as nurses. Yet, in the Spanish Civil War an example exists where such narrow mindedness does not apply.

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The Ruins of Guernica, Spanish Civil War

Firstly, I must make it clear that I do not wish to criticise the undoubted number of women who worked tirelessly as nurses throughout history, instead I hope to show that women were and are more than capable of fulfilling other roles. One can even argue that in many respects Spanish women in the 1930s were not entirely equipped to be successful in the war time task thrust upon them. As throughout Spanish history the responsibility of nursing was that which was normally restricted to nuns, yet, the combined revolutionary and anti-clerical atmosphere of the time meant that this simply wasn’t feasible; this resulted in many untrained women filling in as nurses. As Orwell states in his personal account of the Spanish Civil War Homage to Catalonia, ‘Apparently there was no supply of trained nurses in Spain, perhaps because before the war this work was done chiefly by nuns.’ Thus, throughout the Civil War there was often a reliance on foreign medical volunteers who were better trained.

One area in which Spanish women did excel during the Civil War, in the Republican zone in particular was in Industry. As a precursor to British women’s involvement in the war effort during World War II, Spanish women frequently took the jobs of their husbands as they joined militias and the popular army. As a governmental decree from July 1936 shows, if men joined the militias they were encouraged to pass on their jobs to their families, thus enabling the Spanish war industry to continue. On the Francoist side, despite the conservative nature of Fascism, women were still heavily involved in the war, as can be seen in their active involvement, working in the emergency food facilities established for nationalist troops.

The role of women on anarchist run agrarian collectives, is a subject of much historical study. Despite the ongoing civil war, parts of Republican Spain in which there was wide spread anarchist support underwent something of a revolutionary change throughout the first year of the war, which subsequently resulted in the establishments of numerous collectives. These collectives were an attempt to establish a new agrarian society, where land was collectivised for the pueblo and land was seized from private land holders. Due to the equality at the heart of anarchist ideology, women on the collectives were given just as much responsibility as men, and were expected to work for the commune just as hard, thus, agricultural work was equally shared out amongst everyone. An article from a statute establishing an anarchist collective in Tamarite de Litera, Aragon, highlights this, as it states: ‘All members of the collective without sex discrimination will have to work from the age of fourteen to sixty…’

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Republican volunteers at Teruel 1938. Whilst male involvement in the Civil War is highly documented, women's contribution seems to have left little trace.

A final example of the role of women in the Spanish Civil War which challenges conceptions of their limited involvement in the throws of war is exemplified by Federica Montseny (1905-1994). Montseny was an anarchist intellectual, who built her name in the early parts of the civil war, making frequent visits to Madrid after the Republican Government had moved to Valencia in the face of the Nationalist siege of Madrid in November 1936. She then became the Minister of Health in November 1936 under the premiership of Largo Caballero, becoming both Spain’s and Western Europe’s first female cabinet minister. Montseny was instrumental in both her part in the war effort, and her role as one of the figureheads of Spanish anarchism, her influence can be seen in her attempts to call a ceasefire to the May Days which ravaged Barcelona 3-8th May 1937, as internal divisions within the Spanish left exploded into spontaneous street fighting.

This has hopefully highlighted the various roles which women played throughout the Spanish Civil War, and that contrary to many depictions of war it is something in which women can both equally contribute, and do so outside traditional gender perceived roles such as nurses.

  • Fought between July 1936 and April 1939 the Spanish Civil War left 500,000 dead with an additional 450,000 fleeing Spain. The war began after the Second Spanish Republic was challenged by the right-wing generals of Jose Sanjurjo.
  • During the war the Mujeres Libres (Free Women) was established by Lucia Sanchez Saornil, Mercedes Comaposada and Amparo Poch y Gaschon as a women’s anarchist organisation fighting for both women’s liberation and social revolution. They refused to call themselves feminists because of the term’s association with only conservative bourgeoisie women.
  • Frustrated by continued sexism in male anarchist groups the ML, unlike other female organisations, insisted on maintaining autonomy from male anarchist groups. Distrusting that social revolution would automatically bring women’s liberation the ML set about preparing women for the future. Flying day-care centres were set up to allow women more freedom to become involved in the group’s activities. Female newspapers and social groups were established to allow its 30,000 members a chance to communicate with other like-minded women and build confidence among themselves.

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