Reversals of fortune in the status of Spanish women

Researching al-Andalus, Deborah in Secrets of the Pomegranate was surprised by the freedoms women enjoyed in the society of Moorish Spain, compared to some Muslim countries today.

Conversely, she found rather more machismo than she’d expected in modern Spain. Deborah was not the kind of woman to submit to being told by a man what she could or could not do, so she was lucky to meet Paco, a rather more enlightened male. Her friend Kay admitted to being envious. Men like Paco, she commented to Alice, were “one in a million here in Spain: men who treat women as equals.” That may be an exaggeration but traditional views of women as subordinate have been slow to change.

The status of women in Spain has been subject to some dramatic swings in recent history. The Second Republic between 1931 and 1936 saw a sudden opening up of all kinds of freedom and opportunity, not least for women. The values of the Spanish Republic were freedom, progress and solidarity – and that included equality between men and women as well as between classes. The belief in education as a force to change society was key. In 1930, 32% of the population was illiterate and a million children out of the population of 23 million did not attend school at all. The Republic’s policies were based on the separation of Church and state so the new schools (nearly ten thousand in the first year or two of the Republic) were free, public and secular, depriving the Church of its privileged role not only in education but also in social organisation and culture. Co-education was another innovation that at the time seemed revolutionary. Discrimination between children born in and outside wedlock was not allowed. Civil marriage and divorce were introduced, with equal rights for men and women – no longer were females the weak sex, under the domination of their husbands. They could work in the same jobs as men for the same pay, play an active part in politics and trade unions and vote at the same age as men, twenty-three.

1931 constitution flag

The military coup led by Franco in July 1936 and the Civil War that followed put a swift end to all of that. After the fascist victory, women were restored to their previous status as inferior beings whose only social function was to bring up the children. They were considered in the same way as minors: they needed permission from their husbands to travel, apply for a passport, open a bank account or sign a contract. They were discouraged from working outside the home or studying at university in favour of devoting themselves to home and family. Divorce, contraception and abortion were forbidden, as was co-education.

women prisoners

While Deborah’s research focused on the Spain of the Moors, my own research for the next novel looks at more recent history, the Civil War and the post-war years from the 1930s on. In particular, I’ve been reading up on the theories of a certain psychiatrist, Antonio Vallejo-Nájera, given high status by the fascist regime. I don’t want to reveal too much about the plot of The Red Gene, my current work in progress. I’ll just say that his theories have given the title to my new novel.


According to him, order, discipline, personal sacrifice and punctiliousness  in service defined the Spanish race or spirit and in order to improve it, schools, universities, workplaces, cafes, theatres, all social spheres should be militarised. He believed that Marxism and mental inferiority were inextricably linked. Men were led to Marxism by low intelligence. A study he carried out on female prisoners of war, including International Brigaders, concluded that women participated in political disorder because it gave them the opportunity to satisfy their latent sexual appetites. Reasons for their high level of participation were found in their characteristic mental instability, poor resistance to outside influences and lack of control over their personalities. It was therefore essential that the Catholic religion impose strict rules in order to curb their ‘animal tendencies’.

“When the brakes that normally contain women in society disappear, it awakens in the female sex the instinct for cruelty, surpassing all imagined possibilities, by removing intelligent and logical inhibitions and giving way to feminine cruelty that is not satisfied with merely committing the crime but grows stronger in the execution of it.”


Re-education of Republican prisoners, both male and female was considered essential. He advocated separating children from their ‘red’ mothers as a preventive measure to avoid contaminating them with the evil of their mothers. In this way he justified forcibly taking babies from their mothers at birth. This would ensure that the Spanish race remained pure.

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