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Women of the Spanish Revolution (2 of 3)

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Uploaded on Aug 31, 2007

As the initial revolutionary impetus slowed, and the forces on the Republican side geared themselves to the task of winning the war, the contribution made by women did not diminish, but became more supportive in character. By November, there were some militia-women still in the front rank, but their numbers were now few; they were more usually to be found as orderlies, cooking and washing behind the lines. To the external-causes of hardship were added the developing conflicts within the anti-fascist camp. The Communist Party, an insignificant group in Spanish politics at the start of the civil war, was extending its sphere of activity and tightening its hold on the Republican forces, backed by Russian military and political intervention. Women were a priority target, along with youth and cultural circles, when it came to making converts. Front organizations included the Union of Girls, Anti-Fascist Women, and the Union of Young Mothers.

A physical clash came in the Barcelona May Days, 1937, when an attack on the Telephone Exchange by government forces intent on "disarming the rearguard" provoked fierce resistance. Once again the value of libertarian-participation in government - for the government - was demonstrated. At a time when, after three days fighting, it has been estimated that libertarian comrades and the POUM controlled four-fifths of Barcelona, the CNT-FAI leaders were called in to cool the situation. Appeals from Mariano Vasquez, Secretary of the National Committee of the CNT, and Garcia Oliver, an anarchist Minister of Justice, failed to pacify the workers. Federica Montseny was then sent on behalf of the Valencia Government (it had moved from Madrid with the Nationalist advance) after troops had been withdrawn from the front to send to Barcelona if necessary. She had obtained the government's agreement that "these forces were not to be sent until such time as the Minister of Health should judge it necessary to do so," thus envisaging the possibility that an anarchist Minister might give the O.K. for troops to be used against the working class. The net result was confusion, demoralization, and concessions from the CNT side.

The "leading militants" seem to have taken the view that it was playing the enemy's game to give the Communist Party an excuse for attacking its opponents. Whether or not it needed an excuse, the fizzling out of the May Days' brief explosion enabled the CP to strengthen its position, forcing the anarchist Ministers into opposition and proscribing the POUM. Women were among its victims - those arrested included hospital nurses and wives of POUM members. Emma Goldman visited six female "politicals" in the women's prison, including Katia Landau, who urged anti-fascist prisoners to hunger strike and was herself released after two hunger strikes.

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