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Women of the Spanish Revolution (1 of 3)

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Published on Aug 31, 2007

In the response to the military insurrection of July 18, 1936 against the Republic there was a powerful element of spontaneity. Events overtook the parties and leaders, including the "leading militants" of the CNT-FAI (National Confederation of Labor, and the Spanish Anarchist Federation). Women played an active part. They were dominant in the response to the uprising and formed the backbone of resistance. They were present everywhere - on committees, in the militias, and on the front line. In the early battles of the civil war, women fought alongside men as a matter of course.

The Spanish Revolution in its first phase brought new possibilities for women, in the zones not taken over by the Nationalists, and an element of personal liberation for some. One group which attempted to get a libertarian perspective on the situation was Mujeres Libres (Free Women). By the end of September I936 it had seven Labor Sections - Transport, Public Services, Nursing, Clothing, Mobile Brigades for non-specialists, and brigades able to substitute for men needed in the war. The federation grew, organizing for women to make the maximum contribution to whatever practical work had to be done. Its members saw themselves as having an important educational function, working to emancipate women from the traditional passivity, ignorance and exploitation that enslaved them, and towards a real understanding between men and women, who would work together without excluding each other. They saw a need to awaken women to vital consciousness of their movement, and convince them that isolated and purely feminine activity was now impossible. They saw themselves as based on comprehensive human aspirations for emancipation, realizable only in social revolution, which would liberate women from the stagnation of mediocrity.

The Nationalist threat was forcibly present, providing at first a stimulus as well as menace to revolutionary action, as people took the fight against it into their own hands. The stand made for Madrid against the Nationalist army in early November 1936 renewed the spirit of the immediate response to the military rising, and again women played as great a part as in the first days of the war. A women's battalion fought before Segovia Bridge. At Gestafe, in the centre of the northern front, women were under fire all morning and were among the last to leave. In the retreat to Madrid, occasional militia women were to be seen - some more soldierly in appearance than the men, others neat, groomed and made-up.

Inside the city, women organized mass demonstrations, devised propaganda and slogans including the famous "No Paseran" ("They Shall Not Pass", accredited to La Pasionara), and built barricades, often with 'the help of children and sometimes under fire. Committees were set up based on districts, houses and blocks, for the provision of food, ammunition and communications. Women contributed actively to the defense, including anti-aircraft observation, and surveillance of fifth- column suspects. Their committees organized collective meals and laundry; the crèches and maternity homes set up between July and October carried on as best they could. Some have described the spread of House and Neighborhood Committees as amounting to a second Madrid Revolution, the basis of a genuine Commune.

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