New Hope for Disempowered Women

New Hope for Disempowered Women under Authoritarian Régimes: The Spanish Experience (1960-2000)

Brian Steel

Copyright © 2007 Brian Steel


Detecting a glimmer of potentially valid extrapolations from a forty-year old essay has prompted me to re-issue it with this Introduction. The essay reproduced below was written in 1967 as a background paper for a number of women’s Extramural Discussion Groups in rural New South Wales. It describes the disempowered status of Spanish women during the major part of the Franco dictatorship which followed the 1936-1939 Civil War. Also mentioned are a few emerging signs of small changes to a status quo supported and enforced by the dominant political and religious powers. What is not mentioned and could not be predicted by those who lived through that period of recent Spanish history (including journalists and social commentators) was the speed and scope of the political, social and economic transformations which would follow the death of General Franco in 1975.

The changes in the status and role of Spanish women over the past thirty to forty years are so profound that much of what is described in this 1967 survey is no longer true. Moreover, the present generation of Spaniards (of both sexes) will find some of the facts astonishing or exaggerated – which is why revisiting this subject at this difficult moment in history may prove to be a salutory and enlightening experience.

The Spain of 2007 is an affluent, vibrant European country which attracts many millions of world tourists every year and is the subject of intense media attention and fascination, especially for its special cultural phenomena. Like other developed countries it has its share of internationally known celebrities (notably in sports, cinema, music and fashion). Spain also has a simpatico and down to earth Royal Family.

Like their Western sisters, Spanish women enjoy varying degrees of freedom and equality with men, as can be glimpsed in the internationally popular films of Pedro Almodóvar, the acclaimed director and one-time enfant terrible. Spanish women of today are to be found in positions of high responsibility and authority in national and local politics, in the Public Service, the professions, management, commerce, health, medicine, law (including the police), education and the armed forces. These advances put them on a par with women in countries of similar contemporary status, where, forty years ago, the status of women was somewhat more advanced, as reformers and social commentators have recorded in their chronicles of the Feminist Movement of the 1960s.

The surprise of today’s grown up grandchildren on learning of the conditions of the 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s from their grandmothers, from books or sociology courses is much greater in Spain than elsewhere precisely because the path has been longer and more tortuous, due to a series of historical and cultural factors. In this aspect as in many others, today’s Spain is a different planet and its younger inhabitants are almost a different species.

What encouraged me to re-examine and re-offer these personal memories to a much wider public was precisely that perceptuion of such an unthinkable change in the space of 50 years (1950-2000). In today’s uneasy atmosphere of suspicion between ethnic groups and the fear of future clashes between populations predicted and so heavily promoted by the media and politicians, the reality of the socio-cultural abyss which separates Spanish women of 1940-1960 from their twenty first century descendants, and which was not forecast or even imagined by the media forty years ago, may encourage people to be slightly more optimistic about the development of human and international relations in the next forty years. In particular, long term media predictions about the continuing plight of Muslim women, which tend to present overwhelmingly negative scenarios, may well turn out to be based on false premises and expectations, for example, the central assumption that the power of authoritarian régimes and religions are immutable. This is surely an auspicious possibility for women in some of the countries where their current situation is as bad as or worse than that of their Spanish sisters of the mid-twentieth century.

The Status and Role of Women in Spain circa 1960

At the end of the Second World War, there was a wide gulf between the political, economic and social systems of English-speaking countries and those of post-Civil War Spain. Firstly, there was a much sharper contrast between conditions in urban and rural communities. Rural areas in Spain were more backward than towns and cities and preserve even today customs and att­itudes which have disappeared from the urban areas. In subsequent references to Spanish women, I shall be referring mainly to those in urban areas, although many of the observations are also applicable to rural Spain.


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