By Elizabeth Franklin Lewis, University of Mary Washington, January, 2015.
We have seen how Concepcion Arenal dominated nineteenth-century women’s charity, and how in her Voz de la Caridad it became an issue of national and international social importance to women and to men. Arenal’s influence continued well into the twentieth century, when charity and social action took on special political significance for women, both progressive and conservative.
Some feminist leaders during Spain’s Second Republic criticized women’s charity of previous generations. For Margarita Nelken, although their charitable activities demonstrated women’s leadership potential, it did not represent the new society that she and other socialists envisioned. In the chapter “El socialismo y la negación del voto” (Socialism and the Denial of the Vote) from her 1931 La mujer ante las cortes constituyentes (Woman and the Constituent Assembly), she speaks to the idea that women’s charitable work prove them fit them for civic leadership:
Existe un campo de actividad, cuyo privilegio no ha sido nunca regateado a la mujer y que es, por consiguiente, la mejor piedra de toque para la capacidad del feminismo: la beneficencia. Hay muchas probabilidades que una mujer que ha sabido organizar y administrar una gran obra benéfica, sepa también intervenir por lo menos en asuntos municipales.
There exists an area of activity, which has always been relegated to women, and is, therefore,the best proof of the capacity of feminism: beneficence. It is likely that a woman who has been able to organize and administrate a large project of charity would also be able to participate in civic matters. (27)
Although women’s charitable work might show a “capacity for feminism” as she calls it, it also comes with too many strings attached, namely that faith-based charity chooses its recipients based on moral or religious values of the past. Nelken sees charity as a outdated system for addressing social ills, and at odds with the future of a socialist Spain. In turn, women’s charitable social work does not convince Nelken that women in Spain are ready for universal suffrage:
Mas al concederse hoy una libertad tan decisiva, tan “determinante” como el voto femenino, no puede tampoco concederse sobre la base de una realidad futura, sino de una realidad ya probada y existente”
Rather by conceding today such a decisive freedom, so “determining” as is giving women the vote, it cannot be conceded on the basis of some future reality, but rather on a reality that is already proven and existent (29-30).
Other women leaders of her generation, while agreeing with Nelken about the possible dangers of women’s suffrage in Second Republic Spain, also emulated previous generations of women’s work in society. Our 20th century exhibit begins with Victoria Kent who, like Concepción Arenal in the previous century, and the Asociación de Señoras during the late Enlightenment, also worked for reform of women’s prisons and the rights of women prisoners and their children housed in them. The image of Kent’s social and political activism appeared frequently in magazines of the period, which portrayed her as a model for the Spanish modern woman. Other women also spoke out for social action through popular periodical publications. For example, interest in children’s health and education, a topic also traceable to the eighteenth century, can be observed in articles published in the progressive women’s magazine Mundo femenino. In the debate over women’s suffrage, these women, and the men who supported them, saw women’s active social role during Spain’s progressive Second Republic tied to their political role.
On the conservative side, during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and the early years of the Franco dictatorship that followed, women’s active participation in solving social ills and alleviating suffering was promoted in the numerous publications by the fascist Sección Femenina de la Falange (Women’s Section of the Falange) The images found in the women’s magazine Y and the representative contents cataloged in a database of 1941-1945 issues of Medina–both publications the Sección Femenina–encouraged women’s charitable work to improve children’s health and education, to support the war effort, and later to care for wounded Nationalist soldiers. All of the actions of the Sección Femenina served to further Franco’s reactionary political agenda, even while it asserted an active role for women in it, albeit in within the limits of accepted gender norms. For the women of the Falange, their role was to support male politics with work deemed appropriate to their sex, and not to challenge male authority–something reminiscent of the eighteenth-century controversies that led to the creation of the Junta de Damas.
Two recent productions linked at the end of our twentieth century exhibit–a 2012 exhibition in Madrid tracing 100 years of women´s history, and a 2006 documentary film about the Sección Femenina–give an overview of both women´s progressive politics and women´s part in the early years of the Spanish fascism.