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"I can fight as well as any Man": Problematic Feminism in the Spanish Civil War

Parisa Hashempour


Women pleading with Nationalist forces, Seville, 1936.
Women pleading with Nationalist forces, Seville, 1936.

When the civil war broke out in 1930s Spain, British artist and sculptor, Felicia Browne, was determined to participate in the fighting and famously told a Daily Express correspondent, “I can fight as well as any man.” She was the first and only British woman to die in the conflict, embodying the fearless determination with which many women travelled into the warzone with a readiness to lay down their lives. A desire for equality of the sexes underpinned the ideologies of many women volunteers. While a number claimed to have no political inclination or reason for entering the conflict beyond religion or humanitarianism, those that did were often also fuelled by the feminist sentiments spreading across the continents at that time. In the decades prior, suffragettes across the English-speaking world had secured White women the right to vote. In the fight against fascism, women were given the opportunity to head into the belly of the beast and tackle the patriarchy head-on. However, this drive to feel empowered often manifested in a problematic way. Foreign women in Spain felt superior to their Spanish counterparts and consequently their writing in memoirs, letters and diaries took a sometimes uncomfortable tone. Through claiming their own power as women, did they serve to disempower their European neighbours?

Enlisting in the Spanish Civil War - including a female volunteer (front)
Enlisting in the Spanish Civil War - including a female volunteer (front)

Academics, journalists and public commentators alike have marvelled at the obstacles overcome by those who left the relative comfort and safety of their home countries in order to migrate into the conflict zone. The motivations, like people themselves, are multifarious. While there have been great efforts to explore the distinct motivations of men and women separately, the resulting research shows that by-and-large, regardless of gender, the people that join foreign wars share many of the same incentives. Many are imbued with strong ideological or spiritual beliefs; some are unsatisfied with life in their home countries and crave a sense of meaning and purpose. In other cases, volunteers simply have a thirst for adventure - and even a propensity for violence. The Spanish war was drawn-out and complex, used by Europe’s dictators to test out their ugliest weaponry. Exacerbated by volunteers like Felicia from around the world, it ultimately resulted in an incalculable loss, the resultant death toll of which is still debated today. Around 1,000 native women volunteered to serve on the military front on the Republican side of the war and thousands of men and women travelled from abroad to participate too. While some foreign women like Dutch Fanny Schoonheyt (famously dubbed ‘queen of the machine gun’) took up arms, most did not. The vast majority of foreign women assisted in hospitals, helped refugees, produced and distributed propaganda and became involved in operational and support capacities. At first glance, they might be seen as sticking quite firmly to the roles afforded them by their gender. But in fact, their very presence in this male-dominated space of war was a move to usurp their assigned position in society.

Fanny Schooneyt ‘Queen of the Machine Gun’ - By Agustí Centelles. Spain, Ministry of Culture, Centro Documental de la Memoria Histórica, Archivo Centelles.
Fanny Schooneyt ‘Queen of the Machine Gun’ - By Agustí Centelles. Spain, Ministry of Culture, Centro Documental de la Memoria Histórica, Archivo Centelles.

One such woman was Mary Low. A young, Australian writer who on a hot humid day in 1936, boarded a train at a station in Paris. Followed closely by her travelling companion, the surrealist poet, Trotskyist (and her soon-to-be husband José Brea), Mary recalled the thrill, “I felt as if there was a trail of excitement, like gunpowder, running through from one carriage to another.” The pair were headed to Barcelona, inching closer to the civil conflict that was tearing the country apart. Much like her comrade, Felicia Browne, Mary held a staunch belief in furthering the cause of women’s rights. In her book, Red Spanish Notebook: The First Six Months of the Revolution and the Civil War, she was eager to note how she was as equipped as any man to fight the war against fascism. When told that women should not fight on the front she scoffed, “Why? Don’t you think we’re capable? Not brave enough?” In the same way that the war in Spain was a proxy war between communist and fascist European forces, so too was it a proxy war for Mary and her peers to fight against patriarchal control. In defiance of gender norms, Mary and women like her travelled to Spain, determined to prove their own power. But in doing so, served to undermine the very women they had come to assist. Rather than a mission of helping, Mary’s and others was a mission of teaching and saving. If Mary was an empowered 20th-century woman, the women of Spain were the disempowered other. “The Spanish women were anxious to grab their liberty, but they had been closed up and corseted so long that they didn’t know how much of it there was to be had,” she wrote.

This attitude is apparent across written sources detailing Anglophone women’s involvement in the war. Throughout the civil war, Mary assisted in welfare work. In her memoir, she describes her experiences helping to educate Spanish women saying, “Hundreds of women came every day to attend classes on socialism, child welfare, French, hygiene, women’s rights, the origin of the religious and family sense, and to knit and sew and make flags and discuss, and read books. It was a great success. One had to begin from the first steps, like with young children.” Her equation to the women as children delivers an uncomfortable tone to her reminiscence. Mary spent a great deal of time convincing the men in Spain that her uniform was as serious as theirs and yet when giving uniform to the Spanish women she describes how “They were so glad and gay and seemed like children... they skipped on the hard pavement and played little girls games.” This equation of women to children or helpless, hopeless creatures is scattered throughout historical sources. Women from the anglophone world played the role of saviour, they were strong and brave for the Spanish women who needed them. Rose Freed was from a Jewish family on the East Side of New York. In 1937, she packed her bag and joined the first American hospital unit headed out to Spain. In letters home she wrote, “I ran into the hospital only to find some of the Spanish enfermas [nurses] in hysterics. They could not be blamed, they who so many times have been terrorized by the lousy tactics of the fascists.” While they could not be blamed, their hysterical demeanour seems to her, to represent weakness. By comparison she describes her own behaviour, “what did it matter - our lives to be sacrificed for so many that they may continue to live in peace… They [the Spanish nurses] clung to me with an almost deadly grip, kissed me and dried their tears.” Here, Rose portrays herself as the hero, mothering the inconsolable Spaniards. For some volunteers, Spanish women at the hospital can do little to demonstrate they are equals. “We have thirteen Spanish girls who we are trying to train but the results have been pretty hopeless up to now. Most of the actual work was done by our handful,” wrote Frederika Martin, head of the American hospital unit to Spain.

Driven by a penchant for adventure and seeing themselves as the empowered other, capable of saving the natives, this story is reminiscent of the kinds of problematic volunteer activities we see take place today. Women (and men) who want to help those living in poorer countries and play the role of hero, travel abroad and engage in so-called voluntourism. The problem with this, is that they paint the native peoples who they are visiting as lacking in agency, uncivilized and incapable. This exacerbates stereotypes and works to undermine those living in those home countries on a global scale. Most often today, volunteers are not heading into war zones - and it would be unfair to say that all of the well-meaning women in Spain are akin to voluntourists. However, the warped feminism that begins to seep through in their stories does draw parallels with ‘white feminist’ discourses debated today. While Spanish people are now considered to be White Europeans, visitors to Spain in the 1930s saw the host society as far from the same ethnicity. Elizabeth Burchill, another Australian nurse and author often found herself frustrated at the work done by the Spanish doctor in charge of the hospital she worked at in Almeria. She found his practice “questionable to say the least” but most interestingly was “often curious to know what he was saying to those of his own race.” Elizabeth draws a distinct line between herself and the people of Spain and exoticizes the women she discovers in the region. She recalled one special night, “Never will I forget the unexpected, exhilarating visit of a gypsy troupe which comprised six lovely teenage girls who lived with their tribe in rock caves north of Almeria… They wore the traditional gypsy costume of red, swinging skirt, white blouse, black velvet bodice, red head scarf, dangling earrings and soft black shoes; the epitome of grace and Latin beauty as they treated us to a private exhibition of graceful, rhythmic dancing that enthralled us.” The use of the word “tribe” and the orientalisation of the native women goes someway to show the distinctions drawn by anglophone women. Natives were enthralling, desperate and devastated. Foreign women would come to their aid. In particular, women from abroad saw this difference between themselves and the hosts manifest in a greater division of the sexes. Dutch American nurse and author, Lini Di Vries, wrote “I knew that no Spaniard or other European of his own free will would scrub a floor, wash a dish, wring a sheet, peel a potato or do what they thought was ‘women’s work’ in any way.” Their own men, they claim - the Americans - are much more modern-thinking. Though it wouldn’t be another three decades until Betty Friedan’s seminal work The Feminine Mystique was published or that Women of Colour would participate in voting in that country that had already so emancipated women. Mary Low felt much the same, lecturing her comrades, she told them, “‘I suppose in time they [Spanish women] will come to realise that marriage and divorce are equally senseless in the new society, where women don’t need men’s protection and have their own status and earning powers.” Of course, Mary was married twice in her lifetime - but Spanish women were in a greater need of saving. In some ways, the women that visited Spain stepped into the role that they wished for themselves. They painted themselves as emancipated free women, capable and ready to take on the world. For a time, they could be that way, so long as there was another less-emancipated group to point to - a hyper-feminised, exotic and helpless other. It is sad that in the end, this only served to undermine women and as such all women. So, let us applaud the brave women who travelled to Spain to join in the fight and champion their roles as equals to the men involved. But let us also be wary of reading their stories of heroics without celebrating the Spanish women that they sought to assist. ---------------------- Further Reading

  • A. Jackson, British Women and the Spanish Civil War (2003)

  • R. Webster, ‘‘A Spanish Housewife is Your Next Door Neighbour’: British Women and the Spanish Civil War’, Gender and History, 27:2 (2015)

  • F. Lannon, ‘Women and Images of Women in the Spanish Civil War’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 1 (1991)

  • N. Arielli, From Byron to bin Laden: A history of foreign war volunteers (London 2017).

  • Y. Scholten, Fanny Schoonheyt. A Dutch girl fights in the Spanish Civil War, (Amsterdam 2012).

  • J. Fyrth and S. Alexander, Women’s Voices from the Spanish Civil War, (London 1991).

  • L. Lines, ‘Female Combatants in the Spanish Civil War: Milicianas on the Front Line and the Rear Guard’, Journal of International Women’s Studies, 10:4 (2009).

Parisa Hashempour is a historian and journalist specializing in the history of women war volunteers. She writes on the topics of gender, culture, aesthetics, and women’s history. Twitter: @helloitsparisa.