Mujeres Libres (English: Free Women) was an anarchist women's organization in Spain that aimed to empower working class women. It was initiated in 1936 by Lucía Sánchez Saornil, Mercedes Comaposada and Amparo Poch y Gascón and had approximately 30,000 members. The organization was based on the idea of a "double struggle" for women's liberation and social revolution and argued that the two objectives were equally important and should be pursued in parallel.
In revolutionary Spain of the 1930s, many anarchist women were angry with what they viewed as persistent sexism amongst anarchist men and their marginalized status within a movement that ostensibly sought to abolish domination and hierarchy. Conditions for Spanish women before the Spanish revolution were oppressive, in the sense that they could be forced into arranged marriages without their consent and single women were not allowed to leave their homes without a male chaperone. Furthermore, working conditions were difficult for women because their salaries were half what male workers received. The limited rights allowed to women were only offered to middle and upper class women, and not offered at all to the working class.
The founders of Mujeres Libres were all active in the Libertarian movement, however they were dissatisfied with the way the movement addressed the particular problems that confronted them as women. Women felt that, despite their cries for equality, their male activist counterparts did not treat women as equals. The general sentiment was that: “All those companeros, however radical they may be in cafes, unions, and even affinity groups [FAI], seem to drop their costumes as lovers of female liberation at the doors of their homes. Inside, they behave with their companeras just like common “husband.”
Even though women were involved in many of the unions and movements, like CNT and FAI, they were minorities. They were often disregarded or their participation unacknowledged, whether due to sexism or hesitation of women to get involved. Men, generally, didn’t take women seriously in the public or the political contexts. At meetings of groups, like the FIJL, women were laughed at before they even spoke. This occurred despite the fact that organizations like the CNT held the official view that men and women were to be treated equally at home and in the movement. The beliefs within the libertarian community was that “the two sexes will be equal, both in rights and in obligation." The Mujeres Libres did not identify as a feminist organization rather they saw women's problems as inseparable from the social problems of the day; while they shared their compañeros' desire for social revolution they also pushed for recognition of women's abilities and organized in their communities to achieve that goal.
Organizing the Movement
In 1935 in Madrid, two women began to form their own organization to educate women in political current event, anarchist ideology and women’s rights. Lucia Sanchez Saornil was a writer and poet who had been active in union groups in Barcelona until she moved to Madrid and met Mercedes Composada. Mercedes was a lawyer and had grown up in leftist household with a socialist father. Both women had tried to be active in groups like CNT but were frustrated with the way women were treated by the militants. Together they formed the Mujeres Libres and became the editors for their magazine, which focused on the anarcho-syndicalist movement and the education of women.They were later joined by Amparo Poch y Gascon, a physician who promoted greater sexual freedom for women and challenged ideas of monogamy and the sexual double standard. Meanwhile in Barcelona Soledad Estroach, an active union member felt that the unions did not adequately engage women and formed her own group, the Grupo Cultural Feminino. In 1936 the two groups discovered each other’s existence. Mercedes Compasada travelled to Barcelona and after meeting the Grupo Cultural Femenino; they united into the Agrupacion Mujeres Libres, creating a National federation.
Goals and Action
Citing the anarchist assertion that the means of revolutionary struggle must model the desired organization of revolutionary society, they rejected mainstream Spanish anarchism's assertion that women's equality would follow automatically from the social revolution. Instead the Mujeres Libres promoted education and equality through the lens of the libertarian movement. In the early months of the organization, the members focused on raising awareness and creating networks of activists. They held meetings and reported on the chauvinist actions of their male counterparts. As their membership grew, so did their activities and political involvement. When the revolution began in 1936 the Mujeres Libres had formed a stable network of anarchist activist and were prepared to participate in the revolution.
The organization also produced propaganda through radio, travelling libraries and propaganda tours, in order to promote their cause. Organizers and activist travelled through rural parts of Spain to set up rural collectives and support for women in the country.
To prepare women for leadership roles in the anarchist movement, they organized schools, women-only social groups and a women-only newspaper so that women could gain self-esteem and confidence in their abilities and network with one another to develop their political consciousness. Many of the female workers in Spain were illiterate and the Mujeres Libres sought to educate them through literacy programs, technically oriented classes and classes in social studies. Schools were also created for train nurses to help injured in emergency medical clinics. Medical classes also provided women with information on sexual health and pre and post-natal care.
Unlike other leftist women's organizations in Spain at the time, the Mujeres Libres was unique in that it insisted on remaining autonomous from the male-dominated CNT, FAI, and FIJL and fought for equal status with these established anarchist organizations. The Mujeres Libres also set up programs to help women transition into the workforce, by providing them with necessary skills. Their endeavors were mostly joint ventures with local union, which cooperated because they had to fill positions left by men who left for the front. The Mujeres also provided support for their cause during the Revolution. In addition to supplying food to the militias and they provided support for women in the militia by setting up shooting ranges and target practices.
The Mujeres Libres also created a women-run Magazine to keep its members informed. The first monthly issue of Mujeres Libres was published on May 20, 1936 (circ. 100). However the magazine only had 14 issues; the last one was still being printed when the civil war battlefront reached Barcelona, and no copies of it survived. The magazine addressed working class women and focused on “awakening the female conscience toward libertarian ideas.”
They also formed day care system to provide childcare services for women who were out supporting a cause or serving as union delegates. While caring for the children they would teach them about Comunismo Libertario and the causes they were fighting for. Thus in a sense conditioning them to be future supporters of the cause. Additionally, they provided programs to educate women about child care and child development.
Some opponents of the movement towards women’s rights in Spain argued that a woman’s proper role was to be a mother and offer support to their activist husbands in the home. Matilde Piller wrote in Estudios in 1934 that “one cannot be a good mother - in the strict sense of the term - and a good lawyer and a woman at the same time… perhaps one can be an intellectual and a woman at the same time. But a mother? No.”  Others who opposed independent women’s movements argued that their organizations would undermine the goals of the anarchist movement, which was created to promote an egalitarian society, where men and women would work together.
Despite the short lived Revolution, the actions of the Mujeres Libres had a resounding effect on the lives of women in Spain. The Mujeres empowered women in the context of a working class movement and revolutionary change.
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- On International Women's Day 2006 Angela Jackson spoke to a Belfast meeting on women and the scw.