Defying Male Civilization:
Women in the Spanish Civil War

Mary Nash

Arden Press 1995
A book review by Danny Yee © 2005
Defying Male Civilization provides background on Spanish women and the construction of gender roles before 1936, but assumes the reader has some familiarity with the history of the Civil War. There is, however, a six page timeline of events.

An innovation of early revolutionary rhetoric was the figure of the heroic fighting miliciana. More widespread were the familiar invocations of motherhood and appeals to women as mothers. And leaders such as the communist Dolores Ibárruri (Pasionaria) and the anarchist Federica Montseny were nationally and internationally recognised.

Nash describes three women's organisations: the Antifascist Women's Organisation (AMA), which was part of the Popular Front but communist dominated, the anarchist Mujeres Libres, and the female secretariat of the dissident Marxist POUM.

"the direction of the AMA was quite clearly in the hands of the Communist Party ... The AMA had no dilemma in choosing between antifascist war and revolution, as radical social change was not on its political agenda."

Attitudes to the milicianas changed and they were disparaged and associated with prostitution; more stress was placed on "homefront heroines", war-godmothers, and other non-combatant activities.

The movement of women into the workplace brought claims for a right to work and disputes over pay and access to professional training. The war opened up new options for many women — in public transport, war manufacturing, public health, small-scale sewing, and many other areas — but resistance from male-dominated unions and the perseverance of traditional norms prevented a significant change in social roles. For many women simple survival in a war economy was challenge enough.

Nash describes anti-prostitution rhetoric and policies, both approaches which considered it as part of campaigns against venereal disease and anarchist attempts to set up "liberation homes for prostitutes". Abortion was legalised in Catalonia in 1936, in legislation "with a decided emphasis on female self-autonomy", but remained marginalised, carried out by male doctors and never a priority for women.

Despite billing itself as an examination of "the nature of women's experience in Spain during the Civil War", Defying Male Civilization doesn't cover women in Nationalist areas at all and within the Republican camp focuses on Catalonia. Though Nash avoids anachronism, she also concentrates on issues central to modern feminist concerns. But Defying Male Civilization has a lot to offer, both as background to understanding modern Spain and for details of the Civil War that simply aren't covered in more general accounts.

November 2005

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%T Defying Male Civilization
%S Women in the Spanish Civil War
%A Nash, Mary
%I Arden Press
%D 1995
%O paperback, references, index
%G ISBN 091286916X
%P 261pp