LET’S be honest: how many of you could name one single Spanish Impressionist painter? Monet, Sargent, Rénoir, Délacroix immediately spring to mind when you picture the pastel-coloured, light-reflecting landscapes of...
Spanish ‘herstory’ retold: The women who got lost in the past
INTERNATIONAL Women’s Day on Friday was more than just a global strike and protest calling for equal rights – every year, it’s essentially a celebration of the brilliance and talent of 50% of the population (men get their turn on November 19), of what girls and ladies can do if they dare to dream, put humanity and hope before self-doubt, and make a conscious decision to be the best version of themselves they can be. This may be in sports, arts, their work; perhaps in caring for their children, animals or relatives; it could be in changing the world for the better in tiny steps or in big leaps; or maybe in being the best friend or partner they can – or perhaps just in having the most fun. Celebrating women on March 8 doesn’t mean trashing men, just as celebrating Father’s Day doesn’t mean trashing mothers, or vice versa: it’s merely a day for focusing on all that’s great about those born with XX genes, or who identify as female.
It’s also a day for remembering those women who should have graced whole chapters of history books but who, given that ladies were considered an inferior species until recent decades both socially and legally, have never found their fame.
Spain is as guilty as every other country in the world; pioneers, saviours and female talent in major artistic and literary movements have often remained in oblivion until now, and are only just finding their voices, some of them centuries after their deaths.
The name on the lips of everyone who mentioned women in history on Friday was Clara Campoamor (first picture), (1888-1972), a lawyer and feminist activist who fought fiercely for female rights; arguably, she’s the most famous of all Spain’s historical ladies. But scratch the surface and you’ll find plenty more who precede and follow her – and here is just a smattering of a small handful of those who should be household names.
Mention Spain’s Siglo de Oro (‘Golden Age’, or literally ‘century of gold’) and a flood of literary and artistic greats pop up: Miguel ‘Don Quijote’ de Cervantes, obviously; Lope de Vega, Quevedo, Calderón de la Barca and Tirso de Molina, whose works are still on the literature curriculum today; Zurbarán, Murillo, Velázquez, Ribalta, Ribera and, naturally, El Greco, whose paintings take pride of place in galleries and churches across the country…but have you noticed they’re all men?
The same occurs with the Generation of ’27 (Picasso was a key painter and Lorca its most famous writer), and the Generation of ’98 (artists include Joaquín Sorolla, Joan Miró and Salvador Dalí and, for authors, Azorín, Blasco Ibáñez, Miguel de Unamuno, Jacinto Benavente and Ramón del Valle-Inclán).
Aren’t there any women in Spain’s greatest cultural movements?
Of course there are, but you probably won’t have heard of them. María de Zayas (second picture), a minor member of the nobility, was born in 1590 and, in her 71 years of life, became one of Spain’s earliest prose-fiction writers with her Novelas ejemplares y amorosas (1637), a collection of 10 short stories examining the upper social strata, along with its sequels, Novelas y saraos (1647) and Parte segunda del Sarao y entretenimientos honestos (1649), and her separate comedy novella, La traición en la amistad.
Born in the same year, Ana Caro Mallén de Torres – who was adopted, whose mother was a slave, and who was believed to have been the orphan of Morisco, or Moor-turned-Catholic parents – wrote four volumes of poetry and at least two comedy plays, El Conde Partinuplés and Valor, agravío y mujer, published posthumously in 1653.
Nearly a century later, Sister Juana Inés de la Cruz was born in the then Spanish-owned territory of México and is famous for her disparaging observations about ‘stupidity’ in males in her prolific prose, poetry and plays.
The first female sculptor of the Siglo de Oro was Luisa Roldán, who followed in her famous father Pedro Roldán’s footsteps and became known colloquially as ‘La Roldana’ – her works, highly-detailed in their depiction of the human form and focusing on the ‘trending topic’ of the time, that of ornate life-sized religious figures, came towards the end of the Renaissance in Spain and the beginning of the Baroque; most are found in churches and cathedrals in southern Spain and Madrid, but some have found their way to London, New York, Ontario and Los Angeles.
The art of feminist activism
Along with these Golden Age girls, another rarely-cited female name in Spanish cultural history is Maruja Mallo – born with the very ordinary name of Ana María Gómez González in Viveiro, Galicia in 1902 – a painter who was a contemporary of Dalí and who was unaccountably described by the cubist as ‘half-angel, half-shellfish’. Mallo’s works were so meticulous that she took considerably longer over them than the average artist, meaning barely 100 of her oils remain in circulation. But prints of them are much-treasured by the ordinary householder nowadays, given that they featured daily street scenes and popular festivals; colourful depictions of real life. She is said to have worked at a desk with just two photos on them: one of pop artist Andy Warhol, and another of the King and Queen awarding her the Gold Medal for Merit in Fine Arts.
Other writers and famous feminists include Concepción Arenal, thought to be one of the first women’s rights activists – born in 1820, she publicly criticised workhouses, misery, women forced to beg and imprisoned, and fought for votes and education for females. To become an ‘observer’ rather than an enrolled student at Madrid Central University’s Faculty of Law, she had to cut her hair short and dress as a man, but her exam success meant the dean reluctantly allowed her to continue after her deception was uncovered. And Emilia Pardo Bazán, a contemporary of Victor Hugo and Honoré de Balzac who is credited with bringing the naturalist novel to Spain, an activist who famously stated that if her birth certificate had read ‘Emilio’ instead of ‘Emilia’, her life could have been very different.
History’s most courageous women
Known as ‘The Schindler Sisters of Galicia’, Lola, Julia and Amparo Touza Domínguez (third picture) helped over 500 Jews to flee the Nazis from Ribadavia to Portugal, hiding them beneath the station floor in a cellar in their shop. The three women ran a kiosk at the station and set up a secret network to help Jews under persecution out of France through the Basque Country and across to Galicia, then to the neighbouring country where they were put on boats heading west.
They were never found out and carried their secret to the grave, although a film of their lives was due to be released last year.
The Galician city of A Coruña ended up, literally, owing its life to a woman: María Pita (fifth picture) is credited with saving it from the British troops in 1589. Her words of encouragement rallied Spanish soldiers based there just before they faced up to Sir Francis Drake’s massive fleet, which laid siege to A Coruña as a punishment for its having supported the Invincible Armada. She then joined the soldiers herself, fighting, killing and defeating, until the 20,000-plus British Army ended up retreating.
Fast-forward to 1921, Josefa Parada, 25, along with sisters Cipriana and María Fernández Oujo, 16 and 14, set sail on the rough seas for the northern island of Sálvora and rescued over 200 victims of the Santa Isabel mail ship which had capsized and whose passengers and crew were on the brink of drowning.
Less than 20 years later, Elvira Bao Maceiras was forced by dictator General Franco’s regime to give up teaching and was arrested, due to her promoting the Galician language and being pro-Republican which was ‘corrupting the children’ in her class. Once released, she quietly retreated to a remote house in the outskirts of A Coruña, and continued teaching small groups of children in her clandestine home classroom.
We could mention plenty of ‘firsts’, ranging from the Roman times to the eve of the 21st century, pioneers in professions, academia and other major achievements, from mountain-climbing to mechanics. For example, just when you thought e-books were a 21st century invention, you find out about Ángela Ruiz Robles, born in León in 1895, who patented a mechanical ‘book’ in 1949 for the pupils she taught at school to lighten the bags they had to carry every day, make their learning more attractive and adapt her teaching to the individual. Said to be the precursor to the Kindle, it earnt her an Alfonso X El Sabio Cross.
The 20th century saw plenty of female pioneers. Celia Rivas who, in 1932 at the age of 20, became Spain’s first-ever female lorry-driver; Milagros Rey Hombre (whose name, ironically, translates literally as ‘Miracles King Man’) and who will be 89 this year, was the first woman in Galicia and the third in Spain to become an architect, and María Luz Morales, who took over the helm of the daily newspaper La Vanguardia in 1936, becoming the first woman in Spain to be director of a national media publication.
Elisa Patiño Meléndez, known as ‘Chichana’ and daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Patiño, was one of the first Spanish women to pilot an aircraft at the tender age of 24 – just five years before she died, in 1918, from the deadly Spanish ‘Flu – and Antonia Ferrín Moreiras was the first Spanish female astronomer and the first woman in Spain to defend a doctoral thesis in the subject. Much more recently, Chus Lago became the second Spanish woman to crown Everest in 1999 and the first to do so without oxygen.
More professional firsts include Carmela Arias, born in 1920, who became Spain’s first female bank manager and ran the Banco Pastor for 30 years, and Federica Montseny, who, in the 1930s, became Spain’s first female government minister.
Education, media…and marriage
Many pioneering women were born in, and grew up in, the 19th century: Sofía Casanova, who came into the world in 1861 and lived to be 96, was Spain’s first female foreign and war correspondent – she covered key moments of both World Wars and the UK Suffragette movement. Elena Maseras, from Tarragona, was the first woman in Spain to enrol at university – at Barcelona’s faculty of medicine – in 1872, and as a woman, not disguised as a man. At the time, females were not exactly banned from higher education, but their pursuit of it was seen as a pointless extravagance, and Elena’s joining her medical degree course involved a massive amount of admin and red tape.
And even though same-sex marriage was not legally recognised in Spain until 2005 – making it the fourth country in the world to do so, pipped at the post by Canada - Marcela Gracia Ibeas and Elisa Sánchez Loriga (fourth picture) were, in fact, the first all-female couple to marry in Spain…in 1901.
Their wedding was registered legally and they tied the knot in church, although Elisa had to cut her hair short and dress in a trouser suit, pretending to be a man, so they could get away with it; they were discovered soon afterwards and were forced to flee via Portugal through México and to Argentina to escape prison.
Romans and Admirals
But female trail-blazers did not just start popping up 200 years ago – they have always been in the background and rarely found their way into the history books. Centuries and even millennia ago, Spanish women were changing the world. One of the most intriguing cases is Isabel Barreto, the first female Admiral in Spain’s navigation history, who became governor of the Solomon Islands after sailing there with their discoverer and her husband in the 1470s. Her husband died from malaria shortly after their arrival, leaving her widowed on the archipelago and taking over his role as national leader.
Going back even further in history, Exeria was the first female author in Roman Hispania – born in the fourth century AD and destined to be a nun or a high-society lady, wrote various works of fiction as well as a travel novel Itinerarium ad Loca Sancta (entirely in Latin) based upon her own experience as a pilgrim to the Holy Land, something rarely undertaken by women.
It seems hard to believe nowadays that a woman driving a lorry, flying a plane, going to university, travelling, writing, reporting, running a bank, or marrying another woman would be anything newsworthy; ladies in the western world do all this and more without a second thought about how, if they had been born in the wrong century or even decade, these feats would have been nearly impossible.
So, on International Women’s weekend, if you’ve ever been to college, voted, driven, or held a professional role, and you’re female too, thank a feminist from history for paving the way for you.
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