Women’s Role Within Catholic Church and Religion in Franco’s Spain

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Women have been victims of inequality in a considerably patriarchal world. Gender inequality refers to the women’s lower access to resources than that of men. There have been protests from feminists throughout the world with the aim of improving the standing of women in the society and creating awareness on inequalities that women face. They have made it possible for people to understand that they can achieve equality through collective efforts. The origins of gender inequality between men and women can be considered as one of the most intellectual debates since the rise of modern feminism. Historically, great thinkers such as Aristotle have made their contribution regarding the concept of gender inequality and he suggested that there should be some speculative interpretation of the gender differences. Other theorists of the 19th century such as Karl Marx presented different views with their considerations of possible sequences of the kinship organization in relation to gender.[footnoteRef:1] It is evident that gender inequality has existed for a long time and it has necessitated the revolution, which feminists have been pursuing. Religion has also made its contribution in relation to the development of inequalities and striving to achieve equality.[footnoteRef:2] The Catholic Church, for instance, has had a variety of issues relating to gender inequality, sexual and reproductive rights, and domestic violence. In order to delve deeper into the issue, this research will investigate inequalities and roles within the Catholic Church and religion in Franco’s Spain. It will assess the background of these inequalities, importance of male allies in ensuring that women’s roles were improved, and feminist protests within the Catholic Church in Franco’s Spain. [1: . Hannelie Wood, “Feminists and Their Perspectives on the Church Fathers’ Beliefs Regarding Women: An Inquiry,” Verbum Et Ecclesia 38, no. 1 (2017): 1-10. ] [2: . Ibid.]

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Gender Inequality in the Catholic Church

Existence of gender inequality in the Catholic Church results from the fact that men and women fail to recognize that they cannot be complete without each other. The world as it is exists because of interactions and contributions made by both men and women. Consequently, the idea that men are more important than women should not be supported and there should be promotion of equality between the two genders.[footnoteRef:3] However, this is not experienced or witnessed in the Catholic Church as men take up the majority of main roles and women are only expected to work as supporters. It goes from the church level to work on approaches of transformation, which will see changes being presented in order to incorporate women into various other roles in the church, which are currently held by men. [3: . Aurora G. Morcillo, True Catholic Womanhood: Gender Ideology in Franco’s Spain (Dekalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 2008), 127. ]

Franco’s Dictatorship

Less than 40 years ago, the new post-Franco Spanish Constitution of 1978 guaranteed full equality to women. Finally being granted basic civil rights, women gained political power, freedom within marriage, and ability to make decisions without the permission of men. Prior to this point, women lacked civil liberties and were institutionally subordinated to men throughout Spain’s history.[footnoteRef:4] Spanish law and societal norms had long been dominated by Catholic ideals, which characterized women as motherly figures and confined them to caretaker roles within the house through a culture of domesticity. The passing of the Spanish Constitution in 1931 marked a groundbreaking turning point in the gender history as the new legislation provided women with considerably elevated social status and political importance that would last through the Spanish Second Republic and Civil War of the decade. Although complete equality with men was never even close to being attained, an unprecedented progress was indubitably made towards the cause of women all over Spain. However, things would soon take an unfortunately drastic turn in the other direction. When the dictator Francisco Franco completed his successful coup d’etat and rose to power in 1939, all progress previously made in the 1930s was quickly reversed. Backed by the Church, Franco’s fascist regime implemented highly repressive reforms in the social, economic, and political spheres that placed strict limitations on freedom and autonomy of Spanish women among others. Women were oppressed so severely that the advocacy and rights efforts led primarily by the Seccion Femenina were tactically calculated and only able to achieve limited success. [4: . Jessamy Harvey, “Domestic Queens and Warrior Wives: Imperial Role-Models for Spanish Schoolgirls during the Early Francoist Regime (1940s-50s),” History of Education 37, no. 2 (2008): 277-293. ]

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The repressive reforms that Franco instituted after rising to power effectively reversed all social and political progress made by women during the Spanish Second Republic and Civil War of the 1930s. The Church heavily endorsed Franco’s rise to power and he repaid them by implementing highly conservative laws, particularly, in the social sphere. Women had their autonomy and rights severely limited as Franco pegged them as “as the moral foundation of the Spanish family” that had to “dedicate their life to that purpose” Women lost their rights to abortion, divorce, and suffrage as a pervasive culture of domesticity returned to Spain. Franco’s Catholic-oriented ideology forcibly centered female life on marriage and childbirth and his policies actively attempted to confine them to household roles. Once married, women were expected to leave their jobs to focus on starting and raising a family. Before even gaining full power, Franco declared the Fuero del Trabajo in 1938, which was a labor charter that encouraged domestic life by placing harsh restrictions on married women in the workplace. The Fuero del Trabajo was reinforced in 1947 with Excedencias Forzosas, which legally forced women to quit their jobs after marriage. Franco also passed pro-natalist policies that paid families for each child they had and provided monetary bonuses and discounts on various services for larger families. Rural families and families with mothers who worked were excluded from any pro-natalist benefits.[footnoteRef:5] Franco used religion to justify his enforcement of the culture of domesticity, claiming that home was divine and women should feel honored to occupy it. Although women experienced an unprecedented level of autonomy during the 1930s, Franco’s repressive regime forced them back into the household as mothers. [5: . Julia Hudson-Richards, “‘Women Want to Work’: Shifting Ideologies of Women’s Work in Franco’s Spain, 1939- 1962,” Journal of Women’s History 27, no. 2 (2015): 87-109. ]

Women also faced severe social repression under Franco. Considered as a weaker and more delicate sex, women had several labor restrictions. In 1944, women were guaranteed a chair at the workplace and in 1958 women were forbidden from work that was considered as dangerous, morally jeopardizing work or involved heavy lifting. Despite their dedicated work during the Spanish Civil War, women could no longer work in factories with chemicals or large machines. In addition, women were prohibited from many professional occupations, including those of lawyers, doctors, diplomats, magistrates, or stockbrokers. Females were also considered as the subordinate gender and Franco’s institution of the 19th century civil code supported the notion. This incredibly archaic policy required married women to seek permission of their husbands for business transactions, decisions, or other mundane activities. Lastly, women were repressed into upholding strict standards of femininity. This required women to dress conservatively, shunned wearing pants, and illegalized certain athletic activities. Life for women under Franco was drastically differently than it was in the decade prior to his reign.

The Seccion Femenina was the only sanctioned political group for women under Franco and due to the regime’s repressive nature the group adopted unorthodox and seemingly counterintuitive advocacy tactics. The Seccion Femenina was founded by Pilar Primo de Rivera in 1934 as the woman’s division of the fascist Flanges political party. Primo de Rivera was a highly respected leader and the group reached almost 600,000 members at its peak.[footnoteRef:6] Given the harsh oppression women faced during Franco’s regime, the Seccion Femenina could not be a feminist organization by any means. Instead, the group provided social services and education for many women while advocating for the expansion of their freedoms in a manner that yielded to the repressive laws and conservative social norms they faced. The Seccion Femenina claimed to fully support that the female gender best served the Spanish society in domestic settings as mothers and caretakers and they never opposed such relevant policies. However, the Seccion Femenina’s frequently used rhetoric of submission and subordination is evidence “less of the internalization of traditionalist views of women’s proper place and capacity than of the deployment of subalterns’ tactics.”[footnoteRef:7] The Seccion Femenina claimed support for Franco’s repressive policies not because they not necessarily enjoyed or agreed with them; they did so because they could neither openly oppose these policies nor actively advocate for the new, more liberal ones. They recognized their gender’s assigned position in the society and worked to improve it through indirect ways such as promoting physical education and athletic competition for women. In doing so, the Seccion Femenina subverted some of the restrictions and conservative ideals placed on women and allowed women to enjoy some extent of equality with men. The Seccion Femenina operated in a highly repressive environment, which is why the group did what it had to advocate for its members and for women all around Spain. [6: . Pawe? Skibin?ski, “The 1953 Concordat and the model of relations between Franco’s Spain and the Catholic Church,” in Poland and Spain in the Interwar and Postwar Period, edited by Jose Luis Orella Martinez, and Malgorzata Malgorzata (Madrid: Schedas, S.L., 2015). ] [7: . Gonzalo Ramirez-Macias, “Women Archetype and Female Physical Education during Franco’s Dictatorship,” The International Journal of the History of Sport 29, no. 11 (2012): 1513-1528.]

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Decades into Franco’s reign, the Seccion Femenina saw some limited progress made towards the cause of women. Albeit much less significant, the passing of the Law for Political, Professional, and Labor Rights for Women in 1961 was the most important milestone for females since the passing of the Constitution of 1931. The new legislation expanded women’s opportunities and privileges, promoted equal pay, and discouraged discrimination. The bill also granted women suffrage and ability to get elected to public office, as well as the right for married women to work. Female freedom was indubitably increased, but restrictions remained. Women still needed marital permission for various activities and they still could not work at dangerous jobs or engage in a long list of professional occupations. Progress was made as Franco’s regime adapted to changing times and responded to the Seccion Femenina advocacy, but the repression women faced would never fully disappear under his reign. Throughout Spain’s long, Catholic-dominated history, women have never had much freedom. Although the Spanish Second Republic and Civil War offered women a glimpse into an autonomous life with many civil liberties, Franco’s repressive laws reverted women back to domestic figures. Franco’s repression made the Seccion Femenina’s task of advocating for women very difficult and it was consequently only able to achieve limited success.

Domination by Men

Women have been on the forefront questioning the domination that the men have had on them within the Catholic Church. However, they lack ample opportunities to argue their way through the problems that they face because they are also sidelined in the general society and not only in the church. The church has experienced male domination in a variety of ways. For instance, the sacrament for Holy Orders can only be done by men, which is a demeaning issue for women. However, the problem extends to the times of Jesus Christ since the Bible indicates that there were only 12 disciples and all of them were men.[footnoteRef:8] Consequently, the church has followed the same trend to a large extent and has only given major roles within the church to men. Furthermore, the role of women in the Bible was also not well defined, especially, during the ministry of Jesus and they only appeared as helpers, but not as main contributors to the dissemination of the gospel around the world. After the death and resurrection of Jesus, there is little that the Bible discusses about the women who had been part of Jesus’ life and it only focuses on the disciples who traveled the world and faced persecution as they spread the gospel. As a result, the current domination of men over women in different areas can be seen to have emanated from the times of the Bible. [8: . Celia Valiente, “Age and Feminist Activism: The Feminist Protest within the Catholic Church in Franco’s Spain,” Social Movement Studies 14, no. 4 (2015): 473-492.]

Additionally, according to St. Augustine, women were created in order for them to bow down to men and there was a belief that women cannot be a representation of God. Furthermore, the image of the man has been presented as one of rationality and spirituality, while it has ignored the representation of women. Historically, the church has also presented views that are against women and their representation in the church. For instance, in 1977 Pope Paul VI made a declaration that was against the ordination of women. As such, women could not be admitted into priesthood. There is no significant basis for this reasoning or declaration other than basing it on the fact that even Jesus Christ is represented as a man and he did not have any female disciples. Nonetheless, women have had a significant role in the establishment of the early church and Christianity. During the time when Jesus Christ conducted his ministry, there were women who made huge contributions to the ministry. For instance, Mary, Jesus’ mother, was instrumental not only due to giving birth to the Messiah, but also throughout his ministry. Furthermore, there has been an immense contribution of women in the ministry since then to date, but this has been ignored by the sacred congregation. As a result, women have been forced to take up minor roles in the church, which receives little recognition.

Importance of Male Allies

The SESM and the Women’s Catholic Action were women groups that fought for the rights of women and they were comprised of upper- and upper-middle class women. These organizations united women who had their established careers and university degrees. They had achievements in numerous other fields, including sports. The organizations demanded for an increased access to education and training for women. Additionally, they also needed additional access to the labor market for women who had qualifications, but were denied these opportunities as they were seen to be predestined to follow their responsibilities as care givers and family supporters. They also strived for a more active role for women in the Catholic Church. The two women’s organizations had great following and received support of some male allies.[footnoteRef:9] These women received support from some male politicians who supported the idea of inclusion of women into leadership within the society, as well as in the Catholic Church. Although the majority of the priests were not supportive of the idea of having women taking up higher positions in the Church, some of them supported the idea and they were instrumental in the empowerment of feminist initiatives of the time. [9: . Celia Valiente, “Male allies of women’s movements: Women’s organizing within the Catholic Church in Franco’s Spain,” Women’s Studies International Forum 62, (2017): 43-51.]

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Feminist Protest in the Catholic Church in Franco’s Spain

Women’s organizations that fought for equal rights were at the forefront in the protests. The SESM was founded in 1960 and it grew through the recruitment of friends who brought their friends on board so that it continued expanding. The expansion resulted in the organization having more than 172,056 members by 1953. It gained attention and acknowledgement of the Catholic Church’s hierarchy. Women who joined the movement were aware of the gender discrimination that they faced. According to them, the Catholic Church repressed women and put a significant emphasis on the 6th commandment, which says ‘thou shall not commit adultery’. However, in relation to men, all the commandments were applied and there was no emphasis on the 6th commandment. These feminists believed that the basis for this had some moral and sexual double standards. Women were seen as having inferior moral development as compared to men. As the movement was forming, Franco was still the dictator in Spain.

In turn, the Women’s Catholic Action was another organization that was formed with the aim of fighting for gender equality within the Catholic Church. It comprised of women above the age of 30 years and even though there was a youth group, they only joined the main organization once they attained the age of 30 years. One of its leaders who developed from the youth branch was Bellosillo and she held decision-making positions within different Catholic organizations.[footnoteRef:10] Such international experience was critical in Franco’s Spain since media censorship by the government made it difficult for people to understand what happened in the outside world. Demands that these women had were in line with the issues raised by Pope Pius XII in his declaration when he stated that women should participate in the spread of Catholicism beyond their homes. They had a major role to play and their involvement was required. Nonetheless, in the subsequent years the Papacy and the leadership of the Catholic Church rejected any possibilities of having women priests, while access to decision-making positions was also restrained. After the 1960s, these organizations were no longer active and their leaders sought alternative measures to seek redress, but such efforts were not successful.


During the period of Franco’s Spain, women were suffering from inequalities in the society. They lacked the ability to take up similar roles as those that men took regardless of their educational levels. During the time, several feminist organizations formed with the aim of seeking equality for women. As a result, they managed to have their issues heard although they did not achieve as much as they intended. One of the areas that were of concern was leadership of the Catholic Church. Women could not hold any leadership positions in the church and they were only expected to hold supporting roles. The church did not support the possibility of having a woman priest and they did not achieve the goal of having this reviewed. The problem is still being experienced to date as the Catholic Church is yet to allow any woman to become a priest or hold high leadership positions.

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