The Clarion Call

Women and the Spanish Civil War

International Women's Day: Belfast, March 8th 2006
Lecture delivered by Dr. Angela Jackson

[Note by C Crossey, 15th March 2006. Angela spoke at a meeting in the Belfast Institute of Further and Higher Education as a part of that Colleges celebrations of International Women's Day, March 8th.
The lecture was followed by a film show in the John Hewitt bar, Donegal St, in aid of the International Brigades Commemoration Committees plans for a memorial to the fallen volunteers from here. That film, Into the Fire, gave a good indication of the politics and self sacrifice of the American women who served in Spain or who were involved in support activity. This was then followed by a successful social.
Thanks to Angela Jackson for delivering the lecture and making her notes available - unfortunately we could not access the powerpoint display she used to give us images of the women involved, the posters, photographs, etc.
IBCC members and supporters in Belfast would also congratulate the organisers of the talks and film show, specifically Lynda Walker. CC, 15/3/6]

I'd like to talk to you today about the role of women in the civil war. Of course, I can only give you a brief introduction to the subject in a short lecture like this, but I hope that afterwards you might want to find out more.

I am going to talk firstly about Spanish women and then move on to look at the subject of my own research - British women and their involvement with the war. I was very lucky because I got to know some of these women very well during this time and it was a wonderful experience.

For those of you who don't know very much about the Spanish civil war, I'd like to take just a few moments to explain who was fighting who and why.

Political tensions between the left and right had been increasing in Spain since the coming of the Second Republic in 1931. Power had passed from Left to Right then back to the Left again in the elections of 1936. When war broke out, the divisions were roughly like this:-

A simplified table on the Spanish Civil War 1936-39
The Left The Right
Legally elected Republican Government The Rebels - Franco and the Nationalists
Supported by Socialists, Anarchists, Communists, Catalans and Basques wanting independence Supported by Fascists, Monarchists, the Church.
The working classes and many intellectuals The Army and traditional land-owning classes
Reforms included re-distribution of land A return to Spain's 'Golden Age'
Limitations on the power of the Church Traditional values regarding religion
Votes for women, divorce, abortion Control on the role of women in society (ie. domestic & subordinate)

As you can see, when the war began, there were marked differences in attitudes towards the role of women in the Republican zone and in the areas held by the Nationalists.

In certain areas of the Republic, women took up arms to help defeat the rebellion by the right. Enriqueta Rovira remembered,

Most of the action was in the centre of Barcelona. I had a pistol - they had given me a pistol. Imagine me, who had never even had a toy pistol, because my mother was opposed to such things! But they had given me a pistol, and I was prepared to use it.

Some women joined the 'milicias', and fought at the front. Girls such as Lina Odena, who died in combat came to symbolise the courage of the ordinary Spanish people to resist fascism.

Images of these women with rifles and wearing 'monos', an all in one unisex suit, were used in posters to encourage men to fight. However, the images on the posters show mainly glamorous, idealised women. One model looked like the star, Marlena Dietrich. In contrast, reports about women at the front sometimes remark on the fact that the women were often supposed to carry out general sock washing and cleaning chores in addition to their military duties. But after the first few months of the war, the Republican government began to reorganise the militias into a People's Army and decided that women should be recalled from the front. Enriqueta was typical:

But they soon said 'no'. That this was no place for a woman… that I didn't know how to use the gun, and there were compañeros without arms. So they sent me - and all the women, all families - to build barricades. We also took care of provisions. Women in each barrio organised that, to make sure that there would be food for the men…Everyone did something.

Even women like the famous communist MP, Dolores Ibárruri, known as 'La Pasionaria', supported the recall of women from the front. Before the war she had campaigned for a new attitude towards women in Spain, criticising the Communist trade union leaders for regarding women as rivals for men's jobs. So, although she had fought for an egalitarian society, paradoxically, after the first few months of the war, she found herself telling women to return to their traditional role on the home front.

Other Spanish women, particularly in Barcelona and Madrid, had joined feminist groups such as the Anarchist 'Mujeres Libres', 'Free Women'. This group promoted equality with men, running training courses and a journal to encourage women to engage in political activity and be more independent. Much to the disappointment of many of these female activists, further revolutionary changes regarding the place of women in Spanish society were postponed in order to concentrate on the single aim of winning the war. More stereotypical attitudes towards women soon resurfaced. They were portrayed as 'Homefront Heroines', as nurses, or as responsible for the spread of venereal diseases, and as victims.

Now let's look at the international perspective

International Perspective Non-Intervention policy imposed by Britain and France The Republican government received help from:- Franco's Nationalists received help from:- Soviet Union Mexico International Brigade volunteers Germany Italy Irish volunteers

The civil war soon escalated and took on an international perspective. The 'Non-Intervention' policy imposed by Britain and France had a much more serious effect on the legally elected Republican government than on Franco and the Nationalists. The Soviet Union and Mexico were far away and for many reasons, the help they sent was limited. The volunteers of the International Brigades had come to support the Republic, but their numbers were far outweighed by the huge amounts of aid - troops, planes and heavy armaments - that Franco received from Hitler and Mussolini. The contribution made by General O'Duffy's Irish Brigade is usually considered as less than helpful to Franco's military success.

In relation to women's roles, this enormous amount of aid that Franco received from Germany and Italy was important because it meant that women in the Nationalist zone were not needed to work in factories producing arms. On the other hand, in the Republic, women were needed to carry out crucial war work, in munitions factories for example. They often had to bear the double burden of heavy industrial work and child care, while the men fought at the front. Whereas, in the Nationalist zone, the Fascist type of ideology regarding women's subordination and the restriction of their duties to the home sphere was not tested by the need for women to work in industry.

Pilar Primo de Rivera, sister of the founder of the Fascist Party in Spain, summed up this fascist ideal, stating that 'The only mission assigned to women in the nation's great enterprise is the home'. Nevertheless, despite this, the war did allow women to extend the strict boundaries imposed on them by Spanish National-Catholicism. This can be seen in the case of the young women of 'Auxilio Social', who travelled round in open lorries behind the insurgent front lines, distributing bread and soup, far from the home environment. By her own actions Pilar Primo de Rivera creates the greatest paradox of all in this context. As leader of the Women's Section of the Fascist Party, she frequently addressed huge public rallies, whilst constantly emphasising that women should not aspire to a public role.

Meanwhile, in Britain, when civil war broke out in Spain, some newspapers carried photos of 'milicianas'. Sometimes they were portrayed as heroines, defending their country. The more right-wing press used them as 'anti-red' propaganda and labelled them 'The women who burn churches'

On the outbreak of war in Spain, the response amongst British women to help the cause of the Republican government was remarkable in its strength. The spontaneous mobilisation of large numbers of women in Britain to help the people of the Spanish Republic was an extraordinary phenomenon.

This mass mobilisation of civilians over several years has been seen as a defining experience for the nation when faced with unfavorable odds for victory in World War II. It is impossible to know the exact number of women who actually went to Spain, as records are incomplete. However we know that one of the first British women to become directly involved in the conflict was Felicia Browne, a communist artist, who was already in Barcelona when the war began. She was probably the only British woman to fight in a militia unit and was the first British volunteer to be killed at the front. For her, fascism represented glorified and aggressive war and an attack upon the rights of women.

Most other British women went to Spain as nurses through an organisation known as Spanish Medical Aid. The appeals they made for funds, supplies and medical staff were based largely on humanitarian grounds. In addition there were women volunteers who came to carry out relief work through the 'Quakers' [The Society of Friends]. Other nurses came from countries in the British Empire such as Australia and New Zealand. This support was destined almost entirely for the areas controlled by Republic.

In contrast, only one British girl, Priscilla Scott-Ellis, is known to have worked as a nurse in Spain on the side of Franco and the rebels, and very few British women were actively involved in campaigns to support the Nationalist cause.

It is hard to imagine how courageous and dedicated women had to be to go to Spain. In those days it was regarded as a very far-away and little-known country. The women who volunteered to serve in the medical units there came from widely differing backgrounds.

Some were politically motivated before they left England, like Thora Silverthorne, the daughter of a Welsh miner. Already active in the Communist Party, she volunteered immediately war broke out, knowing that her experience as a theatre nurse would be valuable. Annie Murray, a nurse from Scotland, was also already a member of the CP. She went to Spain in 1936 where two of her brothers were fighting in the International Brigades. These women were aware of the growing threat of fascism in Europe and saw Spain as a chance to prevent another world war.

Others knew little about politics but wanted to support the Republic because they had heard that the Spanish government had been trying to help the ordinary people who had been living in terrible poverty. As a nurse and midwife, Patience Darton had seen the desperate deprivation of unemployed families in the slums of London and wanted to go to Spain where she felt she could 'do something' to help change things. However, nurses like Patience Darton often became politicised soon after they arrived in Spain and saw the reality of the situation. She recalled,

I think I only learnt about fascism as such in Spain, and that would be from the International Brigade - some German and Austrian International Brigaders whom I saw a great deal of…they were all highly political, marvellous, wonderful and young and full of zeal and glory. It was a wonderful time and wonderful people.

Experiences in Spain clarified the political beliefs of these women and had a lasting impact.

Other nurses who saw their motives as strictly humanitarian also risked death and injury working in the front-line hospitals. Penny Phelps worked for part of the time in Spain as medical officer in charge of the Garibaldi Division of the International Brigades. Though she did not want to be involved with political parties, she spoke at fund raising meetings when she came back to England to collect more medical supplies. At one meeting, someone said to her, 'But Spain is Red', and she replied,

Yes, it is: red with blood. The blood is splashed over the streets and the gutters often run with it. For weeks my finger-nails were blocked up with clotted blood, and my arms were splashed up to the elbows with it.

Later on, she was severely wounded and sent home to England for surgery. She wrote of her conversations with nuns in the hospital where she was recuperating:-

Because my skin was brown from the Spanish sun, the nuns assumed that I was a Spanish nurse from Franco's side. When they learnt the facts, they were dismayed but they listened, nevertheless, with sympathy when I related how Franco's German and Italian friends were bombing Spanish women and children day after day. Aurora Fernández, a young Spanish student working as a nurse at the front, explained how important the contact with the British nurses was to her. In Spain, nursing had been usually done by nuns and there was no equivalent to the structured British nursing training. Describing the impact of this for girls like her, she said, …to my point of view it was of high political significance in those days. They did not say, 'I am going to tell you how to do this', but rather, 'Come, let us get this ready.'

She also wrote of meeting 'an extraordinary' English woman, Nan Green, who was fulfilling a vital role in the hospital administration. Both Nan's memoirs and interviews record the agonising decision to be made when belief in a cause conflicts with family duties. Her husband had joined the International Brigades, leaving her to 'hold the fort', but when a wealthy friend offered to pay for her children to go to a good boarding school so that she could go to Spain she recalled,

I walked up and down for a whole night thinking of my duty as a mother and my duty to the Spanish cause, but I realised that - or I rationalised, I don't know whether it was right - that first of all, it was a wonderful chance for my kids to get out of the poverty we were in and the filth of London… and my other thought was, well, if George has gone, he's gone because our children are no more important than the other children in Europe and we're trying to stop the war.

Several British women politicians and journalists went to Spain and wrote articles about what they had seen there. Elizabeth Wilkinson was a correspondent for the Daily Worker. On 27th of April 1937, she wrote from Bilbao,

Yesterday at about 1.30pm I arrived in Guernica, the ancient capital of the Basque country. It was a peaceful town, with no factories, no munitions works and no troops stationed there. Peasant women and children were going quietly about the streets. Then at four o'clock the rebels began a brutal bombardment which continued without stopping until seven in the evening. More than fifty German planes rained bombs on the town and machine-gunned the streets incessantly…At eleven o'clock at night the whole town was in flames, not a single house standing…The people are still searching for missing relatives, for wives, daughters, husbands, sweethearts and children.'

Another woman who wrote reports from Spain was Winifred Bates. She was in charge of the welfare of the English speaking nurses and travelled round the front-line hospitals talking to them about their work and taking photographs. These were published in newspapers and magazines in Britain and other countries to gain support for the Republic.

One of the photographs she took during the Battle of the Ebro in 1938 at the cave hospital near La Bisbal de Falset shows a British Labour Member of Parliament, Leah Manning, sitting with a man who had been wounded during the battle. You can see that despite the difficult conditions there, new techniques of transfusing preserved blood were being used. Winifred Bates wrote,

Men died as I stood beside them. It was summer time and they had been in long training before they crossed the Ebro. Their bodies were brown and beautiful. We would bend over to take their last whispers and the message was always the same; 'We are doing well. Tell them to fight on till the final victory.' It is so hard to make a man, and so easy to blast him to death. I shall never forget the Ebro.

Although the British government did not want to get involved with the war in Spain and had implemented a policy of 'Non-intervention', some of the Members of Parliament felt differently, amongst them, several women. These included the famous Labour MP, Ellen Wilkinson, who had walked with the unemployed men on the Jarrow Hunger March, and the Conservative MP, the Duchess of Atholl. Together with others, they managed to work across party boundaries to support the Republic. The Conservative Duchess would share a platform with the Communist speaker, Isabel Brown to campaign and raise funds for the Republic. It was very unusual for politicians of different parties to work so closely together in this way.

Ordinary people in Britain saw newsreels of the bombing of civilians in Spain and wanted to do something to help them. Opinion polls show that about 70% of the population supported the Republicans. Thousands of groups sprang up in towns and villages all over the country, taking part in a widespread 'Aid Spain' movement.

Women often took leading roles on these committees and were very active supporters. They formed networks across the country and worked together in the National Joint Committee for Spanish Relief to co-ordinate their efforts. It was all very different from the normal male hierarchical structure in political parties, in which women usually played a very minor role. These 'Aid Spain' committees did tremendous work to raise funds. About two million pounds was collected in Britain, and twenty nine food ships carried the goods donated by thousands of housewives, who often gave tins of milk they could barely afford.

Much of the actual collecting was done by enthusiastic girls from the Young Communist League, who went out with handcarts night after night. Many of them remember the comradeship of those days and how they worked together with other groups, often with the Labour League of Youth. One woman called the YCL 'the best social club we ever went to'. She remembered how they would speak about Spain at the Young Liberals meetings, and even at the 'Young Imps' - the Conservatives.

People were united across political boundaries; women from traditional, apolitical philanthropic backgrounds worked together with established left-wing political campaigners. The war in Spain even caused some women to decide that the time had come to give up strongly held pacifist beliefs.

As mentioned earlier, Nan Green was exceptional in that she left her children to go to Spain where her husband was in the International Brigades. In most other cases, the wives of Brigaders remained in Britain and often experienced severe hardships.

One such woman was Rose Kerrigan. Rose was born in Ireland in 1903 but moved to Glasgow with her parents when she was a child. As the only girl in the family, she had heavy domestic duties but when she was 12 years old she managed to play an active part in the Glasgow rent strike. She left school at 14 and worked in a department store till she was fired for being a conscientious objector. She joined the Communist Party and met her husband, Peter Kerrigan, through an organised ramble - a very popular left wing activity. She accompanied him to Russia in 1935 when he was sent there as a Comintern representative. When he went to Spain as a Political Commissar in the Brigades, she stayed behind with the two children and took part in fundraising for Spanish Relief.

The impact of a breadwinner's political commitments on the family finances was often considerable. Rose said:

Of course, I've never stopped my husband - let me put it this way - because I have the same views as him, I've never stopped him from doing anything. He became, as you call it, a professional revolutionary and we lived on very little money, when he was a skilled engineer and could have earned good money. But you never asked why in all these things so that I've always just turned out and done my bit to keep the finances going and keep our heads above water as it were, financially… I have done my part like that as the back-room boy, the back-room woman.

So in many cases, the role of Brigaders' wives should be regarded as an active, rather than merely as a passive one.

They also had to deal with the consequences of the war and its effect on their partners. When Rose Kerrigan's husband came back from Spain he seemed very different.

There was a terrible change in him - he was very, very much - he was quite morose - I don't know whether I should really say this - he seemed very within himself. He was really going grey, and this was because of the people he'd seen who had died in Spain, with having to take their effects home and with having to go and see some of their people.

Other Brigaders returned home seriously wounded and needed nursing care from their wives.

Another important job often carried out by women was to care for the four thousand Basque refugee children who had come to Britain to escape the bombing of Bilbao. The government didn't give any money towards this work; the money to look after them had to be raised mainly by volunteer groups known as Basque Children's Committees, although some help was also given by the Trades Union movement and occasionally by churches.

One of the women who worked with the Basque children was Frida Stewart. The Spanish civil war had a tremendous impact on her life. She came from a very academic, upper middle class family in Cambridge, and can be seen in many ways as representative of the intellectuals of the 1930s. Like others of her class, her social conscience led to political involvement. She worked with the unemployed before the start of the civil war, then in 1937 she drove an ambulance to Spain and helped look after refugee children in Murcia. She made broadcasts from Madrid describing the bombing of civilians and her visit to the front lines in University City.

When she came back to England, she was put in charge of fund raising for the Basque children. This she did by arranging concert tours, in Britain and abroad, in which the children performed traditional Basque songs and dances. These tours were extremely popular but the realities of the situation for the children were never far away. Frida wrote, I took one group to the Swiss hotels at the height of the Winter Sports season…They had a wonderful time…Of course, on the way back from that tour we came through Paris and there they heard the news of the retreat by the Spanish Army, the Republicans - Franco's advance up north - and the children were very, very upset about it. They were very political, they knew just what was happening…

After the defeat of the Republic, she worked in the camps in France where the remains of the Spanish Army and some of the International Brigaders, about 200,000 people in all, were being held in appalling conditions.

The Spaniards hoped to find sympathy and generosity from the French, but were confronted brutally by soldiers and police. Taken by surprise by the suddenness and size of the exodus, the French authorities had not provided medical services or rest centres. The exhausted refugees, many of them collapsing and dying, were herded at gun point to sites on the coast and left, without help or protection, surrounded by barbed wire, to fend for themselves until some friendly French or foreign agencies could come to their rescue.

Frida helped to organise a boat that took 2,000 refugees from the French camps to Mexico. During World War II, she was imprisoned by the Nazis in France but managed to escape carrying a message from the French Resistance for General de Gaulle rolled in a cigarette paper.

Like many of the women who had been involved with the war in Spain, Frida remained politically active all her life. The civil war had crystallised the issues which concerned the left in the thirties, primarily the fight against fascism. I'd like to finish with the words she used to explain how she felt about those days. Looking back, Frida said,

It was the great hopeful time of our lives - we really felt it was the turning point between the world going over to the fascists or becoming a brave new world…

For her and thousands of women, Spain was a clarion call to action. She never gave up hope that it is possible to build a better society, 'even', she said, 'if it takes a hundred years.'

  1. Enriqueta Rovira, interview with Martha A. Ackelsberg, Castellnaudary, France, December 29, 1981. Free Women of Spain, (Indiana University Press, 1991) p70
  2. It has been estimated by Richard Baxall that around 200-250 of the British volunteers in the International Brigades were from the Irish Free State, 60 from Northern Ireland. Gerneral O'Duffy took about 600 men to Spain to fight for Franco. They were part of the XV Bandera Irlandesa del Tercio of the Spanish Foreign Legion for less than 6 months. British Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War (Routledge, London, 2004)
  3. Pilar Primo de Rivera, 'Escritos, Discursos, Circulares', Madrid, c.1943
  4. 'Daily Mail', July 27th 1936
  5. For more information on the background, motivation and experiences of the women who were involved with the war see Angela Jackson, British Women and the Spanish Civil War (Routledge, London, 2002)
  6. Patience Edney (née Darton), interview with A. Jackson, March 8th 1996
  7. Penny Feiwel (née Phelps) Report of speech at Welwyn Garden City, May 6th 1937
  8. Penelope Fyvel (Feiwel, née Phelps), English Penny (Arthur H. Stockwell, Ilfracombe, 1992) p. 51
  9. Aurora Fernández, unpublished short memoir, January 1983, Marx Memorial Library, London
  10. Nan Green, interview 7th August 1976, Tameside Local Studies Library, Staylybridge
  11. Winifred Bates, 'A Woman's Work in Wartime', unpublished short memoir, Marx Memorial Library, London, Box 29/D/7
  12. In an opinion poll published in the News Chronicle on January 25th 1939, 72% supported the Republic and 9% supported Franco, the remaining views were not given. Unfortunately, the statistics are not broken down into male and female respondents.
  13. See Jim Fyrth, The Signal Was Spain: The Aid Spain Movement in Britain, 1936-39 (Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1986)
  14. For more about the families of Brigaders see Jackson, British Women & the SCW pp.72-81, and Natalie Suart, PhD thesis, De Montfort University 2001, 'The memory of the Spanish Civil War and the families of British International Brigaders'
  15. During World War II, Rose Kerrigan worked as a collector for an insurance company, where she organised the first women's branch of the staff union. She then had a variety of jobs, including working for several years in a clothing factory where she began the first union for the female workforce. She supported CND and after retirement, worked for her local pensioners' rights group. Died in 1995
  16. Rose Kerrigan, Tameside 197 and IWM 796. Sue Bruley discusses this point in her study of women in the Communist Party, pointing out the irony in that 'just as capitalism required a subordinate sex to service its male workers, the revolutionary party needed a subordinate sex to service its male revolutionaries so that they could fight capitalism.' Leninism, Stalinism and the Women's Movement in Britain, p. 124
  17. Rose Kerrigan, Tameside 197 and IWM 796
  18. Quoted in Jackson, British Women & the SCW pp. 146-148
  19. Frida Knight (née Stewart), interview with A. Jackson, 11th December 1995
  20. Frida Knight (née Stewart), unpublished memoirs
  21. Frida Knight (née Stewart), interview with A. Jackson, 11th December 1995

Home Page
Another major piece on this site about a woman in Spain is the pamphlet on Salaria Kee, an Afro-American nurse in Spain. For that reason alone it would be interesting, even better when it is also known that she married an Irish International Brigader, John Paddy O'Reilly of Thurles. That pamphlet in turn links through to another document and then the transcript of a 1975 intrview with her and John O'Reilly.
C Crossey, 22/3/6

More notes will follow on the Irish women in Spain. There were 12 women; 6 on both sides, all of whom served as either nurses, or admistrators, except for Dr Katherine Lynch. Ciaran Crossey, Belfast, 24th March 2006.
Two related articles to this lecture are the notes about the IWD events and an article in Unity on Irish women in the SAW based on material from this research.