Expanding life: a multi-way translation

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My contribution aims to highlight relevant strategies and experiences in the Spanish history of the past seventy five years. I believe them to be useful in the context of the project New Feminism.


Some brief historical information about Spain is required to contextualize debates on postcolonial, anticapitalist, feminist and queer politics understanding in Spain, a State with four languages: Castilian, Basque, Catalan and Galician. The very same concept of Spain has been problematized in different ways. For the right, Spain is ONE nation embedded into Catholicism and its nuclear family values and nostalgic of the former Spanish Empire. These values are epitomized in the picture taken in the Azores of the ex-President Aznar together with Bush and Blair just before the invasion of Irak.

Other important historic facts in this context are: there were Spanish muslim kingdoms since the Arab’s invasion of the Iberic Peninsula in the VIII century up to the end of the Kingdom of Granada in 1492. The Jewish-Spanish population, the Sephardim, were forced to leave the country or convert into Christianism in 1492. Sephardi is also the name of the old Castilian language, which some Sephardim communities still speak. The evictions mentioned before were produced to create a unified nation: Spain under a Christian monarchy: Isabelle and Ferdinand, which made it possible for Colombus to travel to America also in 1492, setting the beginning of the Spanish Empire. An Empire that would definitely end in 1898.
Latinamericans, Jews and Arabs are part of us, part of our history and cultural heritage of conquest and eviction. Spain has a historical debt with them: When we consider that the largest inmigrant population in this country comes from Morocco and Latin America, when the most significant and open conflict in world politics is taking place in the Middle-East and islamophobia is spreading in Europe, when we take into account the consequences of antisemitism in the history of the European twentieth century.

It is important to remember that many Spaniards had to emigrate themselves to Northern European countries in the not so far away decades of the 50s and 60s.

There is an issue that should be addressed from a feminist and postcolonial perspective, the issue of islamophobia, antisemitism and white/Christian supremacy. The instrumental use of women bodies these governments make in their confrontation. Religious fundamentalism of any sort could be defined , appropiating Butler’s terms as “somatophobic against the human”, New Feminism has to defy deadly binarisms of supremacy/victimisation, and assert feminism as a political agency for the expansion of life and the viability of the human.


Let my name not to be erased from history! were the words of Julia Conesa, one of

“ the thirteen roses”, a member of the youth organisation of the Communist Party before she was executed with other twelve young women in Madrid at the age of nineteen, after the end of the Civil War. Her last appeal before execution addressed both the social inviability of the Spanish II Republic and of her young female body before physical death. It also constituted a last act of resistance, a legacy for future generations.

There is no need to romanticise the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). We should analize history critically, even more so when we come close to our political identifications, “our side”. In this specific case, the division among the Republican forces and the tragic way in which they often dealt with their differences. Differences that often stemmed from the uneven development of the country.
It is crucial to place that war at an international level, since for many historians the Spanish Civil War marked the beginning of WWII: the policy of “neutrality and non-intervention” of the European Western democracies led by Great Britain. The Spanish democratic forces’s hope that at the end of the WWII, the Allies would liberate Spain from Franco’s regime which had been supported by Hitler and Mussolini. But the USA’s government and its Western allies compromised with Franco under the new political circumstances of the cold war.
The Catholic Church fought for the most part in Franco’s side and baptised the military rebellion as a National Crusade.
There is a very contemporary tendency to criticise the communists and praise the anarchists since their cause is easier to romanticise and orientalise, as Southern Europe often is. The anarchists accurately pointed out to the problems of totalitarianism and the demobilising influence of the State and State-institutions, but an anarchist society, even in the short summer of anarchy in Spain, happened in the middle of a Civil War that the Republic had to win for the viability of any kind of democratic project at all.
It is important to know the work of Mujeres Libres (Free Women), the Spanish autonomous organization of a sector of anarchist women created during the II Republic and the Civil War. They obviously shared the common anarchist principles but were one of the very few revolutionary organizations that was especifically founded as a network to expand those principles to include women’s emancipation as an essential element of any revolutionary project. They reached a membership of twenty thousand women. One of the founder of Mujeres Libres, Lucía Sánchez Saornil was openly lesbian. Their main goal was to promote the agency, independency and autonomy of working class women, learning and becoming politically conscious in the process of doing, pointing out at the limits of liberal democracy and liberal feminism,- they explicitly rejected to call themselves feminists-, and the different ways into which oppression operates: economically, politically, sexually, culturally. They made a gigantic effort in educating the most destitutes women in cities and rural areas.
Spanish women over their mid-forties, as many other European women, can’t forget the history of nazism and fascism since these times and their aftermath happened in our parents’s generation and have been a thick shadow in our own lives; even more so, since Franco’s dictatorship lasted for almost forty years. We can’t forget the history of resistance of women against facism and nazism. We should read them as part of the struggle for women’s emancipation after the first wave of feminism.
We have a feminist tradition in Europe that has been very much intertwined with class and antiracist politics and struggles. It has not been a monopoly of the Enlightened middle classes.The written memoirs and historic research of and about many European women are there as witnesses.
Feminism has enormously expanded in all these decades. I believe it is the aim of New Feminism to incorporate in a productive way the best legacy of these experiences.


Why many of us became communists in the 60s and 70s, and feminists in the 70s in Spain ? A contemporary answer to this question is found in Judith Butler’s Undoing Gender:

Fantasy is part of the articulation of the possible, it moves us beyond what is merely actual and present into a realm of possibility, the not yet actualized or the not actualizable. The struggle to survive is not really separable from the cultural life of fantasy, and the foreclosure of fantasy –through censorship, degradation, or other means- is one strategy for providing for the social death of persons.... The critical promise of fantasy, when and where it exists, is to challenge the contingent limits of what will and will not called reality. Fantasy is what allows us to imagine ourselves and others otherwise;...it points elsewhere, and when it is embodied, it brings the elsewhere home.(pp 28-29).
When all the parties were illegal in Spain, the Communists, of all tendencies, were the main force that struggle for democracy and revolution at great personal risk. Revolution before we have heard of feminism meant for women a rejection of the constraints of domesticity.
Some of us joined the Maoist MC, Communist Movement, because we didn’t have to carry the burden of the history and practices of the Communist parties. We supported the theories of Mao about Soviet revisionism and its colonialist policies, about the need to continue the class struggle under Socialism to prevent the coming back of Capitalism, the imposibility of revolution by pacific means at the time of the Indochina wars, the coup d’Etats in Chile and Argentina, the situation of the Palestinians, the anticolonialist guerrillas. The sharing of manual and intellectual work in the cities and in the peasant villages.
Mao made a distinction between politics and ideology: theory and study were important, we had to think independently, to dare to be in minority, to know well the ground we were treading on through investigation, to practise criticism and self-criticism, always stressing the shared knowledge before critizicing the differences not to hurt anybody in our communities. It is always easier to destroy than to build. An awareness of the double moral standards in our own private lives. Not to slander political competitors.
These ideological points have been fundational learnings for any kind of political activism I’ve been inolved in, since it relates the ends to the means. I think it is closely connected to feminist ethics. Closely connected via another branch of communism to certain anarchist principles. Not far away for a certain religious/spiritual attitude if we think carefully about them.
It is a way to stress feminist ethics as an essential part of New Feminism. How to incorporate different trends of feminist, radical sex and emancipatory discourses and practices by placing them in the complexity of their historical context.
At the same time, we have to criticise our dogmatism at the time, the leninist notion of the party as the avantguard who will lead the masses to revolution. We projected individual narcissism into group narcissism incarnated in the idea of having the one and only path for progressive political changes. Communist parties can’t sort out the biggest problem any marxist-leninist party has to face, that which precludes the way they would try to organize society: democratic centralism as an organizative principle. The question obviously has a wider scope than democratic centralism. It is central to all kind of collective organizations. Even more dangerous to be sorted out when the power structure is more subtle, fragmented and diffuse and we believe we have deconstructed it, when it becomes yet again, the identitarian politics of the gettho.
When we talk about New Feminism as a sort of repolitization of the sexual space in the now, we are talking also about the resexualization of the sociopolitical space. The intersection of these three power-knowledge tools, feminist ethics, unorthodox communism and some anarchist principles, are good learnings in the process of organising ourselves.
This was the background for us, a significant part of the Spanish women of the second wave of feminism who fought against Franco, imperialism and capitalism in the 60s and 70s.


The Spanish Political Transition towards democracy was based on “consensus” and “agreed reform”. It made it possible for the political initiative to be led by the reformist sectors of the pro-Franco dictatorial regime that counted on the aid of the reformist left (the Socialist and the Communist Party) to deactivate social and political conflicts, forgetting the so much needed social reforms, keeping the repressive apparatus intact and preaching an ideology of amnesia about the fascist past. Even these reforms were considered too risky by a part of the Army ( and its civil allies) that seized the Parliament and attempted a coup d’etat in 1981.

The Second Wave of feminism came about in 1975, the dying days of the Spanish State under Franco, when a greater incorporation of women to the labour market and university made it possible to pave the way to more forums of discussion and organisation. Most of the women who took part in organized feminism came from the anti-Franco struggle, a smaller number of women organized themselves independently, understanding that double militancy functioned as a drive belt for them.
Feminism in Spain was, thus, characterised by a hybridisation of radical feminists with anticapitalist policies organized around the Coordinadora Estatal de Organizaciones Feministas. Apart from asking for specific rights (contraception, divorce, abortion, equal civil rights, etc), we questioned the institution of the family, the role of the Catholic church, monogamy as private property of bodies, compulsory heterosexuality, derogation of laws against homosexuals, amnesty for social prisoners (all prisoners), not only for political ones, we called into question the medical discourses around the so-called mental illnesses. The methods of struggle also took on a strong radical component that defied the limits of the law.
There is an experience of the mid-seventies worthwhile to comment. Some small communist European parties acknowledged that feminism had to be an essential part of their policies. The Movimiento Comunista was one of them. The only knowledge I have about these collective European experience and its links with other revolutionary Latinamerican groups is through oral accounts of some of the women participants. We know how important oral accounts are to historiography the excluded. A whole separate structure of women -as an strategy to counteract patriarchy inside the party-, was organised, an issue that was later expanded to gay and lesbian people. I think this was a remarkable experience to decenter the class struggle as the main conflict. That was possible because there were a few lesbian feminist women in the Central Comittee. All these experiences should be written and documented as part of the diversity of political discourses and practices, of different strategies contextualized in their historical periods. The Movimiento Comunista created a small printing firm with a branch called: Hablan las Mujeres (Women Speak), publishing books by Latinamerican and Arab activists. They work to expand feminist and protoqueer discourses by translating the works of Carole Vance, Gayle Rubin, Jeffrey Weeks, Pat Califia, Gayle Peterson. They organised Hetaira, a collective for the rights of sexual workers, many of them inmigrants without legal documents to stay in Spain, an outstanding example of the intersection of class, gender and antiracist practices.
The Socialist Party won the elections in 1982 and the Institute of the Woman was created in 1983. There was a displacement of the debates then. From socialist feminism and feminism of differance towards the relations to be mantained with institutions, the fear of feminism losing its cutting-edge.


All the projects I have worked in the field of the visual arts, from 1990 to the present year have tried to incorporate a genealogy of the many lessons we learnt in the struggle against Franco and for revolution, in the second wave of feminism as we lived it.

There is a group of feminist psychoanalists in Spain that work very closely to Jessica Benjamin: Emilce DioBleichmar and Nora Levinton among others. Feminist psychoanalisis has been of great help, in the necessary personal quest against victimisation in our individual history. Personal pain is very often intertwined with gender mandates constructed through personal history and significant others.Learning to negotiate the so much needed personal space and freedom within the so much needed interlocution and collective work. Certain queer tendencies tend to denigrate any kind of psychoanalisis ahistorically. Very wrongly so, since they reify queerness as a set of beliefs and attitudes, which ends up in its becoming another rigid identity yet to be deconstructed. The problematization of identitarian policies doesn’t mean one is safe from implementing them.
We have gradually incorporated more knowledge of feminist, queer and transgender literature, music, fashion and the visual arts as production of meaning; of feminist and lesbian traditions since the first wave of feminism. We have included a need to be part of the new, questioning a self-centered and self-absorbed notion fixed in one’s own generation, which disdains the older and the younger ones and confuses favourable historic contexts for political action with personal/group age superiorities. We have intended to recapture the counterculture, situationist spirit, linking it to the culture and spirit of punk and the riot grrrls.
We have tried to build up bridges for a transgenerational debate, in the hope that each generation does not have to invent the wheel. As an strategy to construct networks since fragmentation is one the most difficult issues to deal with we have. We have worked with women from different backgrounds, so transgender and transexuals speak through their own voices and bodies and younger queer academics realise that feminism is embodied not a mere cultural artifact.
Feminism and queer politics are part of any integral progressive project for change. We are not a percentage anymore, a token, a quota, a radical unspeakable otherness, a stereotiped minority with a sexual option. Any political project that is male-centered, hetero-centered, white-centered or somatophobic in any way is not progressive. The exclusion of what it cannot be read is political and should be visibilize as such.
We need to build up organizations that are independent of the State and State-run institutions or have very small fundings: the problems associated to money and career in a fragile context like ours is often lethal. Communities can’t be instrumentalise for academic or artistic work. We need to to debate constructively but firmly about differences with the will to empower every single person on the way.
We can’t consider that people with different positions of enunciation within our field are enemies. We should learn from the very often futile fights between feminists in the past. Psychological, competitive factors often play a more important role than political differences.
New Feminism should try to address problems that are mainstream: somatophobia, precariety, immaterial work, feminization of poverty, violence against immigrants, domestic violence and homophobia, contesting mainstream policies. Gaining visibility in discourses and practices. Perhaps it is time for the Third Wave of Feminism if we belong to a genealogy, a certain feminist tradition whose aim has been expanding life, expanding the human.


-Ackelsberg, Martha A. “ Free Women of Spain”. Anarchism and the Struggle for the Emancipation of Women. Indiana University Press, 1991.

-Augustín Puerta, Mercedes. Feminismo: Identidad Personal y Lucha Colectiva. (Análisis del Movimiento Feminista Español en los años 1975 a 1985). Colección Feminae,Universidad de Granada, 2003.

-Butler, Judith. Undoing Gender. Routledge, New York, 2004.

-Graham, Helen. The Spanish Civil War. A very short introduction. Oxford University Press. 2005.

-Scanlon, Geraldine M. La polémica feminista en la España contemporánea (1868-1974). (Feminists Polemics in Modern Spain, 1868-1974). SXXI. Madrid,1976.

-Strobl, Ingrid. Partisanas: la resistencia armada de las mujeres contra el fascismo y la ocupación alemana (1936-1945). VIRUSmemoria, Barcelona, 1996.

María José Belbel Bullejos

Texto publicado en el libro New Feminism: Worlds of Feminism, Queer and Networking Conditions. Marina Grzinic/Rosa reitsamer (eds.), Löcker, Viena, 2008.

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