International Women’s Day was certainly not overlooked in the Spanish capital when the 8th March rolled around. Over 350,000 people surged to be part of the ‘marea morada’, or the ‘purple wave’, as it crashed through the streets of Madrid, snaking from Atocha all the way to Plaza de España. I was one of them.
Declared by the United Nations in 1975, International Women’s Day has sprung from many sources since the late nineteenth century. The violet face paint and waving of banners has its roots in protesting female working conditions in turn-of-the-century New York, and Russian female labourers clamouring on the eve of the 1917 Revolution. Today, it has become something much more cohesive; not just women centred around one specific cause, men and women alike spray paint their hair purple and bob placards through the crowd. The convening bodies of the ‘huelga feminista’, ‘Comisión 8M’ and the trade union ‘Unión General de Trabajadores’ (UGT), have made it clear want they want the 8th of March to be: a denunciation of the continued marginalisation of women across the globe.
The city of Madrid and its political leaders have seemed particularly keen to show their support for the march; the Cibeles Fountain was dyed purple for the occasion, and a number of prominent female government ministers- among them Carmen Calvo, the current President’s second in command and Minister for Equality- made sure to make their presence known. It was a very impressive display, but tainted with more than a smidge of bitterness. A report by La Caixa, published just days before, goes some way to explain why. This report crucially found that a woman, outfitted with identical experience and skills as a man, will still receive on average thirty percent less interview requests exclusively because of her gender. Whilst Madrid has shown itself to put on a very good show of inclusivity and equality, there remains this undercurrent of imbalance and discrimination that the protesters clearly had at the forefront of their minds.
It is useful to place International Women’s Day 2019 in its proper context: it is the most recent part of Spain’s turbulent relationship with feminism and female empoderamiento. Just within the twentieth century, the status of the woman was raised briefly up, only to be decisively thrown back down. The short-lived democratic Second Republic waved its magic wand in 1931, and women’s suffrage became a constitutionally enshrined right. As well as the power to vote, the mujer española could now have an abortion without prosecution, take more decisive steps into the world of work and had full legal status within her grasp.
It was a very impressive display, but tainted with more than a smidge of bitterness
Francoism obliterated this step forward. General Francisco Franco’s dictatorial regime, spanning from the late 1930s until his death in 1975, was propped up by backwards-looking social ideas, seeing women forcibly and thoroughly stuffed back into the containers of centuries past. Francoist attitudes had their very foundations build on the marginalisation of women; the tasks and behaviours considered ‘propias de su sexo’ were the ones limited to the confines of the four walls of the family home. The deceptively named ‘Sección Feminina’- a Francoist invention that, as part of the Falange Española, was dedicated to enforcing misogynist ideals- published a particularly telling text in 1958. Meant to educate on the proper place of women in Falangist society, the Manual de Economía doméstica para bachillerato y magisterio preached that a proper Francoist woman must have a tasty dinner on the table when her hard-working spouse returned from work- bonus points if it’s their favourite. One part of the manual stands out: women must never ask men to explain themselves or their actions, nor their judgement or integrity. This attitude, and Francoism’s determination to embed it in Spanish society, was yet another cog in the machine that effectively relegated women to their position of ‘minoría de edad’, or their inability to participate in society as fully functioning adults. Franco’s endeavours of ‘contrarrevolución de género’- undoing any progress made towards gender equality- were not exclusively physically violent, and when the 8th of March protesters raise their placards and shout ‘contra la violencia’, they are not just talking about the visible marks of violence, but the mental and psychological scars that these attitudes have left.
It is against this backdrop that 350,000 people swarmed to the centre of Madrid at 7pm on 8th March 2019. Strides have been made for the position of women in Spain since the end of Francoism, of this there is absolutely no doubt. In fact, a study by Georgetown University has stated that Spain is the fifth ranking country in terms of how safe women feel, with a 39% rate of women in positions of elected political power. These are not shabby statistics, but they only scratch the surface. Since 2010, the state funding for policies of equality in the fight against gender-based violence has been cut by over forty percent, not to mention the pay gap of almost 6,000 euros less per year for a woman doing the equivalent job as her male counterpart. The average female salary would have to shoot up by 30% to equal that of an equivalently-placed man. Whilst it makes for a great image to have prominent female politicians marching shoulder-to-shoulder with other protesters, it is important to recognize it is a mark of progress, not of triumph.
it is important to recognize it is a mark of progress, not of triumph
Legislation and mentality have always been very distinct things. The position of women in Spain, having emerged from the chaotic twentieth century, is better that it has been ever before. This is, however, absolutely not the same thing as equality. The chants of ‘Madrid será la tumba del machismo’ certainly appeared to hold some promise as the streets flooded with both men and women in staggering numbers. There were many inventive and colourful slogans emblazoned on the ocean of placards, but the unifying call would have to be ‘Si nosotras paramos, se para el mundo’ (if women stop, so does the world). It neatly sums up the very heart of the protest. Equality is demanded because if women stopped – stopped working, stopped participating in society, stopped trying- the whole world would grind to a halt. If there is one thing that will not stop, however, as the marchers made abundantly clear, it is the fight to gain gender equality for every woman in every country. I may have been in Madrid this International Women’s Day, but the mind of every marcher was with women all across the globe who continue to do battle with everyday sexism.