Exploring women's "social service" in Franco's Spain

By Ivan Muzychka

By their nature, authoritarian governments impose explicit ideologies on their citizens. Often this imposition of political values and beliefs is done indirectly, and is implicitly based on some other, more explicit, social need.

Francisco Franco ruled Spain from 1939-75 and his dictatorship, like other authoritarian regimes, tried to impart a specific ideology through the use of a social organization. The women's social service was initially set up to improve social conditions. This "volunteer" social service had its origins in the Spanish Civil War when compulsory service for women was decreed on the pretext of wartime necessity. However, after the war the social service continued, and was administered by the Sección Femenina of the Falange Espanola Tradicionalista y de las JONS (Juntas de Ofensiva Nacional Sindicalista).

Dr. Sharon Roseman, an assistant professor in Memorial's Department of Anthropology, recently received a $42,000 grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) to research this little-known aspect of social control imposed by Franco. Her study - a blend of history and anthropology - will explore how the Sección Femenina pressed mostly middle class women into a "social service" which was akin to the compulsory military service for men.

Rather than being the military vanguards of the state, Spanish middle-class women were compelled to carry out a whole range of social duties which might include helping out in a canteen, working in a health clinic or a school. The compulsory service lasted six months and was necessary in order to receive a passport, a driver's license, or a university degree. Prior to performing their period of service, women were obliged to undergo intensive training delivered by Sección Femenina leaders and as well as by priests and physicians.

"The social service was the equivalent of the men's military service, which is still required of Spanish men when they reach 18 years of age," Dr. Roseman told the Gazette.

"It began in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War when women on the nationalist side were required to perform six months of social service . . . It was seen as one of the most important vehicles for promoting the francoist ideology without using overtly oppressive means. The Sección Femenina produced numerous school text books and periodicals that condemned liberalism, but which also talked about how to take care of children and covered housekeeping issues and other things which were felt to be the elements of women's contributions to an ideal state."

Dr. Roseman has previously carried out research in Spain. In the course of previous projects on labor and gender issues in the region of Galicia (the birthplace of Franco) many women mentioned their experiences during the Franco period.

"My other projects looked at people's daily experiences of the state, and used oral histories to explore gender issues," Dr. Roseman explained.

"I became interested in doing research on the period which many of the women I had talked to had experienced. I wanted to find out how this social service affected them."

Dr. Roseman's work will shed more light on this social agency and how it contributed to Franco's ideological hegemony. Ironically, however, the social service also helped to win women a degree of independence within what was an otherwise sexist framework. The service also served as a basis for a significant social welfare agency in Spain in the period after the war.

"I think what you see is conservative and very sexist," she said.

"Yet there is an element of their having wanted to change women into what they saw as modern women. The Women's Section was promoting physical education and sports...and many men objected to this. The head of the section, Pilar Primo de Rivera, fought for training in things like social work and nursing. But the Sección Femenina also promoted the idea that women should get married and reproduce for the ‘fatherland.' The connections between the Women's Section and the lives of ordinary women were very complicated indeed."

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