In the response to the military insurrection of July 18, 1936 against the Republic there was a powerful element of spontaneity. Events overtook the parties and leaders, including the „leading militants“ of the CNT-FAI (National Confederation of Labor, and the Spanish Anarchist Federation). Women played an active part. They were dominant in the response to the uprising and formed the backbone of resistance. They were present everywhere – on committees, in the militias, and on the front line. In the early battles of the civil war, women fought alongside men as a matter of course.

The Spanish Revolution in its first phase brought new possibilities for women, in the zones not taken over by the Nationalists, and an element of personal liberation for some. One group which attempted to get a libertarian perspective on the situation was Mujeres Libres (Free Women). By the end of September I936 it had seven Labor Sections – Transport, Public Services, Nursing, Clothing, Mobile Brigades for non-specialists, and brigades able to substitute for men needed in the war. The federation grew, organizing for women to make the maximum contribution to whatever practical work had to be done. Its members saw themselves as having an important educational function, working to emancipate women from the traditional passivity, ignorance and exploitation that enslaved them, and towards a real understanding between men and women, who would work together without excluding each other. They saw a need to awaken women to vital consciousness of their movement, and convince them that isolated and purely feminine activity was now impossible. They saw themselves as based on comprehensive human aspirations for emancipation, realizable only in social revolution, which would liberate women from the stagnation of mediocrity.

The Nationalist threat was forcibly present, providing at first a stimulus as well as menace to revolutionary action, as people took the fight against it into their own hands. The stand made for Madrid against the Nationalist army in early November 1936 renewed the spirit of the immediate response to the military rising, and again women played as great a part as in the first days of the war. A women’s battalion fought before Segovia Bridge. At Gestafe, in the centre of the northern front, women were under fire all morning and were among the last to leave. In the retreat to Madrid, occasional militia women were to be seen – some more soldierly in appearance than the men, others neat, groomed and made-up.

Inside the city, women organized mass demonstrations, devised propaganda and slogans including the famous „No Paseran“ („They Shall Not Pass“, accredited to La Pasionara), and built barricades, often with ‚the help of children and sometimes under fire. Committees were set up based on districts, houses and blocks, for the provision of food, ammunition and communications. Women contributed actively to the defense, including anti-aircraft observation, and surveillance of fifth- column suspects. Their committees organized collective meals and laundry; the crèches and maternity homes set up between July and October carried on as best they could. Some have described the spread of House and Neighborhood Committees as amounting to a second Madrid Revolution, the basis of a genuine Commune.

As the initial revolutionary impetus slowed, and the forces on the Republican side geared themselves to the task of winning the war, the contribution made by women did not diminish, but became more supportive in character. By November, there were some militia-women still in the front rank, but their numbers were now few; they were more usually to be found as orderlies, cooking and washing behind the lines. To the external-causes of hardship were added the developing conflicts within the anti-fascist camp. The Communist Party, an insignificant group in Spanish politics at the start of the civil war, was extending its sphere of activity and tightening its hold on the Republican forces, backed by Russian military and political intervention. Women were a priority target, along with youth and cultural circles, when it came to making converts. Front organizations included the Union of Girls, Anti-Fascist Women, and the Union of Young Mothers.

A physical clash came in the Barcelona May Days, 1937, when an attack on the Telephone Exchange by government forces intent on „disarming the rearguard“ provoked fierce resistance. Once again the value of libertarian-participation in government – for the government – was demonstrated. At a time when, after three days fighting, it has been estimated that libertarian comrades and the POUM controlled four-fifths of Barcelona, the CNT-FAI leaders were called in to cool the situation. Appeals from Mariano Vasquez, Secretary of the National Committee of the CNT, and Garcia Oliver, an anarchist Minister of Justice, failed to pacify the workers. Federica Montseny was then sent on behalf of the Valencia Government (it had moved from Madrid with the Nationalist advance) after troops had been withdrawn from the front to send to Barcelona if necessary. She had obtained the government’s agreement that „these forces were not to be sent until such time as the Minister of Health should judge it necessary to do so,“ thus envisaging the possibility that an anarchist Minister might give the O.K. for troops to be used against the working class. The net result was confusion, demoralization, and concessions from the CNT side.

The „leading militants“ seem to have taken the view that it was playing the enemy’s game to give the Communist Party an excuse for attacking its opponents. Whether or not it needed an excuse, the fizzling out of the May Days‘ brief explosion enabled the CP to strengthen its position, forcing the anarchist Ministers into opposition and proscribing the POUM. Women were among its victims – those arrested included hospital nurses and wives of POUM members. Emma Goldman visited six female „politicals“ in the women’s prison, including Katia Landau, who urged anti-fascist prisoners to hunger strike and was herself released after two hunger strikes.

Libertarians were more aware of the social struggle. They were kept informed by the anarchist newspaper „Spain and the World“, which even included references to women from time to time; a report from Mujeres Libres; mention of the importance of mothers as educators, and the necessity of freeing them from religion; the caption to a picture – „Spanish Women, too, enjoy Freedom: The Church will dictate no more“ Emma Goldman, official delegate of the CNT-FAI in Britain, estimated in an interview that women had not yet been given the chance to contribute much, and were insufficiently awakened and advanced; she judged that they had changed since 1929 however, becoming more alert and interested in social struggle.

But even Emma Goldman and other writers in „Spain and the World“, despite their awareness of what was going on, tended to place increasing emphasis on „antifascism“ first and foremost. The militarization of the militias, attacks on elements, and suppression of the collectives left less and less that libertarians could point to as positive. At the same time, a paradoxical determination was engendered to foster the idea of a vital struggle against fascism, so that everything that had been gone through would not appear useless. Of course it was possible to take the position that anything was better than fascism, but the „anything“ one thereby helped to bring about was NOT the social revolution.

Until comparatively recently, it was almost necessary to justify the term „Revolution“ in connection with the Spanish events of 1936 and after, so thoroughly had the social aspects of the struggle been obscured. It might still have to be defended against purists who disparage the collectivization as „self-managed capitalism“. Even if this description were strictly accurate from a narrowly economist viewpoint, to deny any other significance to what happened would be to adopt blinders. Neither can the failure to abolish „legitimate“ government negate the value of the experience – „dual power“ is a feature of revolutions. In spite of – and because of – its limitations, the Spanish Revolution requires and repays critical study.