Uncertainty, Indifference, Joy: Female Perspectives on the Spanish Transition to Democracy

von Vivien Baumert

Feminist demonstration in Barcelona, 1976. © Universidad de Alicante. Archivo de la Democracia. Fondo gráfico Canigó. Autor: Agustí Carbonell.

In Spanish memorial culture, the transition to democracy (sp. la transición) has traditionally been perceived on an indisputably progressive note, as the dawn of a new age, “the founding myth of Spanish democracy.”1 While its milestones were celebrated and praises were sung in media and historiography alike, other aspects have been overlooked, notably, those that rank on an individual level and can provide an insight into what the transition felt like to the Spanish people. Women are part of this oversight. Particularly women of the grand unpolitical, non-feminist, and non-academic majority, women that, for a long time, represented the domestic ideal of the ama de casa (housewife). Considering Francoist stereotypes of femininity as well as women’s legal and social status in the Franco regime, the question of female impressions and transitional experiences should be of particular interest to the Spanish memorial effort. In this article, we shall try to step into the shoes of the amas de casa after 1975 and examine the Spanish transition from their multi-layered perspectives.

Becoming Citizens: Spanish Women before and after 1975

Francisco Franco’s death on  November 20th 1975 and the subsequent collapse of a dictatorship that lasted almost 40 years marked a turning point for the Spanish people. For women, the reforms that came into force from then on were particularly relevant, as they had previously lacked a large proportion of basic civil rights. While before the so-called año clave of 1975 women were somewhat politically active – for example in the regime-compliant Falangist Sección Femenina – and wives enjoyed conditional voting rights, the vast majority of Spanish women still “lacked the basic legal autonomy required of a free citizen.”2 Actions and decision-making in the legal and everyday sphere were dependent on the permission of the closest male relative. Personal endeavours, such as higher education and the entry into the labour market, starkly contrasted the domestic female ideal of housewife and mother, which in itself marked a subconscious separation of ‘private’ from ‘public’.

From 1975 onwards, women embarked on a journey to become citizens of a democratising country – whether they wanted to or not. When in June 1977 the first free elections since 1931 took place women voted, too. And when the new constitution was submitted to a referendum in 1978 women voted in its favour alongside men. From now on, they could open a bank account, freely dispose of their assets, appear in court in their own name and conclude contracts. Discriminating aspects of the legal apparatus were, more or less consequently, abolished. The sale and advertising of contraceptive methods, for instance, was decriminalised and divorce legalised. The criminal offence of rape was newly regulated, defining that the prosecution of perpetrators was no longer dependent on outdated moral concepts or the age of the victim. On the whole, by 1978 women were to (re)gain most civil and political rights.3 Still, considering these comparably rapid developments, the question remains to which extent the aforementioned changes – that is, the realities of female citizenship – were effectively reflected in women’s consciousness.

Woman holding a protest banner at a feminist demonstration in Barcelona, 1976. The banner states: “Yes to divorce. We demand an amicable, quick and free [gratuitious] divorce.” © Universidad de Alicante. Archivo de la Democracia. Fondo gráfico Canigó.

Reflecting on the Past: The Women Behind Madres y hijas de la Transición española

Oral history projects such as Madres y hijas de la Transición española (Mothers and daughters of the Spanish Transition; M&H) lie at the core of a renewed Spanish memorial effort.4 The project, embedded within the platform Mujer y Memoria (Women and Memory), aims to recuperate the historical memory of 20th-century Spanish women as witnesses of civil war, dictatorship and transition by way of creating interview situations between mothers and daughters. Their conversations revolve around questions of social, political, and cultural change as well as personal insecurities and explicit comparisons between dictatorship and democracy. The mothers, born mostly in the 1930s and 40s, represent a generation that, in 1975, had never before seen or actively experienced anything but the Franco regime.

Although the interviews picture no immediate reaction to transitional events and developments but rather a subjective reflection of the past through the filter of their interim experiences with democracy, they do offer valuable impressions of transitional realities. The results presented here are a stark abbreviation of the results extracted from approximately 35 clips listed in M&H’s category Transición y democracia (transition and democracy). Within the range of experiences depicted in the interviews, the goal was to identify either clusters or anomalies that promised to be of special interest.

Interest Meets Insecurity and Indifference

One of the obvious foci represented in the interviews concerns political and participatory developments.5 Repeatedly, the women describe a general feeling of relief, hope, and anticipation of new possibilities within politics, the labour market, and specifically free speech. When asked about the attempted coup of February 23rd 1981 (23-F), they recall feelings of astonishment and fear of a new authoritarian, oppressive regime. Shifting the focus from explicit transitional events to more general developments, one can’t help but take notice of a certain pragmatism: A Madrilenian woman claims that, at the time, women’s rights weren’t the most pressing issue at hand. According to her – a woman who experienced the transition from the very centre of the country – there were “more important” things to worry about, such as establishing and stabilising a young democratic system (“[I]t seems to me that at the time there were […] more important things [such as] having a […] democratic [system], […] a regular or stable political system.”)6

When reflecting on their first election, surprising confessions come to light. An English teacher from Salamanca criticises that, even after 1977, it was expected of her to vote the same as her husband. Another woman, born during the military dictatorship of Miguel Primo de Rivera (1923–1930), admits that, without her husband, who had previously died, she didn’t know whom or what to vote for and thus preferred to “vote in blank” (“This year, without papá, I said: ‘I’m not going to vote.’ I say:‘What am I going to vote for?’. Well, nothing, I’m voting blank.”).7 Other responses are equally mixed. Some didn’t feel equipped to comprehend the new political landscape due to missing points of contact with relevant knowledge and practices, namely political education and active conversational participation therein. Surprisingly,  some – mostly women living in rural regions or the urban periphery – admit to never even having felt a sense of repression during the dictatorship. One could speculate as to why this is the case. It is possible that the geographical distance from the political centre had a greater impact on women’s socialisation, reception and processing of national-political issues than previously assumed.

What remains is the impression of profound uncertainty when it comes to politics. Interestingly enough, even supposedly ‘simple’ aspects, such as participation in general elections appear to be more of a hurdle than a relief. Either women seem to believe they lack a general understanding of the political landscape to make voting possible or they seem uninterested. It is possible to consider the latter a result of the former. In all probability, this general sense of disillusionment likely results from a lack of political socialisation and access to educational institutions and environments offering it.

A Challenged Sense of Self-Worth

The complexity demonstrated in the sphere of politics and participation is no less reflected in comments on socio-cultural alterations. Many women express a sense of excitement and gratefulness when recalling a new cultural openness during the late 1970s. To them, the transition equalled a burst of energy that motivated people to make the most of the post-1975 developments, to dress, move and speak more freely. After all, nobody knew what would happen next (“Well, I’m going to have as much fun as I can because we don’t know what’s to come.”).8.

But, contrary to these expectable but hestitant positive connotations of the transitional process, some women recall having felt intimidated and left behind by these developments. The women of M&H recount how the domestic female ideal, a role most women had adapted to, was no longer desirable but pitiable.9 Especially women living in urban areas, having front-row seats in a rapidly changing environment, must have felt the ama de casa’s fall from grace with the strongest vehemence. A Madrilenian woman suggests as much when she compares herself to her siblings who seemed to live the cultural openness with great vigour, while she herself felt left behind (“Well, you were a bit lost like […] my brothers, in a way, looked at me as the backward one who was there, when they were already […] on another level, more […] modern, more free.”).10 That is not to say that a sense of joy and excitement didn’t exist. Still, having it overshadowed by the fear of not being enough was a reality.

Female Perspectives on the Spanish Transition: A Double-Edged Sword?

The women of Mujer y Memoria demonstrate the ambiguity of individual experience. Although immensely glorified, the Spanish transition to democracy was anything but straightforward. While there undoubtedly was joy, relief, and excitement, there still were lingering feelings of fear, uncertainty and disappointment. Continuously following the one-sided narrative of framing the transition as exemplary and progressive, leads to automatically neglecting the complexity of individual experience. Thus, when attempting to generate a thorough picture of female transitional perspectives, not only in Spain but in other young democracies as well, setting a sole focus on legal and public improvements that were implemented during the transition proves to be counterproductive. Instead, we must consider factors of subjectivity and mentality in addition to what we believe to be obvious. Ultimately, it seems that the Francoist constructions of femininity influence whole generations of women to this day – although mothers and daughters (and granddaughters) most certainly represent different points of view – and, for some, posed true challenges when settling into their newly ‘emancipated’ lives.

Vivien Baumert is a student of history at the Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg.

  1. Capdepón, Ulrike: Spaniens Übergang zur Demokratie und Westintegration. Von der ausbleibenden Auseinandersetzung mit der Franco-Diktatur zur Abkehr vom Transitionskonsens, in: Europas vergessene Diktaturen? Diktatur und Diktaturüberwindung in Spanien, Portugal und Griechenland, Jörg Ganzenmüller (Ed.), Köln/Weimar/Wien 2018, pp. 113–130, p. 113. []
  2. Radcliff, Pamela B.: Imagining Female Citizenship in the ‘New Spain’: Gendering the Democratic Transition 1975–1978, in: Gender & History 13/3, 2001, pp. 498–523, p. 505. []
  3. Peréz-Serrano, Mar und Teresa Rubio: Cambios legislativos, in: Españolas en la Transición. De excluidas a protagonistas (1973–1982), Asociación Mujeres en la Transición Democrática (Ed.), Madrid 1999, pp. 127–162. []
  4. Madres y hijas de la Transición española. Un proyecto de historia oral, in: Mujer y Memoria, https://mujerymemoria.org/madres_e_hijas/ [accessed: 2 April 2024]. []
  5. Raposo, Cecilia: La participación política de las mujeres, in: Españolas en la Transición. De excluidas a protagonistas (1973–1982), Asociación Mujeres en la Transición Democrática (Ed.), Madrid 1999, pp. 219–249. []
  6. “[Y]o creo que en ese momento había cosas […] más importantes [como] tener un sistema […] democrático, […] un sistema político regular o estable.” []
  7. “Este año, como no está papá, yo dije: ‚Yo no voy a vota.‘ Digo: ‚¿Para qué voy a votar yo?‘. Pues nada, voto en blanco.” []
  8. “Bueno, a mí, que me quiten lo bailado, yo me voy a divertir lo que pueda porque yano sabemos lo que va a venir.” []
  9. Radcliff, Citizenship, p. 506. []
  10. “[P]ues te encontrabas un poco perdida como que […] mis hermanos, en cierto modo, me miraban a mí como la atrasadita […], cuando ellos estaban […] en otro nivel, como más […] modernos, más libres.” []

OpenEdition schlägt Ihnen vor, diesen Beitrag wie folgt zu zitieren:
Vivien Baumert (8. Mai 2024). Uncertainty, Indifference, Joy: Female Perspectives on the Spanish Transition to Democracy. HISTORY GOES PUBLIC. Abgerufen am 18. Juli 2024 von https://doi.org/10.58079/11nnt

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