ON 29 JULY 1936, four young milicianas, part of pro-republican irregular forces, prepare to fight nationalist rebels at the beginning of the Spanish civil war. Factions of the army had failed to take complete control over the territory of Spain through their attempted coup d’état on 17 and 18 July, setting the stage for a three-year-long conflict between the popular front—made up of republicans, communists and anarchists—and the nationalists, led by Francisco Franco. An unprecedented number of women fought for the republican cause during the first year of the war, though most of them were withdrawn from the front lines by July 1937.
The republican constitution of 1931, and legislation enacted the following year, had introduced female suffrage, the right to divorce and compulsory secular education for both genders. Women began playing a larger role in public life, with a few rising to positions of considerable influence. However, the social position of women in general did not improve, as gender inequalities persisted. Organisations such as the anarchist Mujeres Libres were set up to carry out the “double struggle” of women’s liberation and social revolution.
With the outbreak of the civil war, women formed an integral part of the committees and militias that were spontaneously organised throughout the country to resist the nationalist insurgents. Even after most milicianas were withdrawn from the front, women continued to serve in auxiliary roles, in the rear guards and factories, and in fundraising efforts.
The nationalists embraced orthodox views on gender roles, as propagated by the Catholic Church. They mostly mobilised women to carry out social work. Once the war ended, with the establishment of Francoist Spain, many of the rights won by women under the republican government, including female suffrage and divorce, were reversed. Many milicianas were arrested, raped, tortured and killed in the aftermath of the conflict.