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Cultural Exchange - March 2012 - Women in Spain

Thursday, March 08, 2012 9:00 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

Maria V describes the fascinating life stories of her heroines from Spanish History in her own words below:


“Spain has always been said to be a country of contradictions and paradox, and in this matter it definitely was. In early 1931, Spanish women had been granted the right to be candidates in elections, but amazingly they did not have the right to vote.

In this scenario, two women were chosen representatives for the Chamber of Congress in 1931: Clara Campoamor and Victoria Kent.

Clara Campoamor

Clara, was born in 1888, was one of the first women to go to University (Access for women to University was open in 1910) – she studied Laws – and one of the first lawyer women. She was also a writer and finally she got involved in politics.

When she was elected for Congress, she devoted herself to obtain equal rights for women and the right to vote. She had to put up a very difficult fight, not only against the men in Congress, but also against the one she thought would be her only ally, and turned out to be her worst enemy instead: Victoria Kent.

Clara was asking for the long delayed right to vote to be effective immediately. On the other hand, Victoria, said that most women were not prepared or ready to vote wisely yet, so the right should be postponed. As you can imagine, this was a terrible hinder in the way: the image of the 2 only women in Congress disagreeing about  such a basic topic for women, was not exactly helping Clara convince the Chamber.

But, the hidden reason was that Victoria was put there by her political party with the purpose of having a female voice opposing Clara, so it would appear, that she was not representing all women. Being politically left winged, she feared that women, being very influenced by church in the strongly catholic Spanish society, would choose a conservative vote, therefore to the detriment of the socialist and communist parties.

But Clara was a very brilliant woman and never gave up. With a series of superior speeches, she unveiled all hidden reasons, and got what she wanted. She used to say that there is one thing that only one of the genders can do, and that is to give birth. All the rest, we can do both. Unfortunately after this milestone, things got difficult for Spain, as we were approaching a dark history time.

It was the second Republic, our King Alfonso XIII was exiled in Rome, and there was a military insurrection, after which General Franco proclaimed himself dictator after a civil war. He was dictator for over 30 years.

Before his death, in 1975, our present King was crowned and named head of State, parliament was restored, and we peacefully transitioned to a democratic system. At this moment women retook the process of gaining their rights, and that year they were granted full legal capacity, not subject to their husbands anymore, and total equal rights were detailed in the Constitution of 1978.

The following is an introduction to some of my favourite female characters of the history of Spain.

Elizabeth I

The first one goes 600 years back in time. Elisabeth I of Trastamara was marrying Ferdinand II of Aragon in 1469. They were given the title Catholic Monarchs by the Pope Alexander VI, who was Spanish too. With this marriage, the crowns of Castile and Aragon merged, and for the first time we have a united Spain.

Elisabeth was a very strong willed woman and was directly in charge of every matter: economic or politic. She even went to all war campaings. She was there in the siege of Granada, the last city still occupied by the Arabs, whom Spain had been fighting for 800 years. There, the last of their kings: Boabdil finally was defeated and had to hand out the keys of the citadel.

Also, she played a prominent role in sending Columbus to America, which triggered the expansion of the Spanish great Empire, in which we say that the sun never set, which lasted till the XVII century. She was the most powerful queen, in totally equal terms to her husband.

The coat of arms depicted the symbols of both names, and the kingdom motto was a very famous one: ‘Tanto monta, monta tanto, Isabel como Fernando’, which means that both had equal power and authority. This sentence is commonly used still nowadays to refer to whatever things are exactly the same.

Isabel was a person eager for knowledge and culture, and with that in mind, trying to have access to more reading, she hired as her Latin teacher, a young woman aged 20, called Beatriz Galindo.

Beatriz Galindo

Beatriz was an expert in Latin studies and widely acknowledged in Madrid by intellectuals of her time. She was commonly known as ‘La latina’, the latin one. (Have in mind Rome and the Latin language, not South America, which came much later)

So, she became Queen Elisabeth teacher and, soon, due to her sharp mind and common sense, she became also her personal counselor, and dear friend.

She was concerned about social contribution, and she founded a hospital in Madrid, for people without economic resources. The hospital became so popular that it was exclusively sustained only by donations of the ladies of the high society. The hospital had a name but nobody knows what it was, because it was known of course, as ‘the hospital of la Latina’.

And, when, after the years, it finally disappeared, the name remained for the whole neighbourhood. This district in Madrid is still called the suburbia of La Latina. Those who have been in Madrid may have heard of it, or been there, as it is quite known for its night life.

Eleonor of Castile

Now, I want to go back in time even further, year 1254 to another wedding: the wedding of Eleanor of Castile and the king of England Edward I. She was 13 when she got married and he must have been around 16. It was an arranged marriage for political reasons like most in that time.

The reason why I like her so much is because she managed to have an incredibly happy marriage, against all odds. They had 15 or 16 children.

She was said to be very beautiful and refined, and our history says that the English people loved her very much. Definitely her husband did and she loved him dearly too, to the extent that she went with him everywhere, even when he went to the crusades. The 8th one.

There is a story about this journey, in which Edward got poisoned either by a poisoned arrow, dagger or snake. The details are not clear.

However, what all the stories say is that she saved his life by sucking the poisoned blood at the risk of her own life. I used to love this story when I was little. I thought she was so romantic and brave.

When she died at 49, Edward ordered to build 12 crosses on every stop that the funeral procession made from Lincoln to London. She is buried in Westminster Abbey. Now only 3 crosses are still standing: Geddington, Hardinstone (Northampton) and Waltham.  The last cross, that was in London was south of Trafalgar Square and it was later destroyed, but they built a monument replica in front of the Charing Cross station.

Also, another influence of Eleanor is the name Elephant and Castle, that you can see in many places in England, for areas, or pubs, or inns, an underground station. There is not total agreement in the origin of such a strange name, and many people confuse her with another Infanta of Castile that married years after, but most historians coincide that the name derives from Eleanor of Castile: ‘La Infanta of Castile’ (the royal child of Castile), which was corrupted over time to become Elephant and Castle.

**(The pub-restaurant in Boston with that name is in 161 Devonshire St, Boston, MA 02110, USA)

Now we go forward in time 500 years and we are fighting France. Napoleon Bonaparte who was trying to invade Spain. England was an ally at that moment, and Lord Wellington came to help us. One of his campaigns was to liberate the city of Badajoz, which they did.

Juana de Leon

The city was dangerous after the fight, and it happened that 2 sisters, went to the English camp asking for protection. They had lost their family in the fight and their house had been destroyed.  The smallest one was 14 years old and was called Juana de Leon. They were actually members of a noble family, the daughters of the regent of Badajoz and descendants of Ponce de Leon, the explorer who conquered and was first governor of Puerto Rico in the 1400 and first explorer of Florida.  One of the lieutenants was called Harry Smith, and he took care of the girls and fell in love with Juana, marrying her after a few days.  And this is when she joins my club of favourites, because she had the chance to go safely to England with his family, but she decided to follow him till the end of the war and ever after. She had great charm and courage and was highly esteemed by the troops and Lord Wellington.

Harry served in Waterloo and other destinations, had a brilliant career and was made Sir and governor of Cape Colony in South Africa. Juana kept her origins and identity even there in South Africa and always wore the classical Spanish shawl called ‘mantilla’ and the hair ornament called ‘peineta’, for all official receptions. She had great influence in the society of Cape Colony and had a town named after her: Ladysmith.

And this town has a twin town in Canada, in the isle of Vancouver also named Ladysmith after the one in Africa in memory of a siege that it suffered around 1900.  If we stay at the same time – 1808, same war, we can meet a heroine of my club, this time in Zaragoza, capital of Aragon, which was being sieged by the French.

Agustina Aragon

A group of soldiers were guarding one of the gates of the city, the gate of Portillo and a young artillery man was in charge of the cannon. The French army chose that gate to break into the city and attacked. At that precise moment, the wife of the artilleryman, arrived to the gate to take some food to his husband, and found every soldier either dead of injured. She saw the French soldiers coming in through the breach and without hesitation, she took a torch and fired the cannon. The French troops fearing an ambush, retreated while more defenders came to help, so she saved the city at that moment.

She was called Agustina and was 22. At the battle field, she was appointed first artillery women in the army and from then onward she was known as Agustina of Aragon, and became an icon of bravery and an inspiration for the resistance, with which she continued collaborating after the final liberation.The Spanish painter Goya depicted her portrait firing the cannon and Lord Byron made her a poem.

Maria Moliner

Finally, at present time, I would like to mention 2 last remarkable women. Maria Moliner was born in 1900 in Zaragoza, and was also one of the first women to access university. Among other things, she was a philologist and lexicologist.  She was also the Director of the Engineering University of Madrid.

But her most popular contribution to culture was a contribution to the language. She created a dictionary called ‘Dictionary for the correct use of Spanish language’ in 1966. The use of this dictionary is so commonly spread that it is still very often mentioned and used by journalists and writers, over the official Royal Academy dictionary. It is simply known as the dictionary of Maria Moliner.

But the real reason why she is in my club of favourites is that she worked on all this, while she was married, taking care of her 4 children, and her husband, who was blind. That is really work-family conciliation!!

Margarita Salas

Finally, Margarita Salas, Marquis of Canero was born in Asturias in 1938 and is now 74 years old. She was a disciple of Severo Ochoa, the Spanish Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1959 and worked with him in the United States. She is a specialist in molecular biology. Member of several Royal Academies in Spain, and member of the American Academies of microbiology and Arts of Science.  Since 2007 she is the first Spanish woman to be a member of the American National Academy of Science.

I admire her deeply because of her professional career, and because she is a real fighter, and an indefatigable investigator. At 74, she is still actively doing research work. She has all sorts of awards and honorific titles to honour her successful professional career and her multiple contributions to science”.

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