'Defying Male Civilizatio

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  From: Grant Karpik                                 Read: Yes    Replied: No 
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  Subj: 'Defying Male Civilizatio
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Published by H-Minerva@h-net.msu.edu (April, 1998)

Mary Nash.  _Defying Male Civilization:  Women in the Spanish Civil
War_.  Women and Modern Revolutions Series.  Denver:  Arden Press,
1995.  xvi + 261 pp.  Chronology, notes, glossary, bibliography, and
index.  $32.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-912865-15-1; $22.50 (paper), ISBN

Reviewed for H-Minerva by Sharon Halevi ,
University of Haifa, Israel

           Plus Ca Change, Plus C'est La Meme Chose

Mary Nash's book is a good, solid work, which the editors have 
selected to launch the Women and Modern Revolutions series.  This 
series aims to examine such issues as the function of the 
sex-gender system during the revolutionary process, the role of 
women, the gendered aspects of revolutionary activity, and how 
gender interacts with other forces to determine the outcome of a 
revolutionary movement.  Using the words of the anarchist activist 
Succeso Portales regarding the anticipated collapse of "male 
civilization" as a point of origin for her discussion, Mary Nash 
questions whether the Spanish Civil War did indeed bring about the 
collapse of the social bases of male supremacy or whether Portales' 
words reflect more of an optimistic hope.

Nash begins her investigation by outlining the prevailing Spanish 
gender ideology and the social and political status of women in 
nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Spain.  She points out that 
the Spanish discourse on womanhood, which viewed the home and the 
family as the most appropriate female sphere of activity, was 
deeply influenced by Catholic doctrine.  Women's segregation from 
the public sphere was rationalized on religious grounds and 
maintained by high levels of female illiteracy and hostility to 
female waged labor.  Nash characterizes the nascent feminist 
movement of the period as having more of a social orientation; it 
was more interested in civic and social rights for women than 
political equality.  By emphasizing gender differences and 
maternalism, it unwittingly bolstered the prevailing gender 
discourse.  By taking into account the history of the social 
conditioning of Spanish women, Nash emphasizes how much the changes 
in the sex-gender system, wrought by a revolution or a war, are 
bound up with the social milieu within which they take place.

In the following chapters Nash surveys the range of female 
activities during the Civil War:  the various women's organizations 
and their activities, women's activities on the front lines (both 
as soldiers and as auxiliaries), and individual women's daily 
struggles to survive and maintain their families.  Relying on 
women's personal papers, articles in women's journals, and debates 
on gender issues in the anti-fascist press, Nash outlines the 
constantly shifting contours of the Spanish gender discourse during 
the Civil War.  Tracing the emergence of a public debate on the 
issues of prostitution and the spread of venereal diseases, and the 
legalization of abortion, she argues that both prostitution and 
abortion were viewed as primarily class, rather than gender, 
issues.  Both the campaign to eliminate prostitution and the drive 
to legalize abortion were part of an attempt to construct a new 
sexual culture which would go hand in hand with different social 
and political norms and values.  Only the anarchist women's 
organization, Mujeres Libres, posited a gender interpretation for 
these issues and argued that at their base lay an interclass male 
sexual oppression of women.

Of particular interest and importance is Nash's discussion of the 
portrayal of Spanish women in revolutionary imagery and rhetoric.  
She focuses on the figure of the _miliciana_ (the militia woman), 
which became the symbol of female mobilization against fascism.  
This new image broke with tradition by presenting women as active, 
purposeful, revolutionary, aggressive and heroic.  Even though the 
_milicianas_ were a minority (even among working-class women) the 
image was inspiring and symbolized much of the early enthusiasm of 
the republican struggle. However, within a few months, the 
_miliciana_ posters and propaganda had disappeared and were 
replaced by a new image--the "Homefront Heroine."  The "Homefront 
Heroine" propaganda, which portrayed women as nurturers and 
healers, was a republican appropriation and reworking of the theme 
of women as protective mothers (or potential mothers).

This thematic shift in the propaganda was accompanied by a parallel 
campaign to discredit the milicianas and coerce them to leave the 
front line units.  While in the early months of the war the 
milicianas were praised as symbols of generosity and bravery, by 
the autumn of 1937 their activities were viewed as inappropriate 
and improper female behavior.  A new allegation--that the 
milicianas were in fact prostitutes--succeeded in discrediting them 
and resulted in a popular cry for their recall from the front 
lines.  This allegation, which received great prominence in both 
the republican and fascist press, was not challenged publicly by 
any of the Spanish women's organizations and "even radical 
defenders of female emancipation and equality took a sexist 
position on the issue of women's removal from the fronts" (p. 114).

While women's options expanded during the Civil War years and for 
the first time they were not openly denied access to the public 
sphere (especially in education, social welfare, and public 
health), these activities were legitimated by modifying traditional 
gender models, not by creating new ones.  In her summation, Nash 
concludes that in Civil War Spain revolutionary change did not 
"imply the breakdown in patriarchal relations or a deep challenge 
to 'male civilization'" (p. 180).  The temporary redefinition of 
gender roles witnessed between 1936 and 1939 was never a serious 
challenge and a revolutionary view of gender roles failed to 

Nash's book will prove very useful in courses on the Spanish Civil 
War and women's history courses.  It provides a general overview of 
women's activities during the war, which may then be supplemented 
by more detailed monographs, such as Ackelsberg's and Mangini's 
studies.  One can only hope that Nash's book will be followed by 
other studies which will expand our knowledge of Spanish women's 
history in the twentieth century.

There are a few caveats to this assessment.  First, the term 
"Spanish women is clearly taken to mean republican or anti-fascist 
women.  While the focus on these women is understandable, a more 
modified term should be in place.  The second issue is the absence 
of a comparative view or a theoretical approach.  Take for example 
the campaign to discredit and eventually dismiss the _milicianas_ 
from the front lines.  Only after two chapters on the issue does 
Nash acquaint the reader with the fact that the campaign was taking 
place at the same time that the Communists were re-organizing the 
military.  In place of the non-hierarchical, voluntary, popular 
militia staffed by a patchwork of anarchists, dissident Marxists, 
unionists, and remnants of the republican army, the Communists 
wanted to rebuild a regular, disciplined, hierarchical, 
conventional army.  The price of this reorganization was the 
expulsion of the _milicianas_.  This is a crucial piece of 
information for the analysis of the _milicianas_ exclusion, which 
deserves more than the half page it received.  Any comparative view 
would have shown that such an exclusion of women from the military 
(especially combat duties) was related to this kind of military 
re-organization and was paralleled in the formation of the modern 
European armies in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and 
has happened in the twentieth century in many countries after the 
successful end of revolutions and wars of national liberation.  
Ignoring these parallels might leave the impression that the 
Spanish Civil War functioned in a historical or cultural void.  
This is particularly troublesome in a book belonging to a series 
devoted to understanding the impact of gender on revolutionary 
movements and examining its comparative aspects.


Ackelsberg, Martha A.  _Free Women of Spain:  Anarchism and the
Struggle for the Emancipation of Women_.  Bloomington and
Indianapolis:  Indiana University Press, 1991.

Higonnet, Margaret Randolph, et. al. eds.  _Behind the Lines:
Gender and the Two World Wars_.  New Haven and London:  Yale
University Press, 1987.

Mangini, Shirley.  _Memories of Resistance:  Women's Voices from the
Spanish Civil War_.  New Haven and London:  Yale University Press,

        Copyright (c) 1998 by H-Net and _MINERVA: Quarterly Report
        on Women and the Military_.  All rights reserved. This work
        may be copied for non-profit educational use if proper
        credit is given. For other permission contact


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                   Grant {Internet: karpik@sprint.ca}

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