February 21, 2011 by tatatum
“And how is she, the mujer of Pablo?”
“Something barbarous,” the gypsy grinned. “Something very barbarous. If you think Pablo is ugly you should see his woman. But brave. A hundred times braver than Pablo. But something barbarous.”
- Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls, 1940
Hemingway’s classic novel depicting only one of the countless stories of people and humanity during the Spanish Civil war is dominated by the presence of a woman. Not the beautiful Maria, whom the hero falls in love with. But Pilar, the wife of Pablo, who leads the Republican guerilla troops that the protagonist has found himself with. She is really the leader, not Pablo, and the men acknowledge as much. The long war and its horrors have whittled down her husband into an ineffectual commander who loses his loyalties too often. And the protagonist, Robert Jordan, an American who numbers among those foreign volunteers who arrrived in Spain to fight with the Republicans, finds himself respecting a woman as a fellow rebel and soldier.
Pilar is not the typical woman of the Spanish Civil war. Her strength and towering persona are techniques employed by Hemingway to convey the power of the Spanish peasantry and to serve as a contrast to the frail, young Maria. Most women of the time were not part of a guerilla warfare militia. The women of Spain did indeed undergo many tests during the war, but they were more often the social rather than physical kind of confrontation.
Pilar is referred to as “Pablo’s mujer,” a posession. (“Mujer” means “woman” in Spanish.) The Mujeres Libres, the “Free Women” of the (non-fictional) Spanish Civil War, strove to remove this type of mindset that was applied even to Pilar, a woman who can shoot better than her husband. This group of women, scattered throughout Spain, worked to use the impetus of revolution as a means of acheiving women’s rights. Similar to the situation faced by American women during World War II, women were left with Spain’s fields and factories largely abandoned when the men left to fight. And with a non-functioning government, control of the economy fell to the workers themselves. Communities of workers formed into libertarian communities, and the Mujeres Libres emerged as leadership to women who had been under the burden of a sexist government and society for centuries. They provided services to women that would not have existed otherwise, as well as services to benefit Spain as a whole. They fed men in the militia and cared for the injured. They taught women postnatal care, birth control pracitices, and sexual awareness. Many of Spain’s citizens were illiterate, and they set up programs in literacy and social studies. And in a show of the power these women had in a very traditional, patriarchal, Catholic society, the Catalan Generalitat legalized abortion in 1936.
The succession of Franco to power undid much of what the women of the Mujeres Libres strove for politcially during the war. The rights to abortion, civil marriages and divorce were all declared null and void. But the women of Spain caught a glimpse of social freedom amid the ruin of war. The work of the Mujeres Libres now ran deep in the country’s conciousness, and Spanish women were a concrete part of the workforce. Their actions would be remembered for decades, and used as inspiration for the continued strive towards equality that is still alive today.
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