The Ghost of Franco: How His Divisive Legacy Prohibits the Growth of a Liberal Spain Today

Spain’s former dictator, Francisco Franco, remains a controversial figure whose legacy continues to divide Spaniards today, especially on the topic of women’s rights. 

Illustration Credit: Emily Tan

Franco rose to power during the Spanish Civil War, his victory in 1939 beginning a 36-year fascist dictatorship which would dramatically change the face of Spain. Despite passing away over four decades ago, Franco seems to be more alive in politics than ever, his memory still haunting the nation today.

From an oppressive dictatorship to a modern democracy, Spain certainly is now more progressive and has begun to embrace developments for women. The current Prime Minister’s cabinet has a large female majority and the integration of women in the workforce is steadily increasing. There is, however, still a long way to go to eliminate the underlying influence from Franco’s oppressive regime. Artist Eugenio Merino recognises Franco’s lingering legacy and argues that the dictator is ‘still present in Spain…in our politics [and] in our history’.

During the dictatorship, a female’s worth and success was solely measured upon how well she performed as a housewife. Women were bound to the realm of domesticity, with limited involvement in the workforce, and any threat or challenge to the regime would be eradicated in order to protect it. Professor Rubio Marin encapsulates life for women under Franco when she states that they were ‘oppressed in a patriarchal family structure which was conceived as the main unit of civil society’. Franco’s regime imprisoned women in a life of restriction, forcing them to become dependent on their male counterparts for economic survival. Marriage bars were put in place which prohibited married women from entering certain sectors of the economy so that the majority of career prospects lay with her husband. Opportunities for females were severely restricted – they needed permission to open a bank account, own property or even to travel away from home.

The 1936 introduction of the Sección Femenina, a female branch of the Spanish Falange, further reinstated the idea that the roles of women and men should be kept separate. It was led by Pilar Primo de Rivera, who believed that ‘the mission of a woman is to serve’. The organisation became an official institution during Franco’s dictatorship and its activity included promoting traditional feminine values and encouraging women to conform to social expectations regarding their gender. Thus sexist attitudes became entrenched in Spanish society and, according to Morcillo, it was believed that these gender differences provided ‘stability and social order to the nation and clarity of purpose to the individual’. 

It is important to mention that Franco’s attitudes towards traditional gender roles were closely intertwined with the Catholic Church, the most important institution at the time. It was taught that the purpose of a woman was to serve God and their country by developing patriotic-minded children and teaching them Roman Catholicism. The Church immediately took control of education and discussions related to feminism were prohibited in schools and universities. This meant that it was very difficult for women to escape or even address their inferior position. Javier Rodríguez states that this was ‘an ideological repression that sought to create a single-minded society, in which the Church played a fundamental role’.

Even after his death in 1975, Franco’s attitudes towards gender roles have certainly not yet dissipated. The gender pay gap still continues to be an issue in Spain, with many influential, large listed companies hiding their true gender pay gap. Even those who do not disclose their pay gap report differences of 20%-30% in favour of male workers. A survey from 2018 also revealed that women in Spain spend almost twice as much time completing unpaid housework than their male partners – an average of 26.5 hours a week compared to just 14 hours for men.

One may think that after Franco’s death, Spain was able to transform into a completely modern and equal democracy, however we must remember that these socially conservative beliefs have become ingrained in society, hindering female progression even in the 21st century. 

The VOX party – an echo of Franco?

Franco’s legacy undoubtably survives today, as seen with the surge in support for the extreme far-right Vox (Voice) party. The party’s rise in support is concerning for many women who fear a return to a dark Francoist era. 

Vox originated in 2013 from a group of Conservative politicians who strive to restore many Franco-style policies, including traditional gender stereotypes, which politics professor Silvia Claveria describes as ‘modern sexism’.

If elected, the party would forbid public hospitals from carrying out abortions and would advocate for longer maternity leave in an attempt to restore the patriarchal family structure. Although Santiago Abascal Conde, leader of Vox, claims that he is ‘no Francoist’, critics argue that Vox’s attitudes towards gender equality, such as the role of the family, completely mirror Franco’s demands of anti-liberalism and Catholic doctrine. 

A key part of Vox’s campaign is to fight against the rise of feminism which they believe is becoming too ‘radical’. Francisco Serrano, Vox’s leading candidate in the Andalusian election, believes that men are being victimised by ‘gender jihadism’.

As Vox continue to gain more power in the political mainstream, their criticism of feminism is beginning to spread. Inspired by Vox’s message, Spanish ultraconservative group, Hazte Oír, launched a bus campaign last year with an image of Adolf Hitler in makeup, changing the term ‘feminists’ to the derogatory and highly offensive label ‘femi-Nazis’. Both Vox and Hazte Oír continue to denounce and ridicule the feminist movement.

Similar to Franco’s government, Vox typically attract middle class male voters with conservative tendencies. The mayor of Madrid, Manuela Carmena, notes that ‘many men feel [confused] and displaced by the growing role of women in society’ and turn to Vox.

Yet, what seems to have caused most outrage amongst Spaniards is Vox’s extremely controversial stance on gender violence. Javier Ortega Smith, the secretary general of Vox, has demanded that Spain repeal an important 15-year old law that works to stop violence against women. He has also refused to sign a declaration that condemns this violence. Smith believes that the declaration is too focused on women, claiming that there is no need to talk about gender violence, let alone have specific laws on it.

The party’s blatant refusal to sign the declaration has angered many. In the past year, protests against Vox have soared dramatically, with demonstrators in 2019 stopping traffic and waving signs saying ‘how many more women must die? Activist Nadia Otmani, a politician who runs an association to support abused women, has also confronted Ortega Smith, believing that the party must not ‘mix politics with gender violence’. Despite Otmani’s hard work to achieve social justice around the world, the Vox party unfairly and cruelly deemed her a ‘subsidised feminist who uses everyone’s money for her own’.

However, activism is essential. The topic of women’s rights and gender violence needs to be addressed immediately and cannot just be ignored. According to the Crime Report published by the Ministry of the Interior, one in every five murders committed in Spain during the first three months of 2020 were women who had been murdered by their ex-husband or partners. In a televised interview with Vox’s leader, he claimed that 87% of gender-violence accusations had been dropped because of a lack of evidence, which reveals that the majority of gender violence cases have not been sufficiently researched. Currently, with women being restricted to the house due to Covid-19 lockdown, domestic abuse calls in Spain have increased by nearly 20% when compared with this time last year.

Vox’s pledge to ‘make Spain great again’ is a nationalist adoption of Franco-style politics and a throwback to the fascist dictatorship. Yet, if the party continues to suggest political measures that are detrimental to women, will life really be great for everyone?

Facing the past

It is evident that Francoist attitudes towards women are still prominent today – this must change.

Educating oneself about the history of a country is essential in order to spark future reform. The 36-year dictatorship of Franco is seminal to Spain’s history and shaped how the country is today – it cannot just be forgotten or denied. The only way for Spain to fully move on from Franco’s regime is to address the dark past and speak out about how people continue to suffer today, especially women.

Although there has been significant progress in terms of women’s rights with the help of protests, reform and education, there is still a long way to go to change how women are viewed in society.

One cannot deny that women are still suffering inequalities in everyday life. Overcoming them relies on actively changing deep-rooted prejudiced attitudes against women and educating others about the challenges that women face daily. Cultural attitudes do not change overnight. However, if we continue to raise awareness and shed light on the engrained inequality, I believe that our generation has the power to improve the position of women in society and encourage the government to take necessary action. This will prove to groups like Vox that Spain will continue to progress into an equal and modern society and will not take a step backwards.