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Free Women’s Contributions to Working-Class Women’s Sexual Education During the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939) and Beyond

by Elisenda Giner, Laura Ruiz, Mª Ángeles Serrano & Rosa Valls - 2016

Background/Context: Women’s sexuality, and the ways they experience it, has been a major topic in feminist theories and movements throughout history. For the more than 20,000 working-class women who participated in the Free Women movement in Spain (the libertarian women’s movement, which started in 1936), women’s sexuality was also a key topic in both their process of empowerment and their claims and activities.

Purpose: The objective of this article is twofold. First, it explores the ways in which the Free Women movement helped improve the personal lives of women in that period. Second, this article analyzes how the libertarian women’s movement contributed to the sexual education and encouraged other women to have sexual and affective relationships free of violence.

Research Design: The article is constructed based on the life stories of two women who participated in the Free Women’s movement. Our analysis also draws from an in-depth review of literature on the libertarian movement and sexual education as well as of historical documents about the libertarian movement of that time.

Findings/Results: Our data reveal that thousands of women experienced personal transformations through their involvement in the libertarian movement, a social revolution that affected the entire society. Reflections on free love, the eradication of prostitution, and the promotion of “conscious motherhood” were leading ideas in both the educational activities that Free Women organized for working-class women and in the activists’ own personal lives. These women’s ideas on sexuality contributed to the creation of a society with more egalitarian and free relationships based on mutual support, solidarity, and collective and community-based action. This article shows how the Free Women were historically independent agents whose multiple achievements and transformations have been largely ignored.

Conclusions/Recommendations: The article concludes by discussing how the main features of the Free Women’s libertarian women’s movement are present in the preventive socialization of gender violence that is currently being developed in some educational projects in Spain. In particular, the Free Women’s contributions help students construct relationships free of violence.

The year 1936 was a historic one in Spain. It saw the start of the terrible Civil War that led, three years later, to a dictatorship of almost 40 years. At the same time, thousands of women experienced personal transformations through their involvement in the libertarian movement. The Spanish libertarian movement is defined as the result of what happened when the ideas of popular grassroots movements that had existed until 1939 came in line with the anarchist ideas introduced in Spain in 1868 by Fanelli, when different organizations such as the CNT [National Workers Confederation] the anarcho-syndicalist union, the FAI [The Anarchist Iberian Federation], the FIJL [Iberian Federation of Libertarian Youth],1 and Mujeres Libres [Free Women] fought in different areas of the public and private spheres to abolish power relations (Bookchim, 1998). This contributed to the creation of a society with more egalitarian and free relationships based on mutual support, solidarity, and collective and community-based action. Each persons abilities as a protagonist in social and individual transformations were valued (Preston, 2001).

The Spanish libertarian ideals generated what it is known as the Spanish Social Revolution,2 a grassroots mobilization of people who fought against the coup détat executed by the fascist and revolting soldiers in July 1936 as a first step toward a freer and more equal society (Ackelsberg, 1991). The significance and relevance of the Spanish Social Revolution goes way beyond its time because it is the only place and the only historical period in which anarchism3 was materialized into a social revolution (Preston, 2001). Women also participated in the diverse organizations that led to this unique and historical revolution. Especially relevant is the case of the Free Womens movement (Ackelsberg, 1991; Nash, 1976; Vega, 2010). With the aim of overcoming what they called the triple slavery of a woman, Free Women fought against slavery as a producer in a capitalist system that exploited the working class, slavery as a woman in a sexist and patriarchal society, and slavery in terms of ignorance because they had not had the opportunity to access education (Nash, 1976). For the first time, more than 20,000 working-class and rural women organized without following the guidelines of any political party or other type of union organization.

However, the role of women as agents involved in social, political, or economic transformation has largely been neglected not only by traditional historians, who fail to acknowledge that women themselves face situations or have to overcome obstacles that men do not, but even by the libertarian movement itself. Some anarchist women, such as Federica Montseny, who became the Minister of Health and Social Assistance in 19361937,4 did see the importance of womens issues but did not see the need for a specifically female struggle; she argued that the anarchist movement itself would work to resolve these situations (Montseny, 1987; Tavera, 2005). Mary Nash (1976) has been a pioneer in gathering the contributions of the women who participated in the libertarian movement during the Social Revolution of 1936 in Spain. As Mary Nash (1981) stated in her work Women and the Workers Movement in Spain, the traditional currents of historiography have rarely included women, except when they played outstanding roles as individuals.

The present article is meant to contribute to filling this gap. Our aim here is twofold. First, it explores in which ways the Free Women movement had an effect on the personal lives of the women in that period. Then, it analyzes the role played by those women as historically independent agents to reveal the multiple achievements and transformations that have largely been ignored. Specifically, the article focuses on the analysis of Free Womens sexual education contributions during the Social Revolution. In this sense, it is important to emphasize that many of their ideals and proposals were ahead of their time and even today still seem quite progressive. For this reason, the second aim of the article is to analyze how the libertarian womens movement contributed to sexual education and to encouraging other women to have sexual and affective relationships free of violence.

The article is structured in five sections. The first section explains the methodology that has been developed. The second section focuses on explaining the origins of Free Women as well as the movements aims and how it became one of the largest and most active movements in the rearguard during the Spanish Civil War (July 18, 1936 to April 1, 1939). In the third section, the Free Womens contributions to working-class womens sexual education are analyzed. Womens sexuality, and the ways they experience it, has been a major topic in feminist theories and movements throughout history. For the women who participated in the Free Women movement, this was also a key topic in both their process of empowerment and their claims and activities.

The fourth section analyzes how some of the Free Womens contributions to sexual education are still valid in the present day and can be introduced to the sexual education developed in schools (Casemore, Sandlos, & Gilbert, 2011; Weis & Carbonell-Medina, 2000). Special emphasis is put on these womens contributions to the current agenda of the preventive socialization of gender violence among adolescents and youth, which is already being implemented in some Learning Communities and other social movements (Elboj & Niemelä, 2010; Gatt, Ojala, & Soler, 2011; Soler, 2004). Finally, the last section reviews the main contributions of this article and argues its relevance for todays education.


Until recently, the historic contributions of Free Women in the difficult Civil War years have been silenced. However, this silencing is changing, partially as a consequence of the process of recovering the historical memory that was initiated in Spain upon the October 2007 passing of law 52/2007. This law acknowledges and broadens the rights of, and establishes measures to favor, the victims of persecution or violence during the Civil War and the dictatorship.5 Furthermore, researchers have made efforts to keep and save the voices of those women who had a leading role with Free Women during the Spanish Social Revolution. Both processes are currently enabling the voices and contributions of those women who fought actively to be heard (Nash, 1981).

The findings presented in this article are part of a larger research project conducted by Lidia Puigvert during 20062007 that is aimed at recovering the memory of those women who participated in the libertarian movement (Puigvert, 20062007). Particularly, the article is focused on emphasizing the Free Womens contributions to sexuality and sexual education at that time, the effects of which are evident today.

To that end, three main methods have been used. First, two women who had actively participated in the libertarian movement of Free Women were asked to share their oral life stories. Second, the main historical documentary archives were reviewed, drawing from the analysis of bibliographic reports, historical documents, specialized books and articles, and newspaper articles from that time. Finally, the scientific literature was reviewed.

The oral life stories conducted were with Sara Berenguer (Barcelona, 1919Montady, France, 2010) and Pepita Carpena (Barcelona, 1919Marsella, 2005), two women who were actively involved in Free Women. Both were born in Barcelona in 1919. At only 16, they actively participated in the events of July 19, 1936, that caused the Spanish Social Revolution. As working women with no basic education, their role in this movement was striking. First, Sara Berneguer had been the Secretary of the Regional Committee of Catalonia of the Free Women, a role that was later assumed by Pepita Carpena. Additionally, they both took exile in France when the Franco troops entered Barcelona in January 1939. Both maintained their activism and contact with the libertarian movement in exile as part of the French resistance to the Nazis and were linked to people who, from the clandestinity of Spain, were fighting against the Franco regime.

The initial contact with Sara Berenguer and Pepita Carpena started in August 2001, when members of the research team planned a trip to Marseille to ask these two women to share their life stories. From then on, regular contact via phone and mail was maintained with both women until 2010. Contact with Pepita Carpena lasted until 2005, the year of her death, and contact with Sara Berenguer lasted until April 2010, three months before her death.

Departing from the postulates of communicative methodology (Gómez, Puigvert, & Flecha, 2011), the analysis of the contributions of these two Free Women to sexual education was marked by the constant discussions held with them throughout the entire research process. These discussions were held in gatherings at their homes or by mail and telephone.

The second method use to configure the present article was a thorough review of the main historical document archives. A large part of this review was conducted through these archives because no digital version of the documentary was available. The archives were: in Amsterdam, the International Institute of Social History6; in Barcelona, the Archivo del Pabellón de la República [Archive of the Republics Pavilion] of the University of Barcelona, the Filmoteca de Catalunya [Catalonian Film Archive], the Centre de Documentació Històrica i Social del Ateneu Enciclopèdic [Center of Historical and Social Documentary of the Encyclopedic Ateneo], and the Biblioteca Pública Arús [Public Library Arús]; and in Badalona, the headquarters of the CNT and the Centre dEstudis Llibertaris Federica Montseny [Federica Montseny Center of Libertarian Studies].

The main documents reviewed in these archives were journals of the libertarian movement published in the first three decades of the 20th century, focusing on articles related to the role of women and their rights, sexual education, sexual freedom, free love, and prostitution. The journals consulted were Mujeres Libres [Free Women], the only publication entirely devoted to women, especially to working and rural women and edited by the Free Women movement; Estudios [Studies], one of the most successfully disseminated journals among the libertarian movement that defended the perspective of comprehensive education of the individual; Solidaridad Obrera [Workers Solidarity], the media representative of the CNT; and the Revista Blanca [White Journal], an anarchist journal of sociology and art.

Finally, a review of scientific literature was developed consulting the database Web of Science to access articles published in journals indexed in the Journal Citation Report (JCR), Scopus, and ERIC that discussed the contributions of the libertarian movement to education and other social domains in Spain and internationally.

The present article includes quotations directly from the oral life stories of the two Free Women interviewed and from the consulted documents of the time. Both the life stories and the historic bibliographic references help describe and configure the social reality of a historical periodthe Social Revolutionled by popular women within the Free Women movement. More precisely, quotations were selected that best underline the working-class womens contributions to sexual education, which is one of the aims of the present article.


The anarchist theory includes the liberation of women in the context of their defense and struggle for a society that is free of power relations, has no hierarchies, and is free and egalitarian. The idea that the emancipation of women was a consequence of the social struggle prevailed among anarchists (Nash, 1976). From the perspective of the libertarian movement, for instance, the supporters of Teresa Claramunt7 have claimed that the woman worker is the slave of the slave (as cited in Prades Baena, 2006, p. 114), exploited not only by capitalism but also by a patriarchal society dominated by men, even working-class men. Additionally, the libertarian movement in general takes a stance against the dominant discourse of society that held that women were intellectually inferior to men (Ackelsberg, 1991; González Pérez, 2013; Nash, 1981).

Martha Ackelsberg (1991) argued that anarchists define an alternative type of social organization based on freedom and equality. They consider people as part of a community where freedom and equality are the basis of economic relations, the mechanisms for coordination, sexuality, and personal relations, and, importantly, the systems and methods of education and socialization in community. Instead of inequality as the basis for organization, the anarchists propose the mutual support of solidarity and reciprocity. Instead of hierarchy and domination, they propose enabling every single person to reach his or her upright potential.

Nevertheless, the libertarian movement in Spain comprised diverse perspectives on the place of women in society because there was no precise agreement on whether women had to work equally to men. The different perspectives range from those that thought women had to be workers to those that saw them as mothers and daughters only, instead of considering them as workers, because they believed that motherhood was incompatible with work. Mary Nash (1981) showed how, between the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, two currents of thought on the role of men and women emerged among the Spanish anarchists. One, inspired by Proudhon, considered women to be essential for human reproduction and to contribute to society in their role as housewives. Thus, women became emancipated through the reorganization of house chores. Their work outside of house chores is regarded as secondary to mens work. The second current of thought was rooted in Bakunin and placed special emphasis on equality between women and men. Emancipation was considered the complete integration of women to paid work. According to this idea, once women had overcome their subordination, they had to unite with the workforce as workers and fight together with the unions for the improvement of the labor conditions of all workers, men and women. This later position was the one that dominated the CNT.

However, even inside the libertarian movement, Free Women defended that womens participation in the unions would not be enough. They thought that the reasons for the subordination of women were more deeply rooted and broader than economic exploitation at their workplace (Ackelsberg, 1991, 1993), which is why they decided to initiate a specific womens movement as part of the Social Revolution. This specific womens movement had the main aim of womens liberation, promoting the transformation of the socialization processes and of cultural transmission and giving priority to values such as freedom and equality that would overcome the power relations, including gender relations.

The Free Women movement was created in a historical moment when the great majority of women did not participate in cultural life, in the economy, or in the public sphere in general. The role of women was mostly kept to the private sphere. Sara Berenguer, an active member of Free Women, described the situation of women at the time prior to the Social Revolution: Well, before the war, there were already some groups. There were athenaeums, but they were a minority; but there were athenaeums all over the neighborhoods. A minority of men and women attended these athenaeums. Few women attended, because they were not allowed to by their families. In the 1930s, women gained more access to education as the Second Republic Government and the workers movement offered various initiatives that tackled illiteracy. However, the reality was that illiteracy rates were fairly high: approximately 50% of men and more than 60% of women in the southern part of the peninsula, and approximately 20% of men and 30% of women in the northern part of the peninsula (Capel, 1986; González Pérez, 2013).

In this context, the Free Women movement was launched by a group of women connected to the libertarian movement of Barcelona and Madrid in April 1936, three months before the Spanish Civil War started (July 18, 1936 to April 1, 1939). These women had already created a space in the libertarian athenaeums where they could meet and organize themselves. Some were already activists in various groups involved in the Spanish libertarian movement; others were not members of these groups but sympathized with the ideology. Yet, with the creation of Free Women, they defended the idea that women had to get organized outside the organizations of the movement because both the libertarian movement and the unions and political movements did not give priority to the specific issues that working women were suffering not only as workers but also as women.8

In Madrid in April 1936, three women, Lucía Sánchez Saornil, Mercedes Comaposada, and Amparo Poch y Gascón, members of the anarcho-syndical movement, began to create and publish a magazine with the name that would later become the name of the very movement: Free Women. Publishing articles on social and cultural issues, the magazine was aimed at working women, with the goal to educate and raise awareness among women (Nash, 1981, p. 85). The need of anarchist women of having a specific female organization fighting for the emancipation of women also inspired the creation of this journal (Nash, 1976, p. 12). By the end of April, the promoters of the journal were joined by other women who belonged to the Federación Local de Sindicatos de Madrid [Local Federation of Unions in Madrid] of the CNT.

Meanwhile, in Barcelona, the movement was started two years earlier (1934) by a group of young members of the CNT and the libertarian movement who created the Grup Cultural Femení de Barcelona [Barcelona Womens Cultural Group], composed of Apolonia de Castro, Felisa de Castro, Maruja Boadas, Maria Cerdán, Nicolasa Guitiérrez, Soledad Estorach, Elodia Pou, and Concha Liaño, among others. These women counted on the collaboration and support of rationalist women teachers, such as Pilar Grangel, Llibertat Ródenas, and Áurea Cuadrado. The Barcelona Group aimed to promote culture, education, and relationships of solidarity among women to face the inequality they experienced as working women (Liaño, 1999). The group from Barcelona and the group from Madrid decided to unite and to create the movement of the Free Women. During the two subsequent years, groups were formed all over the region, where the Government of the Second Republic was still in force. All groups included a total of approximately 20,000 women in 147 groups (Nash, 1976).

Free Women was a precedent of womens movements because it was the first organization in Spain to raise the issue of inequality of women from both a class and gender perspective (Nash, 1981). Moreover, the Free Women movement was mainly composed of working and rural women (Ackelsberg, 1993). Concha Liaño9 (1999), one of the founders of Free Women, described the women who participated in the movement:

Most of us were rural women, workers. Our intellectual level, with the exception of four or five activists, was not very high in terms of academic preparation, strictly speaking, but our common sense, natural intelligence, and good judgment, if youll excuse my lack of modestyin that we were unsurpassed. (p. 58)

In the life stories shared, these women explained how they wanted to be different from the other womens organizations for a variety of reasons: They regarded these organizations as bourgeois because they did not take the interests and needs of women workers into account, or because they responded to the interests of a political party instead of to their interests as women. The Free Women believed that to overcome discrimination, working and rural women had to get organized on their own behalf and according to their interests and claims. These women had no academic backgroundmany were illiterate, and others had great difficulty with reading and writingbut all of them were well aware of what they wanted and considered themselves to be equal to any other social group, bourgeois womens organization or union organizations, to mention a few. Pepita Carpena, responsible for the propaganda of the Free Women Regional Committee of Catalonia, shared her impressions of the meetings with rural women:

When I was in the propaganda, because I was in the Regional Committee of the Free Women, I was in the department of propaganda and went on tour across the region, it was there where I learned that the women had all these thoughts. They were more anxious about freedom than we thought. . . . Well, we thought that in the villages they were behind, women were behind. . . . But no! But no! They were so anxious for the liberation, now! At the time that I am talking about, right? In the 30s. . . . And of course, one cannot go to the villages giving lectures; one has to go to listen. First, we asked them about their opinion on women, on freedom, etc., etc. And in these conversations one can see the atmosphere that the people perceive, and there one knows how to respond: according to the experience of every one of us.

The 1936 Revolution was an opportunity for many women to get out of their houses and actively participate in the construction of this new society. In July 1936, women went out into the streets along with men and started to participate in all the activities they had previously been excluded from and silent on; they had the opportunity to express what they thought and make decisions without other people making decisions for them. Within a context in which everyone was dedicated to making the new society based on more egalitarian and freer relationships work, women were becoming visible because they wanted to be and because they knew that they could be. Sara Berenguer affirmed this when asked about the first reactions of the women after the Social Revolution started: When the revolution broke out, the women of the libertarian movement, well, they went out on the streets straight away, just like men did. With no difference. All these women were protagonists of many initiatives and actions of the antifascist struggle, of the campaigns for literacy and for the cultural and professional education of women, and of the struggle for gender equality (Berenguer, 1988; Liaño, 1999; Prades Baena, 2006; Rodrigo, 2002b).

With the advancement of the fascist troops, the Free Women movement had to put all its efforts in the rearguard to support the front. For this reason, the educational activities were given second priority during the last period of the war. During Francos dictatorship (19391975), the Free Women and the rest of the organizations that supported the democratic Second Republic Government were illegalized and suppressed. Many of the people who actively participated in the libertarian movements suffered persecution, were imprisoned, and/or were assassinated. Many had to escape from Spain, taking exile in other European countries or in America. Some continued to work in clandestinity to recover the freedom that the regime had taken from them (Preston, 2012). The Free Women also suffered persecution and/or imprisonment and/or had to seek political asylum in other countries. That was the case, for instance, of Sara and Pepita, who took exile in France. However, like many other Free Women, they never stopped working and fighting for a fairer and more equal society.

At the time of Francos death (1975), a democratic transition was initiated. This process did not involve a process of recovering the historical memory of movements that took place prior to the Second Republic. The Moncloa Pacts, an agreement signed in the Moncloa Palace during the Spanish transition, played an important role. They were mainly focused on controlling the high inflation, which was then 47%. These pacts were signed by the main political parties that had parliamentary representation, along with business associations and the Comisiones Obreras [Workers Commissions] union. Although the main objective of these pacts seemed to be economic, an attempt to create a stable, trouble-free transitional process to a democratic system was underlying them (Fuentes Quintana, 2005):

The favorable atmosphere for consensus that made the Moncloa Pacts possible also made possible an important change in the political climate in Spain . . . a favorable climate that allowedwithout the trauma of a chaotic destabilizationfor a democratic constitution accepted by all the political forces in the parliament in December 1978. Such politics was actually the main ambition, the basic goal of the Moncloa Pacts, and obviously it was reached. (pp. 5253)

The priority placed on consensus and on eliminating any possibility of political disruption during the transition process gave the fascist parties, including the Falange and Fuerza Nueva (New Force), an opportunity to legalize. In addition, politicians who had served under Franco and supported his policies were actively involved in the transition process. Making these actions possible was an implicit pact of silenceof forgettingbetween the politicians and important sectors of the population. This pact was an agreement to neither question nor unveil anything that occurred during the transition to democracy (Preston, 2006):

The desire of the great majority of the Spanish people to guarantee a bloodless transition to democracy and to prevent any repetition of violence in yet another civil conflict was not only stronger than the desire for revenge but it also led to sacrificing the desire for knowing. This collective decision to contribute by all possible means to the restoration of democracy led to what became known as the Pact of Forgetting, lowering the curtain of silence before the past for the sake of a still fragile democracy. (p. 24)

However, the women who participated in the libertarian movement found their history made even more invisible. The great majority of these life stories had disappeared, had been silenced, because they were womenwomen of the popular classes, women without academic education. To overcome this disappearance, some prior publications collected the contributions of Free Women with the main aim of bring justice to their work. Ruiz-Eugenio (2010) provided a general overview of how their libertarian organization affected education and womens movements. In García and Ruíz (2012), some of their educational activities, such as the literacy campaigns or the promotion of classic readings, are deeply explained. Now, the present article does a deep analysis of their contribution to sexual education. Thus, the Free Women are recognized not only for their contributions to society at that time in terms of sexual education, equality of womens rights, and their sexual freedom, but also for their valuable contributions to our current society. Furthermore, and in doing so, this article enables students to create more lasting connections to the past and understand and identify with histories with which they have a heritage connection but also from which they are able to learn, as Levy (2014) stated.


Free Women, as well as the general libertarian movement, noted the need to profoundly transform sexualityan area that fundamentally influenced peoples social and political life. Particularly, sexual freedom concerned them the most, so it was the main focus of their work in their educational, social, and healthcare activities. In this section, an analysis of this educational work carried out by Free Women is conducted, focusing especially on their contributions to working-class womens sexual education. Their concerns about womens role in society, free love, maternity, abortion, and prostitution were key. Conferences about feminism and what free love really meant, educational orientations on family planning, and specific campaigns to abolish prostitution were some of their initiatives.


In the intellectual and libertarian press at that time (Greene, 1998), it was thought that a woman with libertarian ideas, a female revolutionary, a liberated woman, had to refuse everything that was associated with the traditional woman. These attitudes confirmed that this image of femininity had been created by the values in a patriarchal society, in other words, by mens wishes. These values promoted mens domination of women and their belief that women were simply one more material possession.

Within this context, that a woman would dress up to be in fashion and wear make-up and jewelry meant feeding the values of a male chauvinist and capitalist society. In that type of society, women are defined by the superficiality of what is material, and her attractiveness is reduced to that level, when she adorns herself in response to that imagined view of femininity that was the fruit of mens desires. Therefore, it was thought that women who were concerned with being attractive were giving way to those traditional values. In addition, if she gave excessive value to those things and let herself be carried away by them, she became an uninteresting woman who was easy, which meant that she stopped being valued by some men (Greene, 1998).

This perception of femininity was also defended by feminists themselves. For example, for Beauvoir (1964), women are defined by men as Otherness in their relationship with them. Women will never become as significant as men, and they are condemned to be in a state of permanent immanence. A man is the individual, and a woman is defined by him; she cannot define herself. Fashion and vanity, for Beauvoir, are one more example of the slavery to which women have been relegated in the definition that men have ascribed to them in order to dominate them. The only women who can come slightly closer to a state of significance are those who give up what has traditionally been related to femininity, such as the values or rules of beauty that are socially recognized in the various societies dominated by men. Maternity and family-creation were also included in those aspects of femininity that women would have to avoid to be a liberated woman (Beauvoir, 1964).

These attitudes related to the femininity come from the intellectual field, but these were not the positions defended by Free Women. Sara and Pepita explained to us that Free Women were opposed to this analysis of femininity, proposing the idea that women have to feel free to choose the way they want to dress, do their make-up, and create their own identity and femininity. For them, it was not revolutionary to strip themselves of everything that could be identified with what is feminine. They did not want to have to resemble men to enjoy the freedom men enjoy, and they could see that what was revolutionary was the idea that women should be able to be free to choose. Womens choices of one option or another was not better or worse; they also believed that no man had the right to consider a woman to be easy or to feel that he had the right to assault her depending on the way she was dressed and the impression she may give.

In fact, Free Women did not identify with feminists or with the positions of certain intellectuals from the libertarian movement because these groups did not take into account what working women thought it meant to be a woman or the way they wanted to be simultaneously feminine and revolutionary. On the contrary, they did have ideas that were complementary to their being anarchists, revolutionaries, feminine, and mothers without having to be slaves to the desires of men or to capitalist values. The complementary concept of femininity and feminism defended by the Free Women is explained in the following quote by Pepita Carpena, member of the Free Women:

I said to them just because they didnt want to (the feminists) . . . then they should leave me alone! I liked to dress nicely and to be appreciated, in other words, how do you say it, now I dont know how to say it. . . . I liked the fact that men looked at me! Ah! Im not going to make myself ugly, am I? Just because Im a Free Woman? No, on the contrary, I wanted to make myself as attractive as possible so that people liked me . . . that is my way of thinking.

In this sense, Free Women defended a clear idea of feminism based on the idea that they wanted equality and not a reversed hierarchy between men and women. For them, being anarchists and fighting for the Social Revolution had nothing to do with being worried about what made them feel good about themselves. They felt as though they were revolutionaries, and they felt free at the same time, wearing make-up and dressing up while also choosing to be mothers and to have families, as Pepita Carpena stated:

Do we have to be ugly because we are anarchists? Not at all. I have always fought against that, always. In fact, I had a very vain personality, you know, I was always dressed nicely, and I never considered the statements that suggested that not caring to be beautiful, you were liberated of the submission to men . . . no, these two ideas have nothing to do with each other. I like to be nicely dressed and I want to be pretty for everyone.


The concept of free love promoted by Free Women was based on the idea that neither sex should possess the other. It was a union decided upon freely by the people involved in the relationship, based on equality and respect (Nash, 1981; Schwartz, 2010).

For them, free love was not about having lot of sexual relations with people but rather about choosing the people you had sexual relations with very carefully so that it could be sincere and based on feelings. Sara Berenguer, member of the Free Women, explained the concept of free love as follows, always linked to the idea of respect and no cheating:

. . .  this respect does not mean, Today, Im going to sleep with you and then turn around and he tells you that he loves you and tomorrow goes with another girl. . . . I dont know, people have to be respected, right? Not deceived. Because sometimes it happened that there were companions who, yes, there was a lot of companionship, but then theyd had two female companions, theyd used two companions and theyd had to lie to one . . . and that does not . . . if the three of them agree, fine, we have nothing to say. But what we cannot accept is that one of them is deceived, right? . . . That is not freedom, nor is it love. People have to be respected. I repeat, if the three of them agree, we have nothing to say about that. People should not be deceived. That is respect.

Free Women defended a model for sexual and affective relationships that was free of power relations. True freedom required the full development of all human abilities, including sexual capacities. They saw free love as a voluntarily chosen relationship that began and ended when the people involved made those decisions based on a feeling of affinity, which made people freer.

Free Women experienced free love as a profound relationship based on understanding and compatibility, not as a simple sexual exchange. Based on that concept, there was no space for betraying other women, or even ones own female friends, by having deceitful relationships with their husbands or partners. The solidarity of their relationships had demonstrated the reason why they had relationships which they often kept very much alive throughout their whole lives. Sara Berenguer shows in her words the deep love she felt for her companion even when he was stationed at the front and she had no reliable news regarding whether he was still alive:

. . . in my imagination, he was by my side, along with me, even when he was far away. That love gave me so much confidence! How beautiful it was to think that, in the loneliest moment, someone far away, so far away, was carrying me in his heart, just like I was carrying him in mine! (Berenguer, 1988, p. 210)

The relationships based on the feelings that these women had for their partners, as well as the values on which their human relationships in general were based, is what made them have a strong attitude toward what free love and sexual freedom meant, and it ensured that they did not choose a different concept. It is these feelings of Sara Berenguer that allow her to distinguish between love and affection:

For me, feelings had a great deal of value. There is a natural attraction . . . love, love . . . you feel affection for someone and that is it, no? Sex for the sake of sex is nothing, because you can go and sleep with one person today and another one tomorrow. You can sleep with whoever you like, right, I am not saying anything about that . . . but love is something that is born in your heart and that is expressed, and if the other person feels the same way as you do, well there is no problem, right? That is love for me. Free love is reaching that conclusion under those conditions.

People experienced a good deal of confusion about the concept of free love (Fahs, 2014; Hapgood, 1909; Hemmings, 2014; Schwartz, 2010) and how to put it into practice, especially when it was women who were defending the idea, just as Pepita Carpena stated: Of course, there was a lot of confusion about that. Sometimes, we had to clarify the fact that a Free Woman was not a woman who goes to bed with just anyone in a sexual sense. That is the first thing that many women thought, too. Making it even more complicated was the influence of the prevailing double standard, which sometimes distorted the real meaning of free love. Free Women criticized previous campaigns by the libertarian movement that supposedly favored sexual freedom but in fact promoted a very superficial concept of sexual freedom, creating an image of women as being mere sexual objects and thus promoting the double standard. The Free Women defended a steady position on their idea of free love related to ideals of freedom of choice (to be free to choose) and of rationality (to know whom to choose). Sara Berenguer (1988) captured this position: So, does being free mean going to sleep with the first person who asks me? In that case, where would my freedom be? (p. 75).

Free Women rejected this double standard posited by some men from the libertarian movement based on an attitude that was the opposite of anarchist ideals. This double standard made them indignant, not only as anarchists but also as men. Free Women believed that these men had values that, throughout the centuries, had created a traditional view of women whereby they were not able to freely express their sexuality and their feelings, and this was a very deeply rooted attitude.

Moreover, some men interpreted free love as applying to themselves but not to their female companions; others frequently made fun of or insulted those women who practiced free love. Some of the men in the movement took advantage of the concept, using as sexual objects the women who were interested in the libertarian movement because of their dream that it could change society. Even married men joined this supposed sexual freedom in order to betray their wives. Free Women criticized and fought against this type of attitude, which was completely contrary to the values they supported as women and as anarchists. These men said that women could not be real libertarians if they refused to sleep with them; then, once they managed to have sex with them, they rejected them, calling them easy.

Sometimes women who approached the Free Women group were called Hare-Like Women10 to discredit them. As mentioned, some men did not believe in the ability of women to organize themselves and participate at a level of equality in the same spaces where they did. Many of these men believed that when a woman came into the libertarian movement, it was because she was looking for something more, because she was looking to have sexual intercourse with the men who were there. Some claimed this out of anger because they had wanted to have sex with a member of the Free Women and had been rejected. Pepita Carpena and Sara Berenguer expressed the same idea and noted that those men from the libertarian movement thought that her companions from the movement were such hares and called them liebres:

At that time, so that they could laugh at us, they called us mujeres liebres instead of Mujeres Libres. That says it all, hare-like women, they called usin other words, what racy women, you know? Hares run very fast. . . . We had many battles with our companionsa lot.

For Free Women, free love did not involve having sex with anyone who asked for it. For them, sexual freedom involved choosing those people who respected them and who did not humiliate them or reject them afterward. What was important was neither the amount of sexual contact people had nor the number of people they experienced it with. What counted was the fact they came together based on a feeling of respect and union in which women were not used as sexual objectsindependently of how long the relationship lasted. As Pepita Carpena states, among the Free Women, this positioning was very clear, and it had to be defended before their companions. During a conversation on the idea of sexual freedom, a companion questioned her idea of free love as well as her ability to choose. Pepita responded to her companion as follows:

One day, one of my young companions said to me, You are very free, very free, but if I asked you to sleep with me you would not. This surprised me so much that I said, Listen, friend, that is precisely why I am free: so that I can choose whichever companion I feel like sleeping with, and I am not interested in you at all. He was speechless, you know. Anyway, it was an idiotic question, eh? Dont you think? Very free, very free. . . in other words, because Im free Ill go with it doesnt matter who. No, it is not about that. . . .  This is the mistake they always made.


Sexual freedom was a claim of the Free Women. They defended a model of sexual and affective relationships that was free of power relations, and they defended that everyone should have a sexual education. One key aspect was birth control. The Free Women movement participated in an educational initiative promoted during the Social Revolution, putting a special emphasis on womens access to sexual education to improve her health conditions and to get closer to gender equality. With this purpose, they started birth control initiatives by disseminating knowledge about contraceptive methods among the workers, both men and women. Therewith, they promoted conscious maternity and defended birth control as a means to enhance the liberation/emancipation of women.

From the beginning of the 20th century, the libertarian movement defended birth control as one way to emancipate working-class women (Accampo, 1996; Cleminson, 2008). In consideration of the ideas developed in the Neo-Malthusian movement, based on an anarchist interpretation, Free Women promoted the distribution of contraceptives among the working class as a valid form of birth control, which was in contrast to the Malthusians suggestion of chastity. Nash (1984) said of birth control and Neo-Malthusianism:

The stance adopted by Spanish libertarian circles vis a vis Malthuss contentions and the spread of neo-Malthusianism passed through three different stages: the first, corresponding to the 19th and early 20th centuries, is typified by its rejection of Malthusian principles; the second, up until the 1920s, is linked to the trajectory of the journal Salud y Fuerza [Health and Strength] and the person of Luis Bulffi; and the third, associated with the reviews of Generación Consciente [Conscious Generation] and Estudios [Studies] especially in the years of the Republic. (p. 316)

By the 1930s, the campaign for birth control had been fully embraced by anarchism and waged among the proletariat, both as a means of avoiding large families doomed to poverty and exploitation and as a way of enjoying a full sex life with no limits other than those set by the free choice of the couple; the mothers health would also be a telling factor in such considerations (Nash, 1984).

Free Women took a stand in favor of womens freedom to choose whether to be a mother. Thus, they were not on the side of those who argued that being a mother relegated women to their biological role and made them slaves (Barral, Delgado, Fernández, & Magallón, 2014). As Amparo Poch y Gascón11 (1932) put it, what made a woman a slave was not being able to choose, and being a mother was not always the desired choice:

We have systematically asked many pregnant womenhundredswhether they wanted the child that would soon be born. Because we recruited the women for this survey in hospitals, and almost all of them were from the working classes, and some of them had seven, ten or even thirteen children, you will understand why they replied with a bitter negative or with indifference. . . . [the] exceptions. . . [were] women with only one child. (Poch y Gascón, 1932, p. 6)

Lucía Sánchez Saornil,12 one of the promoters of Free Women, explained this position well in an article in the October 1935 issue of Solidaridad Obrera [Workers Solidarity], the magazine published by the anarchist union CNT:

It was in the small capital of a province. Before the ceremony started, a comrade came up to me, a member of the largest local committee. We have managed to ensure that a great many women attended because of your participation, he said to me. You need to whip them into shape because they have a very mistaken idea of what their mission should be; for some time now, they have been invading our factories and workshops, and today they are competing with us, creating a real unemployment problem. On the other hand, they are conceited because of their economic independence and reluctance to get married. You have to tell them that their mission is the opposite, that women were born for a higher destiny, which is more in harmony with her nature; that she is the cornerstone of the family; that she is, above all else and before all else, a mother etc. For more than half an hour, I was then burdened with a lecture by this comrade which continued along the same lines. . . . Not knowing what to do, whether to laugh or become indignant, I let him talk and when the moment came I said to the women what I thought was appropriate, something which, if not the opposite of his opinions, was far from what he had wanted me to say. (Sánchez Saornil, 1935, p. 2)

Unwanted pregnancies did great damage to women, especially to single women from the working classes and in rural areas. Many were disowned by their families if they decided to go ahead with the pregnancy, and if they decided to abort, they often faced dangerous and unsanitary conditions in clinics (Connolly, 2010). It is also important to remember that female mortality due to childbirth was directly related to socioeconomic status, and the mortality rates were much higher among women who already had many children (Rodrigo, 2002a, 2002b).

For those women who did want children, Free Women proposed alternative practices that would make it easier for mothers to continue their involvement in various movement activities or to continue working. These alternatives included day care, cafeterias for children, and rotating shifts so women could share child care. Some of the initiatives developed by the Free Women are explained by Sara Berenguer, a member of Free Women:

But Free Women, too, for those women who had young children and had difficulties to move, well the Free Women, we organized a kindergarten at the Tibidabo that was called The Turtles. The companions took their children there, who were taken care of, and they could entirely dedicate themselves to the libertarian struggle, that is, to the emancipation of women.

The idea was to create networks of solidarity so that any woman could freely be a mother without child care becoming a burden or taking her away from her job or from her work as an activist (Berenguer, 1988). They proposed maternity as a free choice for women, as a conscious choice. Thus, they simultaneously overcame two perspectives. The first was that motherhood was the only function of women, or the one that makes them complete and fulfilled women. The second was that to be a liberated woman, one must give up being a mother.

To promote their ideas, Free Women organized courses on conscious maternity and sexual education. Newspapers and magazines were created to disseminate these ideas because these were the most direct ways to reach working-class women (Bashford & Strange, 2004). In one article in their own magazine Mujeres Libres [Free Women] (1937), they described the aim of these courses:

Our main objective is to fill the future mother with optimism and healthy joy, to provide her with the stimulation and interest necessary for the normal development of the new being, both in the prenatal period and while nursing. To make this possible, we provide extremely detailed courses on childcare, as well as an understanding of reproduction, that will let them consciously control their desires and relationships for the rest of their lives. To this end, we propose providing the trainees with knowledge about the physiological functions of our bodies, with a special focus on the reproductive and sexual aspects and, through suitable lectures, to develop their capacity for maternal love, to raise their spirits and to help them develop a sense of solidarity. (Mujeres Libres, 1937, p. 7)

In Barcelona, Free Women managed an obstetrics hospital headed by Aurea Cuadrado, an activist from the organization. The hospital offered medical attention during childbirth and the period immediately afterward, along with classes on subjects such as conscious maternity, contraception, caring for infants, and educating children. Amparo Poch y Gascón (1932) edited a teaching guide for girls, female adolescents, and women to help them understand their sexuality; it included a reflection on womens unequal situation:

We cannot expect education and sexual hygiene to be taught in our schools today, because the teachers who run the classes are not qualified to do this because they have been educated in a society that does not talk about sex unless it is in whispers or through insinuations, in a society that has surrounded the functions of reproduction in darkness and mystery, that has dedicated piles of stupid literature to it and has turned clarity and physiological normality into torment, sin and degradation. (p. 8)

The idea to create courses on conscious maternity grew out of the awareness that women needed to be the owners of their bodies and their own decisions. This concept of conscious maternity involved womens freedom both to get pregnant if they wanted to and to use contraceptive methods if they did not.

Regarding the positioning on womens right to decide on their own bodies, from the very beginning, Free Women supported the legalization of abortion. They saw it as equally absurd for the movement to oblige someone not to have children or to oblige them to have children against their will (Martí Ibáñez, 1937).

In Spain, the voluntary termination of pregnancy was legalized with the decree on December 25, 1937 (Decreto de regulación de la interrupción artificial del embarazo, 1937), and the Order of the Ministry of Health and Social Assistance on March 1, 1937 (Orden del Conseller de Sanidad y Asistencia Social, 1937). This law was promoted by the physician Félix Martí Ibáñez, Director-General of Health and Social Assistance of the Catalan Government, and the physician Isaac Puente, and it was supported by the anarcho-syndicalist Minister Federica Montseny. The law was structured in 14 articles, and according to Martí Ibáñez (1937), it was born as a eugenic instrument at the service of the working class (pp. 151152). This conception can also be read in the Preamble of the Decree for the Regulation of the artificial termination of pregnancy of 1937 (1937):

Over many years, abortion has been practiced by unscrupulous people who have speculated on the needs of the working class to limit the pregnancy rates in specific cases. It is required to end the disgrace of clandestine abortions, which are the source of material mortality, in order to ensure that the termination of pregnancy becomes an instrument at the service of race and approved by those who have scientific solvency and are legally entitled.

Additionally, this law ensures the individual decision of the woman (art.3), without family mediation. It also contributed to preventing the slavery of continuous maternity that severely affected working women (Martí Ibañez, 1937). Thus, this law became an instrument for the emancipation of women (Martí Ibañez, 1937):

The authorization to carry out the abortion represents, hence, a vigorous statement of maternity in regard to the responsibility of a woman. From this moment on, and in relation to their sexual life, women remain freed from the egoist masculine tyranny and have rightsnotably, the right to decide by themselves and to decide on their maternitythat she will get for the price of some, up to today, forgotten duties. (p.125)

Doctors who sympathized with the libertarian ideology had earlier taken a stand on this issue, as is reflected in many contemporary magazine articles, including those by Isaac Puente. In 1932, Isaac Puente wrote this for Medicina Íbera [Iberian Medicine], as cited in Fernández de Mediola (2007):

As far as I am concerned, I think that all cases of abortion should be prevented through medical collaboration and advice, but when abortion is imposed on medical grounds (related either to the mother or to the child) or simply due to a decision based on the mothers wishes (as the owner of her body), I will not oppose breaking this narrow-minded Code of Deontology. (p. 221)

These doctors ensured that working women could get information about their opportunity to freely interrupt a pregnancy. Nonetheless, there were barriers to such a revolutionary and controversial law. Among these barriers was the taboo that abortion continued to carry on in society and the fact that many doctors refused to practice it even after it was legalized.


Free Women refused to support the rejection of prostitutes and the blame that was placed on the women themselves for this perennial social ill. They considered prostitutes to be victims of capitalism and of the double standard present within the institution of marriage. Various anarchist publications from that period, such as Estudios [Studies] and La Revista Blanca [The White Journal], as well as the Free Women magazine itself, published many articles that expressed that prostitution was the slavery of women from the lowest social classes; it involved a situation of inequality for women and of a double standard in a capitalist society (Greene, 1998). In Estudios [Studies], the following quote was published in one article (Hernández, 1936):

To romanticize something that is degrading, to justify an act that is a direct symptom of a terrible social curse in any way, is to commit a true crime against humanity. It is essential to banish this golden legend, to tear off the veils that hide the truth from us and to proceed, in short, like doctors who uncover an ulcer in order to cauterize it. Hiding an evil does not combat it. . . . It is not a consequence of civilization but rather an aberration of it, an injustice in it. It is the product of economic organization that makes the transformation of sexual functions into a business, or simply into a way to earn a living, not only possible but also inevitable. (p. 6)

In another article in the Revista Blanca [White Journal], prostitution is compared to slavery (Eufonia, 1933): A society educated through the anti-moral and anti-scientific religious Morality has created and hypocritically regulated prostitution, which is the basis for the trafficking of women; on the other hand, it is a logical and natural consequence of the division of society into classes (pp. 499501).

Free Women developed a program to abolish prostitution; they would create liberatorios de prostitución [liberators from prostitution] based on the idea that prostitution has its roots in the social inequality of women. A key concept in overcoming prostitution was that those women who wanted to could get an education so they could find another way to earn a living. They did not blame the women for being prostitutes but rather the society, the inequality of women, and capitalism, as is explained by Pepita Carpena, member of the Free Women:

It is the lowest you can get, but we respected the girls, because they were not to blame for anything. . . . But when they opened up the brothels, many of them came out, you know? Many of them came out and we had to give them shelter in the schools and all of that, so that they could learn a lot. We did that in Free Women.

Networks of solidarity were also created among the liberatorios de prostitución [liberators from prostitution]; through them, the women who left prostitution could get access to some financial support until they managed to get a job that would let them earn a living. In addition, various campaigns were aimed at helping workers so they would not turn to prostitution. Furthermore, Free Women produced posters and leaflets to convince their male companions to avoid brothels. One of them contained this passage (Mujeres Libres, 1937):

There is no way to explain the fact that those spirits who, in the trenches, are prepared to make all the sacrifices necessary to win in a fight to the death but, in cities, promote the humiliating purchase of the flesh of our sisters. . . .  Help us to ensure that all women can feel human dignity. Please stop abusing those who, as their only means of existence, have to put up with your tyranny as purchasers while we are making efforts to find a better way to emancipate their lives. (p. 17)

Free Women saw education as the key to preventing prostitution. The activities they created to abolish it were based on the idea of offering prostitutes another means of subsistence. They were certain that suppressing prostitution would help to resolve the larger problem of the economic inequality facing the women who worked as prostitutes. As Sara Berenguer explained, it was this very idea that encouraged her to get involved in the initiative of Free Women for the abolition of prostitution:

They had previously had the idea of abolishing brothels, and they wanted women to be able to get out of this slavery, and they did a lot. They had made banners, and I had gone to hang them up in the streets, in streets where there was prostitution and all that, with the idea that women could get out and could become integrated into the working life. Many of them became incorporated into the working life, and others were not able to, but Free Womens idea above all involved making women independent and taking them away from exploitation by men for sex. The fact that a woman can give herself to a man is fine, but if he pays to have her on a whim, then she has to put up with the insolence of a man she doesnt know.

Remarkably, during the months of the Social Revolution, they managed to close down all the cabaret bars and brothels in Barcelona. The activities that Free Women engaged in to abolish prostitution were radical for that time (Ruiz Franco, 2000). Even today, the debate on prostitution has not come to an end, and a great variety of positions are defended, from its abolition to its legalization (Jabour, 2013).


The validity of some of the contributions of Free Women in sexual-affective education, particularly their concept of free love, has made it a recognized antecedent in some of the educational actions for the prevention of gender violence with youth and adolescents (Beck-Gernsheim, Butler, & Puigvert, 2003). Some of these actions are part of the theoretical and practical line of the preventive socialization of gender violence (Puigvert, 2014).

The preventive socialization of gender violence focuses on the study of the social interactions produced among the different agents of primary and secondary socialization (equal groups, family, school, means, and so on), which generates a socialization of loving models and of attraction (Puigvert, 2014). Some adolescents are socialized into a model that relates those who exert power and violence (whether physical, sexual, or psychological) with attraction. Understanding how adolescents have been socialized in these emotions and tastes (Puigvert, 2014) and fostering the attraction of those who do not exert violence can contribute to preventing situations of gender violence (Flecha, Puigvert, & Ríos, 2013).

In both primary and secondary schools and in other community educational centers in Spain, spaces of reflection and dialogue with youth and adolescents are being created to discuss the socialization processes that lead to one or another model of attraction, identifying them so that adolescents can choose to have relationships with people who afterward will not despise or abuse them somehow (Oliver, Soler, & Flecha, 2009; Puigvert, 2014).

In the life stories of Sara and Pepita, it has been shown how Free Women, starting in 1936, created these spaces of reflection and dialogue among young women about what free love was and was not. This helped them to identify those guys who, in the name of an allegedly free love, wanted to use them as mere sexual objects and then despise and treat them as easy girls. As has been identified in the oral life stories and in articles from the libertarian press of that time, the concept of free love for Free Women was understood as sexual-affective relationships that were egalitarian and based on feelings of respect, confidence, love, and passion (Mujeres Libres, 1937). For Free Women, the relationships based on free love were free of any attitude related to utilitarianism, despising, or violence.

This conception of free love is shared by the work being conducted on the preventive socialization of gender violence to overcome what is known as the mirage of upward mobility (Oliver, 20102012; Rué, Martínez, Flecha, & Álvarez, 2014). As a result of years of research about the socialization processes of the models of attraction of adolescents, the mirage of upward mobility has been identified as the wrong perception that some girls have when they associate that having a sexual-affective relationship with a boy who is a model of traditional masculinity in which imposition and contempt prevail leads to an increase of her status and attractiveness, when what actually happens is that her status and attractiveness decrease (Oliver, 20102012). The girls who are victims of the phenomenon of the mirage of upward mobility believe that having a relationship with one of these boys makes them more attractive and therefore increases their opportunities of having relationships inside their peer group. The mentioned investigations have identified how, in fact, the effect that is generated with these relationships is actually the contrary. The girls attractiveness and status within their group of peers decrease. If they have more relationships, it is not because their peer group considers them to be more attractive than before but rather because they have been qualified as easy girls (Oliver, 20102012; Rué et al., 2014).

For Free Women, free love had nothing to do with the number of relations that one has. What counted was to know how to choose the person with whom to maintain those sexual-affective relationships, to be able to identify a person who would not despise, humiliate, or abuse them afterward. Relationships should be based on a feeling of respect and a union in which women were not used as sexual objects, regardless of her number of relationships and whether these were occasional or stable. This conception of free love can help women overcome the phenomenon of the mirage of upward mobility (Oliver, 20102012; Rué et al., 2014).

Some schools, such as Learning Communities,13 are working in the line of preventive socialization and of overcoming the phenomenon of upward mobility (Elboj, 20062008; Oliver, 20102012), as are social movements such as the Catalan Platform Against Gender Violence.14 This platform has organized, since the year 2005, a yearly Forum Against Gender Violence. The forum consists of a two-day conference held in honor of the International Day Against Gender Violence (November 25). The meeting is a place for people to meet and reflect with all citizens about the current topics surrounding male violence. The conferences program activities are addressed to specific populations: youth and adolescents, teachers, families and other professionals from the health sector, the communication and information sector, the law and security world, and the social and associative world. The first day of these conferences is especially designed so that secondary education students from the province of Barcelona can attend and participate. Yearly, more than 1,200 people attend, including 700 secondary education students.


The historical period known as the Spanish Social Revolution, a transformation of socioeconomic structure, can also be analyzed from the perspective of gender and the contributions to sexual education. During this period, the libertarian womens movement, which started in 1936 by Free Women, gave sexuality a leading role to achieve the empowerment that women needed to overcome their situation of triple slavery (ignorance slavery, class slavery, and gender slavery) and thus to achieve greater equality and participation in a society that was without power relations and was hierarchical, free, and democratic. One of their premises was that the Social Revolution would not be possible without a personal revolution: a transformation in personal relationships and therefore in affective-sexual relationships. With that objective, the Free Women promoted womens access to sexual education, which allowed them not only to improve their health conditions but also to reflect on their freedom of election in questions of maternity and about the type of sexual-affective relationships that they wanted to have.

Free Womens contributions to sexual education have been presented: the concept of feminism, the idea of free love, the awareness of freely chosen maternity, and the abolition of prostitution. These four main topics all point to one important goal: that women are nearly always put in the position of being the main protagonists and decision-makers in everything that concerns their own sexuality.

The concept of feminism defended by Free Women overcomes the duality created between femininity and feminism, a debate that is still open today because it is often understood as one only concept. For Free Women, being anarchists and fighting for the Social Revolution had nothing to do with being concerned about what made them feel good about themselves. One contribution that derives from this concept is that women could be anarchists, revolutionaries, feminine, and also mothers without having to be slaves to the desires of men or to capitalist values.

Free Women advocated for free and chosen maternity. Using the term conscious maternity, they defended maternity as a condition for women to choose freely. In bourgeois feminism, for instance, a liberated woman was seen as one who had no children; the patriarchal society offered the vision of maternity as one of the only functions of women, but libertarian women offered an alternative that was different and liberating. Thus, using this term, Free Women moved well beyond the two earlier perspectives.

The abolition of prostitution was another flag in the battles of Free Women. Recognizing that prostitution is rooted in the social inequality of women, the Free Women suggested education and training as a solution that would let many women leave prostitution and freely choose another means of earning a living. This approach was very clearly thought out and remarkable for its time, especially from the current perspective of the many differing positions in many nations on whether to legalize prostitution.

Finally, the importance of freedom in the election of sexual-affective relationships is also present in their contributions. Their conception of free love did not mean having sexual contact with everyone who asked for it, or having as much sexual contact as possible. Free love meant choosing relationships based on feelings of respect and unity, not based on the idea of quantity or availability in obtaining sex.

This viewpoint is very far from some contemporary viewpoints that also see sexual freedom as having nothing to do with feelings and much more to do with the maximum amount of sexual contact with the maximum number of people. This only leads people of both sexes to more unsatisfactory sexual relationships and leads women to accept the traditionally masculine role, precluding any possibility of criticism or transformation.

However, the contributions carried out by Free Women were not only revolutionary and innovative during the Social Revolution in 1936. Some of their initiatives in sexual education are still valid today in the programs of sexual education conducted in schools and social movements. However, it is their very conception of free love based on the promotion of egalitarian sexual-affective relationships free of power relations and violence that was one of the greatest contributions to the prevention of gender violence among youths and adolescents currently. The line of preventive socialization of gender violence is grounded in this conception of free love. In this framework, both theoretical and practical, actions are being implemented, such as those aimed to overcome the mirage of upward mobility in both primary and secondary schools and in community educational spaces.

It is now time for new generations of teachers, adolescents, and youth to gather the historical contributions of Free Women, which allow for spaces of dialogue where female adolescents can reflect on the models of attraction in which they have been socialized and obtain tools that allow them to distinguish between passionate, egalitarian sexual-affective relationships based on feelings and freely chosen from those based on power relationships and violence. The Free Womens conception of free love may be one of the best inheritances they have left to youths and adolescents today.


In memory of Pepita Carpena, Sara Berenguer, and all the anonymous women who, through the libertarian movement, participated in the Social Revolution of 1936 in Spain. They contributed to the most important libertarian revolution in history from which we, in universities and in the movements of democratic education, can still learn.


1. Federación Anarquista Ibérica (FAI) [The Anarchist Iberian Federation]. This organization was founded in 1927 in Saler, Valencia, as a continuation of two anarchist organizations, the Portuguese Unión Anarquista Portuguesa [Portuguese Anarchist Union] and the Spanish Federación Nacional de Grupos Anarquistas de España [Nacional Federation of Anarchist Groups in Spain]. Its function was to coordinate the activities of different anarchist groups and individuals throughout the Iberian Peninsula so that they could more effectively carry out the social revolution to eliminate the State, social classes, property and salaried work, thus founding a society based on libertarian communism. This organization is currently part of the International of Anarchist Federations. Federación Ibérica de Juventudes Libertarias (FIJL) [Iberian Federation of Libertarian Youth], also known as Libertarian Youth, was founded in Madrid in 1932 during the Second Spanish Republic. Its aim was to promote the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT) [National Workers Confederation], an anarchist organization specifically for young people. The idea was to try to organize all young people who shared anarchist ideals so they could work together for a better future.
2. The Social Revolution occurred at a time when the differences between the social classes were becoming more accentuated, which led to an atmosphere of growing social and political unrest. On July 17 and 18, 1936, generals Franco, Mola, Queipo de Llano, and Goded headed a coup détat to overthrow the Popular Front government of the Second Republic. Although the republic was paralyzed by this situation, the workers movement, which had expected this situation for several days, was well prepared to react. In fact, both men and women slept overnight in the union offices so they could be ready for the potential uprising. On July 19, in the cities with strong trade unions, women, men, and young people attacked the military barracks and seized weapons. They were soon joined by others who belonged to the unions and to many others who, motivated by enthusiasm, wanted to oppose the inequality that caused them such suffering. Beyond their desire to fight against the fascists and the revolting soldiers, they wanted to make the Social Revolution a reality. In different cities, the workersthrough the anarchist union CNT (National Workers Confederation), the communist and libertarian union POUM (Workers Party of Marxist Unification), and the socialist UGT (General Workers Union) took control of large portions of the economy, nationalizing factories and entire industries and organizing through assemblies and Revolutionary Committees. Thousands of people participated in the revolutionary events of July 19, 1936. A great deal of them were village people who were not members of any organization but who joined imbued with the excitement and enthusiasm of wanting to change society into one that was more just, free, and egalitarian (Preston, 2001).
3. hroughout the article, libertarian and anarchist are used interchangeably, as is done in the literature (Tiana, 2006).
4. Federica Montseny Mañé (Madrid, Spain; February 12, 1905Toulouse, France; January 14, 1994) was a Spanish anarchist syndicalist. She was the minister of Health and Social Assistance between 1936 and 1937 during the Government of the Second Republic, becoming the first woman to occupy a ministry position in Western Europe. She was the daughter of two renowned anarchists: Federico Urales (the pseudonym used by Juan Montseny Carret) and Soledad Gustavo (the pseudonym used by Teresa Mañé Miravet), editors of the La Revista Blanca [The White Journal], one of the most read journals by both workers and anarchist intellectuals during the three first decades of the 20th century.
5. Law 52/2007, December 26, by which the rights are recognized and widened and measures are established in favor of those that suffered the persecution or violence during the civil war and the dictatorship, known as the Law for the Recovering of the Historical Memory. This law recognizes and extends rights and sets out measures to help those who were persecuted or suffered violence during the Civil War and the dictatorship. The law aims to recognize and pay tribute to those people and groups that fought for a democratic regime. Retrieved from http://www.boe.es/boe/dias/2007/12/27/pdfs/A53410-53416.pdf.
6. Since its establishment in 1935, the main task of the Institute has been to rescue collections threatened by political repression. This task became very urgent when, in the summer of 1938, the loss of the Spanish Republicans was imminent. After the fall of Barcelona in January 1939 and the fall of Madrid in March of the same year, various trunks containing the archives of the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT) and its political arm, the Federación Anarquista Ibérica (FAI), made their way to Paris via unlikely avenues. In April 1939, they were safeguarded at the Institutes branch in Paris. In 1939, with the Second World War at hand, the CNT and FAI archives moved from Paris to Oxford, where they survived the war. In 1947, they finally came to Amsterdam. Retrieved from International Institute of Social History website: http://socialhistory.org/en/collections/spanish-civil-war-collection-guide.
7. Teresa Claramunt (Sabadell,  June 4, 1862Barcelona April 11, 1931), anarcho-syndicalist militant who was the first to fight for the rights of working women at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, reclaiming a specific struggle for women.
8. This positioning had already been defended by the already disappeared anarcho-syndicalist militant Teresa Claramunt (Pradas Baena, 2006).
9. Concha Liaño (Épinay-sur-Seine, France, November 24, 1916Caracas, Venezuela, April 19, 2014) was a Spanish anarchist and founder of the movement of Free Women. In 1935, she founded, together with other libertarian women, the Agrupación Cultural Femenina de Barcelona [Barcelona Womens Cultural Group]. In 1936, after an interview conducted in Barcelona with Mercedes Comaposada of the Free Women, she also promoted the extension of movements of Free Women in Catalonia.
10. Mujeres Libres [Free Women] and Mujeres Liebres (Hare-Like Women) is a play on words in Spanish: liebre [hare] sounds very similar to libre [free]. Some of their male companions in the libertarian movement called them liebre because they thought that they were fast women.
11. Amparo Poch y Gascón (October 15, 1902, ZaragozaApril 15, 1968, Toulouse, France) was a Spanish doctor, antifascist activist, libertarian, writer, and disseminator. Together with Lucía Sánchez Saornil and Mercedes Comaposada, she founded the journal Free Women.
12. Lucía Sánchez Saornil (Madrid, December 1895Valencia,  June 2, 1970) was a Spanish poet, anarchist militant, and feminist. Together with Amparo Poch y Gascón and Mercedes Comaposada, she founded the journal Free Women.
13. Learning Communities is a project based on a series of successful educational actions aimed toward social and educational transformation. This educational model is in line with the international scientific theories that highlight two key factors for learning in the current society: the interactions and the participation of the community. The project Learning Communities involves nearly 200 schools of primary and secondary education in Spain and Latin America, although the number of schools that are transformed in Learning Communities increases each year. For more information, see the Learning Communities official website: http://utopiadream.info.
14. The Platform Against Gender Violence, founded in 2002, is a social platform that works with the main aim of eliminating violence against women in society by promoting social awareness. It includes more than 110 organizations from the social and cultural field. The official website of the Platform against Gender Violence is: http://www.violenciadegenere.org/pcvg/index.php (in Catalan). A description in English can be obtained at http://www.violenciadegenere.org/pcvg/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=46&Itemid=53


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 118 Number 4, 2016, p. 1-38
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 19361, Date Accessed: 10/22/2021 10:10:53 PM

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About the Author
  • Elisenda Giner
    University of Barcelona
    E-mail Author
    ELISENDA GINER holds a Ph.D. in pedagogy and is an assistant professor in the Didactics of Language and Literature Department at the University of Barcelona. She is a teacher in higher vocational education and advanced family professional community services. Her research and publications focus on social inclusion of at-risk collectives, gender, and dialogic reading.
  • Laura Ruiz
    University of Edinburgh
    E-mail Author
    LAURA RUIZ is postdoctoral research fellow at the Institute for Education, Community and Society of the University of Edinburgh. At present she is leading a research on socio-educative actions that are overcoming inequalities in Spain and the United Kingdom, cofunded by the Government of Catalonia Beatriu de Pinos Programme and the Marie Curie Actions of the 7th Framework Programme for Research of the European Commission. Her research activities encompass the investigation of education and the ways for overcoming inequalities, history of education, the libertarian women’s movement, and cultural groups. Dr. Ruiz has been member of several Spanish and European-funded R&D projects. She is author of the book Free Women (Mujeres Libres): Voices and Memories for a Libertarian Future (2011), published by Sense Publishers, and coauthor with Maria Padrós of Development Learning Through Dialogue—Learning Centres in Spain (2006), published by the National Institute for Adult Continuing Education (NIACE), United Kingdom, and the German Institute for Adult Education (DIE). Some of her scientific publications are “Contributions of the Libertarian Movement to the Women's Education” in Social and Education History (2012); “How to Move From Power-Based to Dialogic Relations? Lessons from Roma Women” in the European Journal of Education (2011); and “Other Women in Research: Overcoming Social Inequalities and Improving Scientific Knowledge Through the Inclusion Of All Voices” in Qualitative Inquiry (2011).
  • Mª Ángeles Serrano
    University of Barcelona
    E-mail Author
    M. ÁNGELES SERRANO holds a Ph.D. in sociology and is an assistant professor in gender equality policies at the Rovira i Virgili University (Tarragona). Her research focuses on the social inclusion of nonacademic women in public debate spaces, where she has a long career. Her recent publications in the field appear in Intangible Capital, where she analyses how to promote the inclusion and participation of nonacademic women in educational centers or Qualitative Inquiry, where the misunderstandings on romantic love and gender violence are clarified.
  • Rosa Valls
    University of Barcelona
    E-mail Author
    ROSA VALLS is professor at the Department of Theory and History of Education, University of Barcelona, and Deputy Director of CREA, Centre of Research in Theories and Practices that Overcome Inequalities (http://creaub.info/). Her research lines are about adult and community education, transformative learning, Schools as Learning Communities, participation, social inclusion, and gender violence. She has participated in more than 15 national and European R&D projects, leading 9 of them, funded by the Spanish National Plan for Research, Development and Innovation or by the European Commission. Among these investigatons, she has been member of the research team of the INCLUD-ED project. Strategies for inclusion and social cohesion from education in Europe (6th FP, 2006–2011), the only research in the Social Sciences and Humanities selected by the European Commission among the 10 success stories in the Framework Program of Research for its added value. Some of her main publications in internationally ranked journals are: “Contributions for Eradicating Gender Violence: Female Empowerment and Egalitarian Dialogue in the Methodological Foundations of FACEPA Women’s Group” in Qualitative Inquiry (2014); “The Power of Interactive Groups: How Diversity of Adults Volunteering in Classroom Groups Can Promote Inclusion and Success for Children of Vulnerable Minority Ethnic Populations” in the Cambridge Journal of Education (2013); “Using Dialogic Research to Overcome Poverty: From Principles to Action” in the European Journal of Education (2011), and “Gender Violence Amongst Teenagers: Socialization and Prevention,” in Violence Against Women (2008). Additionally, Dr. Valls is author of several books and chapters, including Dialogic Learning: A Communicative Approach to Teaching and Learning (EEUU, 2007); The Praeger Handbook of Education and Psychology. EEUU (2008); and Dialogical Learning in Popular Education Movements in Spain (UK, 2005).
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