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‘In Defense of Clara’: Contestation of the Female Body in the Spanish Anarchist Press

By Sophie Turbutt (@Sophie_Turbutt)

When twenty-year-old Federica Montseny advertised her first full-length novel, La Victoria, in her parents’ Spanish anarchist journal La Revista Blanca in 1925, she hardly could have imagined the drama that would unfold in its wake. Certainly, La Victoria was a deliberately provocative book. Its romantic plotlines flew in the face of expectation – even by some anarchist standards – but for heated debates about the book to litter the pages of La Revista Blanca for years afterwards was astonishing. So, what was it about La Victoria that triggered such an outpouring of admiration and vitriol from readers? Its politically tenacious, passionately independent, childless female protagonist: Clara.

Anarchism was a broad church: anti-statism was solidly at its core, but currents of anarchist thought that built on this principle, such as individualism or naturism, were more divisive. This meant that anarchists’ personal stances on gender relations varied considerably. Federica had joined her parents as a regular writer at La Revista Blanca, an anarchist journal centred on sociology, science and art, in 1923. Throughout the 1920s, she often, though not exclusively, penned articles that discussed women’s experiences through the lens of anarchist thought. For instance, she endorsed life-long monogamous relationships, but spurned institutional marriage and advocated for collectivised public childcare. Even before La Victoria, therefore, she had made this anarchist journal into a space where the female body was contested.[1] Letters to the editor were a particularly fertile space for this contestation.[2] Readers of the journal wrote in to comment on articles, not only to raise criticisms or point out inaccuracies, but sometimes to share how a particular text had moved them. This spectrum of responses was never more obvious than in the case of Federica Montseny’s character, Clara – especially considering that many of the letters discussing Clara published in La Revista Blanca were penned by women. Historians rightly note that sexism was a real problem in the anarchist movement; however, this example of female political engagement through letter-writing presents a much-needed challenge to typical assumptions that anarchist women’s voices were uncommon, ignored, or confined to designated women’s organisations.[3]

In Federica Montseny’s own words, Clara represented ‘the antithesis of the archaic conception of women: submission. Submission to society, first; submission to men, next; submission to her instincts, after that. Clara is rebellion’.[4] Clara, well-read and politically conscious, defied societal expectations by championing her own autonomy instead of succumbing to pressure to settle down and conceive. Several female readers responded so strongly to her character that they felt compelled to write to La Revista Blanca to sing her praises. For instance, María Ferrer wrote that Clara ‘has revived, in the souls of many (though not all) women, the confidence in themselves that they never should have lost.’[5] Joaquina Colomer wrote that ‘Clara appeared, noble and determined, to confront obstacles and fight with her own willpower, rising up to a height of great dignity and giving us an example of the idea of a woman.’[6] These two letters were published in La Revista Blanca in 1925, in a section titled ‘In Defense of Clara’; they were the first of many. Not only was Clara a strong female protagonist, but she was also a tenacious anarchist who represented a beacon of hope for women like María and Joaquina, who were looking to find their purpose in the anarchist cause. 

The need to ‘defend’ Clara stemmed from the unrelenting (usually male) criticism of her character presented in other letters to the editor. One of the most striking examples of such criticism was when a male reader, calling himself ‘A Rural Doctor’, wrote in to argue that Clara should not be elevated as a role model to women because her denial of male sexual advances and refusal to form a partnership ready to raise a family was in fact some sort of mental illness. He claimed, ‘Clara is not a tomboy, a being whose femininity is turned off, with a dormant sexuality. She represents a curious case of sexual perversion. Without wanting to, Montseny has depicted masterfully a masochist character… Viewed like this upon discovering her psychology, her amorous rejections lack any value.’[7] Notwithstanding this comment’s reflection of contemporary mishandlings of mental illness, it also speaks to the quite conservative discourses around gender expression and sexuality that continued to circulate among anarchists – even those advocating ‘free love’. Federica Montseny responded to these directly in the periodical, opening the debate for continued discussion in print. She responded to the ‘Doctor’ not by challenging his ‘scientific’ diagnosis, but by re-framing it, retorting that humanity ‘is divided in two: normal people and abnormal people’, and whereas normal people never experience great passions or dreams, she deliberately – ‘with great pride and radiant happiness’ – depicted Clara as abnormal.[8] These debates around the fictional Clara’s love life continued for years – Montseny even wrote sequels to La Victoria which spurred further discussions.

Publishing letters from her fans and critics was, to some extent, a marketing strategy Montseny used to sell more copies of her book, but it had wider implications. Between 1923 and 1930, Spain was under the dictatorial leadership of Primo de Rivera. He outlawed Spain’s major anarchist organisation, the Confederación Nacional de Trabajo (CNT), and even though La Revista Blanca positioned itself as an alternative model of anarchism to that of the CNT, its editors and writers were no less vulnerable to state repression. In this context, it was revolutionary that anarchists in Spain and overseas communicated with one another through letters to the editors of La Revista Blanca, which would be openly published and engaged with on the same page. Furthermore, the platforming of ideas around femininity, maternity and sexuality achieved through these conversations would evolve over the following decade, culminating in Catalonia’s 1936 anarchist sex-reforms which legalised sex education, contraception and abortion.[9] Fittingly, it was Federica Montseny herself, then appointed Minister of Health and Social Care, who would oversee this extraordinary legislation.


All translations of La Revista Blanca are the author’s own.

Image source: La Revista Blanca, 1 January 1925, cover. National Library of Spain, online.

References:

[1] A great starting point for researching contestation of the female body in this context is Victoria Lorée Enders and Pamela Beth Radcliff, ‘Contesting Identities/Contesting Categories,’ 1-18 and Mary Nash, ‘Un/Contested Identities: Motherhood, Sex Reform and the Modernization of Gender Identity in Early Twentieth-Century Spain,’ 25-50, in Constructing Spanish Womanhood: Female Identity in Modern Spain, ed. Victoria Lorée Enders and Pamela Beth Radcliff, (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999). For discussion of Spanish literature as a site of contestation see for example Daria Cohen, Demystifying the Female Body in Hispanic Male Authors, 1880-1920: Overcoming the Virgin/Prostitute Dichotomy (Lampeter: Edwin Mellen Press, 2008) and Mar Soria, ‘The Erotics of Urban Female Work in Anarchist Kiosk Literature and the Contradictions of Modernity,’ Hispanic Research Journal, 19:6 (2018): 620-635.

[2] The key existing study of La Revista Blanca largely overlooks letters to the editor, instead focusing on the periodical’s regular writers: Antonio Prado, Matrimonio, Familia y Estado: Escritoras Anarco-Feministas en La Revista Blanca (Madrid: Fundación Anselmo Lorenzo, 2011). This is not so much the case in studies of other anarchist periodicals, however. For instance, see Alejandro Lora Medina, ‘Sexualidad, Desnudismo y Moralidad en el Anarquismo Español de los Años Treinta: De los Debates en la Prensa a la Aplicación de la Ley del Aborto Durante la Guerra Civil Española,’ Hispania, 78:260 (2018): 817-846, or Xavier Diez, Utopia Sexual a la Premsa Anarquista de Catalunya: La Revista Ética-Iniciales (1927-1937) (Lleida: Pagès Editors, 2001).

[3] Sexism in the anarchist movement is discussed throughout the historiography, but for a specific study on this see: Sharif Gemie, ‘Anarchism and Feminism: A Historical Survey,’ Women’s History Review, 5:3 (1996): 417-444. The seminal text on the anarchist women’s organisation in Spain is: Martha Ackelsberg, Free Women Of Spain: Anarchism and the Struggle for the Emancipation of Women (Chico: AK Press, 1991).

[4] Federica Montseny, ‘Intermedio Polémico: Armand y “La Victoria”’, La Revista Blanca, 1 July 1927.

[5] María Ferrer, ‘En Defensa de Clara,’ La Revista Blanca, 15 November 1925.  

[6] Joaquina Colomer, ‘En Defensa de Clara,’ La Revista Blanca, 15 November 1925. 

[7] Un Médico Rural, ‘Tribuna de Criterios Opuestos,’ La Revista Blanca, 15 June 1928.

[8] Federica Montseny, ‘Tribuna de Criterios Opuestos,’ La Revista Blanca, 15 June 1928.

[9] Lora , ‘Sexualidad, Desnudismo y Moralidad,’ 817-846.

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