Historically women’s roles have been designed by a well-known male ideology that reserved the public sphere for men, and the private for women. One of the major factors affecting the lives of women in Spain was their lack of access to education. In 1892 the Spanish writer and scholar Emilia Pardo Bazán gave a speech highlighting how the education of women was more about domesticating them since the purpose of such education was to make them obedient, passive and submissive.
Despite all that women could achieve even without a proper education, women were systematically considered inferior individuals who should subordinate to their fathers, brothers and husbands. In actual fact, women’s activities could not be contained that easily due to the circumstances of the different social classes, the ambitions of some families and the aspirations of some women.
In Spain, as well as in many Latin American countries, people use two surnames, first the father’s surname followed by the mother’s. For children with no identified father, the first surname of the mother was traditionally used twice. This practice, which started as a custom in some of the regions of Spain, was consolidated in the records of the Spanish Civil Registry in the 19th century. It then became a right in the Civil Code of 1889. As a practice, this right was highly successful and, to this date, all official documents in Spain display two surnames.
Spanish women do not alter their two parental surnames even when they get married; this means that in Spanish culture, women are identified for life with their parents’ families. This custom of women keeping their family name after marriage is also common in most Muslim societies, which indicates a social affinity between different ethnic groups in Muslim Spain.
As women were historically contained in the home sphere, it is harder to get an accurate and detailed picture of how women’s lives were compared to the lives of men.
Female royals are probably one of the best documented groups of women. Although obviously not representative of the vast majority of the population, their lives can tell us about the prejudices and obstacles women faced at different times. For instance, only two women, Isabella I (15th century) and Isabella II (19th century) managed to get crowned in Spain. Five other queens were Regents of Spain during short periods while their children were growing old enough for the position. To this date, Spain favours a male succession to the throne.
Women have hugely contributed to the Spanish society. Many women of the upper-classes had a key role financing their husbands’ activities, particularly those married to politicians. These positions facilitated their influence in Spanish politics including the preparation of the Constitutions of the Kingdom of Spain.
Traditionally Spanish women managed to carry out a variety of paid jobs as professional artists, teachers, nurses, factory workers, telephonists, as well as many unpaid ones for charities, political and military activities, or childcare. Back in the time of Al-Andalus, i.e. Muslim Spain, women could have a source of income from the textile industry for which they carried out spinning activities at home. They also worked as midwifes, scribes and gardeners.
Women from less privileged backgrounds have usually had access to a limited range of exploitative tasks in the domestic services, dressmaking, and of course, prostitution.
The multiple restrictions in the activities that Spanish women have been allowed to develop have been considerable. Only a century ago, women work contracts were full of conditions on their social status and behaviour. For instance, female teachers were not allowed to marry, drink, dye their hair, smoke, go out at night, or show their ankles. In addition to these social constraints, complications during childbirth were, for centuries, one common cause of women’s deaths, including the deaths of various royal women.
Education has played a key role in the quality of women lives in Spain. Those raised in convents had access to learning Latin and develop reading and writing skills. There is also evidence that in Muslim Spain they studied medicine, poetry, law and religion along the men in their family circles. Women also had the important role of raising their children becoming their main teachers in the transmission of the language and cultural traditions.
Women's rights in Spain
This timeline shows main achievements with respect to women’s rights in Spain. Women experienced some legal equality for the first time at the beginning of the 20th century, although their rights were soon withdrawn again for most of the century. Only with the restoration of the democracy in Spain in the late 1970s, women have progressively acquired more rights.
1713 Women can access the crown only if the regent has no other male sons, brothers or cousins. Reglamento de Sucesión issued by Philip V.
1830 Women can access the crown only if the regent has no other male sons. Pragmatica Sanción issued by Ferdinand VII. In his case, it meant that his daughter could access the throne. Indeed she became Isabella II, although this caused three Carlist wars initiated by those who wanted the throne for Ferdinand’s brother, Carlos Maria.
1858 Women can train as teachers at the Escuela Normal de Maestras (a similar school for men had been created in 1839).
1872 First woman allowed to study Medicine at Barcelona University. Real Orden issued for her by Amadeo de Saboya in 1871.
1883 Women can study at secondary schools.
1888 Women can study at university but need the approval of the Council of Ministers before registration.
1910 Women can study any degree at university (but can’t actually work afterwards in most fields). Real Orden promoted by Conde de Romanones.
1918 Creation of the Asociación Nacional de Mujeres Españolas (ANME) for the promotion of women’s rights.
1924 Two female tennis players participate for the first time in the Olympic Games (after this, there is a 36 year gap until women participate again).
1931 Women can vote and are recognised legal status and could access civil servant jobs, health care and maternity leave by the Republican Constitution.
1932 Women can divorce and have a civil marriage.
1933 Women over 18 vote for the first time in a general election.
1936 Women gain legal access to abortion (only in Catalonia). The Spanish Parliament has more women than any other country.
1939-1975 Most rights for women are abandoned during Franco’s dictatorship.
1965 Creation of the Movimiento Democrático de Mujeres for women’s access to work and education as well as the abolition of discriminatory laws.
1969 Women can pilot planes.
1975 Abolition of husbands’ license to their wives social and legal activities, as per the civil code law since 1851.
1978 The new Spanish Constitution is against gender discrimination. Women have access to contraceptives. The Royal Spanish Academy nominates Carmen Conde as the first woman academician since its creation in 1713.
1981 Women can get a divorce and custody of their children. Women should not be discriminated against for employment.
1983 Creation of the Instituto de la Mujer against women’s discrimination in Spanish society.
1985 Women can have an abortion (if they fulfil 3 criteria)
1990 Women can enter the army.
1996 Women can work as miners.
2002 Women can be legionaries, and carry out special military operations.
2004 Women are protected against gender violence.
2005 Women can marry other women.
2006 Women can inherit their parents’ titles of nobility.