The image of the "Woman" in the iconography

1936/1939: the image of the woman in the iconography of the Spanish Civil War

 Carles Fontséré (*) asserts, with good reason, that it is impossible to understand a poster without taking into account the economic, political situation or fights, from the moment when it was conceived. Here are thus some ideas on the evolution and the durabilities of the image of the woman in the posters of the Spanish Civil War.

 1936, the woman serving in the militia:

18 - July 19th, 1936, the women (often weapons in the hand) participate actively in the victory of the antifascist strengths at the time of Military profession. During summer, 1936 and just like the men, in blue overall (El mono azul), with their red or red and black scarf, they stand out on the front, in factories and countrysides. They quickly become the symbol of the fighting militias, the social and cultural revolution on the march. They symbolize, not the resistance of the workers but, the fight of the “people in weapons” against a handle of general rebels. Once past the revolutionary fervour, the got ready of the fights on the front, the reluctance of organizations to see women in trenches, transformation of militias in popular army.


1937, the activist and the war effort:

The activist quickly replaces the woman serving in the militia, but the role of the women “active activist” of the social transformation of Spain “antifascist” will remain present till the end of the “war” (at least in the iconography of the feminist organizations). Their favourite themes are: the equality (thanks to the social emancipation); the fight against the prostitution; the education; the cultural awakening. The same differences “politics” are visible at women's organization that at the “men”.

 The return in the work of the fields of factories and as nurses. From winter, 1936 / 1937, the militarization of militias will allow the republican institutions to return to a more “usual”, more male chauvinist vision, of the role of the woman during the war: the women in the back and the men in the front. Besides, the reorganization of the society, the economy makes that the anti-fascist zone needs arm in fields, in factories, in schools and in hospitals. For campaigns against the hidden, the alcoholics and the idlers, the governmental or communist organizations will make play the activist of the back, a role can pleasant: informer! From the autumn, 1937, “the woman knitting pullovers for the soldier in the front” and the nurse at the bedside a wounded soldier, replaced that of the activist of 1937 or the woman serving in the militia of 1936.


1938, the “Madonna to the child”:

from the first bombardments on Madrid (autumn, 1936) the mother and her child become one of the favourite themes of the propaganda. The bombardment of Guernica (1937) and especially the first military backhands (in spite of the militarization forced by militias), the “Madonna” will replace the woman serving in the militia and the activist on posters. It is extremely rare to see a government at war emphasizing so much his own victims (and thus its failure). It is a question for the republican strengths of increasing the membership of the people in its politics and of forcing the hand to the democracies which refuse to deliver his weapons. The very Christian representation of the mothers and the child (the virgin and the child Jesus) is unexpected on behalf of draftsmen all anticlerical convinced. It is this iconography which is almost only used on the propaganda of the democratic countries.

 The solidarity with the refugees. From summer, 1936, the reception of the refugees will be one of angular stones of the action of the government, all the labor and political unions. Bombardments of Madrid (1936), fight of the Northwest (Galicia and Country-Basque), fall of Málaga, etc. so many events which will enlarge the stream of the refugees. SRI for the communists, SIA for the libertarians, is the main organizations in charge of the help in taken refuge so outside as inside Spain. Castles, hotels, religious buildings, are requisitioned to be transformed into hospital, colonies(summer camps) and residences. The women play it an essential role.

 Themes where the woman appears

 The place of the body in the emancipation of the women: the emancipation of the individual also crosses by the reappropriation our body. It is a question of freeing him from the economic exploitation of the work (thanks to the progress of the mechanization of the tasks), of the cultural oppression by the rejection of the religion and also by the promotion of the sports activities (same the women libertarians had a sports section). This reappropriation began with the debuts of the 1st Spanish republic (1931). Graphically the appearance of bodies “nudes” is connected at the same time to the “sexual” liberation and to the myth of the purity of a new rising society. Today, women's naked body - on a poster is rather the symbol of the commodification of the body and its prostitution in the service of the market.

 The fight against the prostitution symbol of the place of the woman in the republican camp. On one side, the government and certain left organizations fight the venereal diseases connected to the prostitution and to the alcoholism. For these organizations, these plagues fill hospitals so certainly as balls of the fascists on the front. On the other hand, the group Mujeres Libres and the other organizations fight the prostitution as a totally incompatible activity with the values of the socialism and the current social transformation. Posters, pamphlets, wall newspapers and even vouchers for packages of tobaccos are massively distributed to on the front in the militias of the CNT.

The girls, the equals of the boys: antifascist Spain brings a laic, not sexist, mixed and egalitarian education to all and to all: girls, boys, adults, soldiers, farmers, etc. All the republican organizations and the libertarians made some education a tool of liberation, fight and awakening in the service of the children. In 1936, more than half Spanish people were illiterate, in 1939 it is not widely any more the case. In Spain, it is Francisco Ferrer y Guardia - in 1901-who created the first “modern schools”, they break the monopoly of the Church and will be of this fact fought by the monarchy. Ferer y Guardia will be shot in 1909. Graphically, in schools or in colonies for taken refuge children, the girls are always positioned just like the boys.

 The woman as representation of the Republic (but not of the justice, nor of freedom, not of the republican government). In the social and revolutionary iconography, woman was often symbol of freedom (guiding people) and or of the social justice. During the Spanish Civil War, freedom is bonus often suggested by chains which break (theme often used by organizations libertarians). The République (rather in its Greek version), protective institution of the people is represented by woman decked out by attributes which made that reader not the confuses not with “normal” woman. Naturally, this representation of the woman is present only on the posters of the “republican” parties, it is absent in posters published by the galaxy libertarian and revolutionary (POUM, UGT of before 1937, etc.)


The woman taken hostage by the propaganda: “No matter that I manipulate the truth, that I am dishonest, because that it is for the good cause.” It is certainly this maxim which drove the propaganda departments of the republican organizations to forge the facts with the aim of improving the efficiency of their propaganda. Here are two carefully cropped photos, redrawn and taken out of their initial context and which show a woman and her child as “victims” while they were “militant”. Both original photos are previous at the beginning of the war (meeting during the election campaign of February, 1936 and during a demonstration in Barcelona). Does the end justify the ways? This debate will be led - interns it by the very poster designers. To disguise, to manipulate the reality is generally the work of the authoritarian governments and the dictatorships.

Wally Rosell / Ramon Pino

* Carles fontseré, is a member of the SDP in Barcelona in 1936. He will draw posters for all the political and labor-union trends. In the 1980s, he works again for the returning CNT and writes his reports: Memories of a cartellista Català.