CLIO TALKS BACK: Women deputies debate whether women should vote – Spain 1931

Collection of Karen Offen
Spanish women voting for first time
With the fall of the monarchy and the proclamation of the Second Republic in April 1931, the issue of political rights for Spanish women surged to the forefront. As in republican France since the revolution of 1789, female figures dominated revolutionary symbolism and “Liberty” led the people. But (as in France) Spanish women did not have the right to vote in national elections.

The Spanish Constituent Assembly (Cortès Constituyentes) opened on 14 July (the French Bastille Day) 1931. Secular Liberals insisted that the incorporation of equal rights for women would crown Spain's emergence as a modern, secular, democratic European nation. In May the new government authorized women who met certain qualifications to stand for office, along with priests and government employees. The Second Republic initially adopted a system of proportional representation, modelled on that of Weimar Germany, with electoral lists that favored party formation.

In the absence of woman suffrage, however, few parties sought to address issues that women cared about; this was clear from complaints expressed in late June in L'Opinio by a Catalan women's group:
“It is time to end flattering promises. There have been some for everybody except us. The candidates and their friends have had this lapse which may come to be regretted. Only Esquerra Catalana has remembered to say that it will accord careful protection to mothers and children. That is not what we want: we do not ask for protection; we want our rights to be recognized and equal to those of men. Now that it is time to structure a people, let it not seem that there are only men on earth.”

In June two distinguished Spanish women were elected as deputies (out of 470 seats) to the Cortes Constituyentes: Clara Campoamor Rodríguez (1888-1972) represented the Radical Party, and Victoria Kent Siano (1892-1987), the Radical Socialist Party.

Members of the Asociación Nacional de Mujeres Españolas (National Association of Spanish Women, ANME; founded 1918) campaigned vigorously for inclusion of the women's vote in the new republican constitution. So did Spanish Catholics, on the grounds that women's vote would prove beneficial - as indeed it had in other dominantly Catholic post-war nations - to the socially conservative program of the church. This was precisely what skeptics among the strongly secular Liberal Republicans - and Socialists - feared, however much they may have supported the concept of equal suffrage in principle. Fear of women outnumbering men, their illiteracy, and the threat of clerical influence on their politics dampened the enthusiasm of men on the Left who should, in theory, have been most supportive.

During the constitutional debates of 1 October 1931, the public was treated to a floor fight between the two women deputies, Clara Campoamor and Victoria Kent, over the paragraph that became Article 36, on the subject of women's political rights. This debate between two women deputies over women's voting was a political "first." Campoamor, an attorney who served on the constitutional commission and also represented the new Republic of Spain to the League of Nations, argued the pro-suffrage position, and Kent, the first woman lawyer in Spain and a well-known defense attorney who had been appointed director-general of the Spanish prison system, argued against women's immediate enfranchisement, which she nevertheless supported in principle.

Victoria Kent argued that Spanish women were not "ready" and that enfranchising them immediately would endanger the very survival of the fragile republic. She had seen little evidence of women's mobilization on the new regime’s behalf: “I believe that . . . postponement would be the most beneficial . . . it is dangerous to concede the vote to women.”

Clara Campoamor rebutted Kent, arguing from principle. In earlier debates she had insisted on showcasing the opportunity available to Spain to take the lead among the Latin countries of Europe in enfranchising women. She had also fended off an attempt to take the equal suffrage clause out of the constitution, placing it instead in a more easily changed electoral law. Against Kent she pointed out, amid heckling from her own male party colleagues, that the same criticisms Kent made of women were also true of many men, yet nobody pointed to them or threatened to withdraw their vote: “Precisely because the Republic means so much to me, I understand what a grave political error it would be to cut women out of the right to vote.”

“Do not forsake the woman who, if she is not progressive, places her hope in the Dictatorship, or the woman who thinks, if she is progressive, that her hope for equality can only be achieved in Communism. Do not commit, Honourable Deputies, a political error which has such grave consequences. Save the Republic, support the Republic by attracting and drawing into it this female force which anxiously awaits the moment of redemption.”

The motion to enfranchise women passed by a margin of 161 to 121, with 183 male deputies absenting themselves, including the Socialists.

The new constitution of the Second Republic, ratified in December 1931, did enfranchise all women and men over the age of twenty-three. It also separated church and state, secularized marriage law and introduced civil divorce, and initiated a host of other dramatic and potentially radical changes in Spanish civic life, including the outlawing of regulated prostitution. Thus did the republican government, liberal and emphatically secular, if not adamantly left-wing, antagonize the conservative and authoritarian forces on the Right.

The ensuing 1933 elections were a disaster for the republicans. Not surprisingly, many on the Left blamed women's votes for these results. The republic's difficulties increased dramatically, and the forces of the Right began to organize their challenge.

In July 1936 civil war broke out, following the mutiny of troops behind General Francisco Franco, in the name of what came to be called "national Catholicism" Both the republican and the monarchist factions quickly began to receive infusions of materials, manpower, and advice from the USSR (on the republican side) and from fascist Italy and Nazi Germany (on Franco's side), in addition to assistance - and sometimes interference - from various other enthusiastic left-wing European and even North American nationals.

That year Clara Campoamor sorrowfully left Spain for exile abroad. Going against her own party's position on woman suffrage had effectively derailed Campoamor's political career. Victoria Kent became the Spanish ambassador to France, but ended up in hiding during the German occupation. She too took the road to exile, first to Mexico, and then to New York. Franco’s authoritarian regime endured into the 1970s.

Collection of Karen Offen
Statue of Clara Campoamor, Madrid, visit by Rosa Capel Martinez & Clio 2006

Sources: Text adapted from Karen Offen, European Feminisms 1700-1950 (Stanford University Press, 2000). See also: Rosa Maria Capel Martinez, El sufragio femenino en la Segunda Republica Española, 2nd ed. (Madrid: Horas y horas, 1992); Danièle Bussy-Genevois, "The Women of Spain from the Republic to Franco," in Toward a Cultural Identity in the Twentieth Century, ed. Françoise Thébaud (Harvard University Press, 1994); Judith Keene, "'Into the Clear Air of the Plaza': Spanish Women Achieve the Vote in 1931," in Constructing Spanish Womanhood: Female Identity in Modern Spain, ed. Victoria L. Enders & Pamela B. Radcliff (SUNY Press, 1998), and Rosa Maria Capel Martinez, ed., Historia de una conquista; Clara Campoamor y el voto femenino (Madrid: Ayuntamiento de Madrid, Dirección General de Igualdad de Oportunidades, 2007).

See also the entries on Campoamor and Kent in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Women in World History (2008).