As Podemos Rises in Spain, Will Feminism Rise With It?

The rising leftist party is attempting to grapple with the country’s mixed legacy on gender equality.

Bécquer Seguín

A banner during a Spanish protest bears the popular slogan "The Revolution Will Be Feminist or It Will Not Be."

On May 20, 2011, a group of women made their way up the scaffolding that covered one of the facades of Madrid’s Puerta del Sol plaza. A huge L’Oreal ad featuring the Spanish actress Paz Vega cloaked the scaffolding from top to bottom. Barely recognizable anymore, protesters of the indignados movement had transformed the ad into a collage of posters proclaiming “¡No Nos Representan!” (“They Don’t Represent Us!”) and “¡Democracia Real YA!” (“Real Democracy NOW!”).

Feminist activism in Spain has had to struggle against a lukewarm reception of its ideas—even in movements that claim a radically progressive agenda.

The group of women quickly reached the top and unveiled their new banner piece by piece. The.” The crowd began to cheer. Revolution.” The crowd bubbled with excitement and cheered even more. Will Be.” The cheers continued and became wilder. Feminist.”

Dead silence. An uncomfortable, muffled confusion then permeated the plaza for a few seconds before it erupted in boos. A few shouted, Feminism is not revolutionary at all!” The boos continued as the women finished hanging up the poster, which read The Revolution Will Be Feminist Or It Will Not Be.”

Minutes later, a young man climbed the scaffolding up to where the banner hung. To the delight of much of the crowd, he tore the word Feminist” from the banner and began to pound his chest like a gorilla. The crowd cheered him on. The women responsible for the banner, who were thought to be members of Eskalera Karakola, an important activist feminist association in Madrid, looked on, dumbfounded.

Clara Serra Sánchez, a high school philosophy teacher and one of the 62 people elected to the Spanish leftist party Podemos’s national Citizen’s Council this winter, was there the day it happened. She says that the banner was taken down because it was thought to divide instead of unite the group. Why? Presumably because the word feminism,” in Spain as elsewhere, is still thought to mean giving women special privileges instead of cementing gender equality, she explains.

Feminists in Spain are faced with a kind of uncomfortably contradictory situation in which many aspects of political progressivism often coexist with a deeply rooted cultural conservatism. This strange phenomenon has made it possible for Spaniards to support bullfighting (though now increasingly less so) at the same time that their country became the second in the world to legalize gay marriage.

The indignados movement during the summer of 2011 was no different. That feminism had not appealed to most Spaniards, even during the indignados movement,” Serra Sánchez says, was a really bad sign for women’s rights. One would assume that a progressive movement such as the indignados would have welcomed feminist ideas with open arms.

Earlier progressive movements had. During the so-called movida madrileña,” a late-1970s countercultural movement that upended the repressive sexual and political taboos of General Francisco Franco’s fascist regime, filmmakers such as Pedro Almodóvar helped cultivate feminist thought in Spain and bring it into mainstream culture. But conservative forces in the country made it such that Spanish audiences received the films of its most renowned contemporary director tepidly.

Thirty years later, feminist activism has still has had to struggle against a lukewarm reception of its ideas, even in movements such as the indignados of 2011 that claim a radically progressive agenda.

The Question of Institutionalization

Spain’s transition to democracy during the late-1970s produced a rift in Spanish feminism. Much of the earlier feminist movement was anchored in the organization Movimiento Democrático de las Mujeres (Women’s Democratic Movement), which had been founded in 1965 and was associated with the Spanish Communist Party. Uniting feminists in challenging Franco’s fascist regime, the organization was instrumental in building support for reforming parts of the Civil Code that subjected women to an inferior legal status, granting women equal access to the labor market and equalizing educational opportunities.

The transition to democracy, however, largely divided feminists between those who looked for institutional influence and those who sought to maintain anti-institutional pressure. Feminist groups of various political profiles emerged. Important feminist organizations such as the Federación de Mujeres Progresistas (Federation of Progressive Women) followed what was called a dual activist” politics — allowing their members to also be members of other political organizations — and decided early on to join forces with the center-left Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party (PSOE). More left-wing feminist groups, such as Partido Feminista (Feminist Party), called themselves socialist feminists” and tried to establish their own parties. Other groups dominated by younger activists, such as the Seminario Colectivo Feminista (Feminist Collective Seminar) split from Partido Feminista and opted not to join or create any parties, instead attempting to cultivate anti-institutional pressure under the name of radical feminism.”

The 80s and 90s whittled these three movements down to two: socialist feminists” couldn’t establish a presence within Spain’s parliamentary system, so the options narrowed to an institutional feminism” that was firmly aligned with the PSOE and independent feminism” that focused on local issues without any desire to push for institutional political representation. Today, the political coordinates still look very much the same.

Enter Podemos. Podemos, the Spanish leftist party that erupted in May’s elections for the European Parliament by winning 8 percent of the vote, has thrown a wrench into this either-or decision for feminists. That’s because it’s a political party that has an unusually close relationship with grassroots feminist organizations. It grew out of an indignados movement that included such objectionable episodes as the chest-beating male anti-feminist activist. But the indignados movement also birthed today’s leading feminist activist groups like Feminismos Sol.

Unlike the PSOE, many claim that Podemos has the pulse of the feminist activism on the ground. Scores of party members used to work for feminist groups across Spain. One of the party’s five members of the European Parliament, Tania González Peñas, was a prominent member of a feminist collective in Asturias before joining the party. Teresa Rodríguez, the general secretary of Podemos-Andalucia, which recently won 15 seats in the regional parliament, donated part of her first paycheck from the Europarliament to the feminist group Amigas del Sur.

Podemos also doesn’t have to toe the PSOE’s party line. The last decade has witnessed PSOE feminists justifying everything from the party’s strong ties to the Catholic Church to its implementation of devastating austerity policies that resulted in the record high 27 percent official unemployment rate in January of 2013. (Today, official unemployment numbers hover at around 24 percent overall and 51 percent of youth.)

The question of institutional effectiveness has revitalized debates today within Spanish feminism. The emergence of Podemos has certainly played a role in renewing these debates, but so has the PSOE’s failure to defend the abortion rights law they passed in 2010. Like the Affordable Care Act in the United States, outlawing abortion except in cases of rape has headlined the agenda of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s conservative Partido Popular (PP) government since it was elected to power in 2011.

The struggle of the feminist movement in recent years has been to defend rights that we had already achieved and now they want to take away,” says Cristina Castillo Sánchez, a member of Podemos’s Citizen’s Council in Madrid. Forced to defend gains that reactionaries are now attempting to claw back from them, both institutional and anti-institutional feminists’ attention has necessarily been taken away from struggles that have yet to be won such as economic parity in the workplace.

There exists a certain credulity in Spanish society,” Clara Serrano García, a researcher in philosophy at the Complutense University of Madrid, tells me. Rumors stick with people,” she continues.

One of these rumors, for example, was the fallacy noted by the World Health Organization that legally restricting abortion would reduce the amount of actual abortions. It’s a fallacy the right-wing PP has been pushing on Spanish citizens for more than five years now. The problem, Serrano García says, is that these outlandish claims are not immediately debunked, whether by the Spanish press or PSOE feminists. Institutionalized feminist groups in Spain have played along with the right-wing game of words and statistics.

According to Serrano García and other leftist activists, the 2010 abortion law was one of the institutionalized feminist movement’s few accomplishments. Others, they say, have included the law against gender violence from 2004, the law for effective equality” from 2007, and the short-lived Ministry for Equality in 2008, which has since been incorporated into the Ministry of Health. But when the economic crisis broke out, Serrano García says, the PSOE began to immediately withdraw resources from the very feminist projects they had begun to build.

While its contributions to the advancement of numerous causes have been important, Serrano García explains, the institutionalization of feminism made it lose contact with civil society.” Serrano García is referring to the numerous organizations and activists that don’t go through the government in order to set up battered women’s shelters, legal assistance for female immigrants or associations for finding women employment. Instead, Castillo Sánchez says, giving feminism some institutional power paradoxically allowed the PSOE to use the movement as makeup for a marketing strategy” to win over Spain’s liberal and left-wing voters. The party forgot about their initiatives and promises as soon as the apocalyptic panic of austerity measures meant that everyone but the financial oligarchy had to apretarse el cinturón,” or tighten their belts.”

Weeks after Podemos was born in January 2014, Rajoy’s conservative government proposed to restrict abortion laws. Had these gone ahead, Spain’s abortion laws would have become some of the most restrictive in the EU. Feminists organized protests of tens of thousands of people from across the country in response. The mass demonstrations echoed the sentiment of the 70 to 80 percent of the population that disapproved of the proposed criminalization of abortion.

The government responded in the fall by changing its proposed reforms,” which would now outlaw abortions for those under 18 without parental consent. Last month, on April 14, the government hastily pushed the new proposal through the Spanish Congress — so hastily, in fact, that the leader of the PSOE, Pedro Sánchez, mistakenly voted in favor of the law. While many feminists within the PSOE were quick to defend his wrong push of the button, those outside read the error instead as symptomatic of the party’s conservative direction.

Podemos’s Feminism

Podemos has given feminists a different institutional option. But it’s one that has some up in arms. It looks as though some historic feminists from the PSOE will begin a war with Podemos over feminism,” wrote the storied Spanish LGBT activist Beatriz Gimeno. That’s a real pity.”

Gimeno continued, Although Podemos still has a lot to accomplish, we are the only party with [gender] parity” in their internal organization, referring to Podemos’s national Citizen’s Council, which is comprised of 31 women and 31 men. Podemos, she continued, is the only party that has had to leave women out of parity considerations because more people have voted for women than men in many of the [campaign] lists.”

The issue of gender parity within parties cropped up again after the election of Syriza in Greece. On January 28, the group Fórum de Política Feminista (Forum of Feminist Politics) sent an open letter to Alexis Tsipras and the Syriza government titled Sin mujeres no hay democracia” (“Without Women, There’s No Democracy”). The open letter, signed by over 100 Spanish organizations, critiqued the recently elected Greek leftist party for failing to strike a representational balance in appointing its cabinet members.

We express our disappointment” because the Greek government has constituted the most masculinized government in Europe,” the letter reads. This has led some members of Podemos to go as far as to distinguish themselves from Syriza — a party whose leftist policy agenda they would otherwise entirely endorse — specifically in terms of gender parity.

Podemos has dealt with gender parity by limiting gender imbalance to a maximum of 60/40, for either men or women, in its regional and national party structures. It also institutes an alternating ranking of men and women in its campaign list. (For example, if the two candidates who receive the most votes in a campaign list are men, the woman receiving the highest amount of votes will come in second, and the list will alternate genders thereafter.)

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Podemos has its own activist feminist group, or circle,” called Podemos Feminismos. Podemos Feminismos enjoys the distinction of being one of the party’s first circles, an assembly-like model the party has used to incorporate more citizens into its decision-making process. Serra Sánchez, Serrano García, and Castillo Sánchez helped organize the circle’s first meeting of about 150 people in Madrid mere days after the party was founded on January 17, 2014. Today, its membership has increased tenfold in Madrid alone, and dozens of local feminist Podemos circles have sprouted up across Spain. The group focuses on issues ranging from equality in employment opportunities to gender violence.

In the run-up to Spain’s regional elections on May 24, however, Podemos has faced harsh criticism both from opponents like the PP and PSOE as well as from its own members on the question of gender parity outside of its internal structure. The party will only put forward two female candidates to compete for regional leadership, as opposed to 10 male candidates.

Tania González Peñas, one of Podemos’s five members of the European Parliament, says that this ratio isn’t defensible in any case.” The reason why it came about, she explains, has to do with the party’s de-centralized electoral mechanism, which has zipper-like controls” to ensure that electoral lists alternate between men and women but doesn’t ensure that women will necessarily be leaders. A social change is necessary so that these things don’t happen,” says González Peñas, but it’s also necessary for us at an internal level to work to empower women so that when get to these crucial moments there will be many women ready to take on this leadership role.”

Even so, the party has discovered that it is much easier to develop gender parity based on sheer numbers than it is to fully incorporate feminist concerns into its political agenda. For the Constituent Congress — a series of nation-wide assemblies and votes to determine the party’s ethical, political and organizational principles— this past fall, the Podemos Feminismos circles together put forth a resolution examining how the current economic crisis disproportionately affects women, to be adopted as one of the party’s five primary issues for the next three years. Only five resolutions were to be chosen, meaning that these would significantly orient the party toward the selected issues.

Serra Sánchez, who participated in the drafting of the resolution, says it was not chosen among the five. The five approved resolutions had to do primarily with evictions, healthcare and education. These issues, however, were already baked into the party’s original program, Serra Sánchez explains. She and others within Podemos Feminismos had hoped that party members might take a big-tent approach and incorporate issues that hadn’t been previously highlighted.

On the one hand,” she says, writing the resolution was important because we managed to write something by consensus, … and many in Podemos were convinced that it was a fundamental issue for the party to take up. But, on the other hand, it also verified for us that women’s issues are not seen as the most urgent” by other members of Podemos.

Despite its appeal for many activists who might otherwise not want to join more institutionalized parties or groups, Podemos still has much room for improvement where feminism is concerned. Podemos boasts the strongest representation of women and feminists in its highest ranks. It clearly offers the country’s most progressive course for bringing the concerns of feminist activists and organizations into institutions that have long forgotten about their existence (despite PSOE’s secretary general, Pedro Sánchez, recent claim that his is the most feminist party in all of Spain”).

But it is telling that even Podemos, which seems likely to become Europe’s next left-wing party to rise to power after Syriza, has not yet been able to overcome Spain’s cultural conservatism. At the same time, Spanish feminists themselves remain too divided along pro- and anti-institutional lines. Back in 1875, Concepción Arenal, the mother of Spanish feminism, was attuned to this problem. The forces that associate themselves for the good do not merely add up, they multiply themselves,” she wrote. Perhaps Podemos’s openness, despite its important flaws, might allow Spanish feminism to multiply its forces again. 

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Bécquer Seguín is a​n​ ​Andrew W. ​Mellon ​and John E. ​Sawyer Seminar Fellow and doctoral candidate in romance studies at Cornell University. His writing on contemporary Spanish politics has appeared in The Nation, Dissent and Jacobin.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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