Female Combatants in the Spanish Civil War: Milicianas on the Front Lines and in the Rearguard

Article excerpt

Abstract

The history of the military participation of women during the Spanish Civil War has thus far been neglected, underestimated or downplayed by historians. This article aims to redress this imbalance. It examines the actions of the milicianas, and the military roles they played, from the beginning of the war until July 1937 when the majority of women had been removed from combat. Most of the secondary literature attempts to dismiss the military contribution of the milicianas by arguing that women did not participate in combat on equal terms with men. Instead, the literature focuses on the domestic and auxiliary tasks performed by the militia women at the front. This article shows that in fact women did participate in combat on equal terms with men. Using primary sources, in particular the various memoirs written by milicianas or their oral testimonies, this article discusses the type of combat duties women undertook and the battles in which they were involved. The article demonstrates that the milicianas did make a significant contribution to the Republican war effort.

Keywords: female combatants, milicianas, Spanish Civil War

Introduction

The history of the military participation of women during the Spanish Civil War has thus far been neglected, underestimated or downplayed by historians. This article aims to redress this imbalance. An understanding of militia women's participation in combat during the Spanish Civil War and of their activities in the front lines and in the rearguard is necessary to gain an appreciation of the significance of the miliciana phenomenon. The absence of such an understanding allows the misconceptions to continue concerning the women who took up arms against the fascists in Spain. The historical significance of the miliciana phenomenon lies not only in the extent to which these women aided the war effort. The combat role played by militia women signified a change in gender roles that was occurring in the Republican zone as a result both of the war and of the social revolution. Part of the significance of the miliciana phenomenon also lies in its uniqueness in Spanish history. While a limited number of Spanish women had participated in combat prior to the Spanish Civil War, this was the first instance in which a large number of women not only took up arms to fight, but were integrated into the fighting force as combatants on equal terms with men.

There are several important distinctions between the milicianas who fought in the front lines and those stationed in the rearguard, and it is for this reason that these two subjects have been discussed separately. Front line milicianas were with few exceptions integrated into the Republican fighting force as members of mixed-gender battalions. In contrast, the milicianas in the rearguard were largely organised into women-only battalions. A further difference is that front line combatants moved around Spain depending on the needs of the conflict, whereas milicianas of the rearguard remained living in their homes. Women's battalions in the rearguard played a defensive role and participated in combat only when the battle came to their cities and towns. There is little evidence of movement of women between the front lines and rearguard. Thus, front line and rearguard milicianas can be seen as two separate and distinct groups of women.

This article will demonstrate the scope of women's military participation through a systematic examination of their military activities. A comprehensive picture of what life was like for women who fought on the front lines will be provided, outlining the combat roles that they played on a daily basis. Contrary to what has been asserted in much of the secondary literature, it will be demonstrated that the great majority of milicianas did actually participate in combat on equal terms with men, though they were also responsible in many cases for fulfilling an auxiliary role. …