Citizens and Housewives: The Problem of Female Citizenship in Spain's Transition to Democracy

By Radcliff, Pamela | Journal of Social History, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Citizens and Housewives: The Problem of Female Citizenship in Spain's Transition to Democracy


Radcliff, Pamela, Journal of Social History


The relationship between women and citizenship has been contentious in the western European liberal and democratic tradition. From the debates over women's participation in the sections during the French Revolution through more than a century of exclusion from the suffrage to more recent discussions about the social rights of citizenship, the category of female citizen has always been problematic, torn between the universal language of citizenship and the "difference" associated with women. This article will explore the tensions and contradictions around the relationship between women and citizenship during the transition to a new democratic regime in Spain in the 1970s.

Periods of political and social transition offer a fertile space for the (re)construction of citizenship practices and ideals. At these moments, individuals' relationships to the state and to each other can be questioned and sometimes re-negotiated. As a result, such transitions provide an ideal context for the historical analysis of how citizenship practices and ideals are created, contested and imagined. In the Spanish case, the country underwent a fairly rapid social and economic transition in the 1960s and 70s from an agrarian-based economy with a Church-dominated culture to an industrial, urbanized and secularized society. The capstone of this transition was the political evolution from an authoritarian to a formally democratic regime, which began after Francisco Franco's death in late 1975 and culminated with the new Constitution of December 1978. As part of this transition, a new nation of democratic citizens was needed, both as protagonists of the process and as recipients of new sets of rights and re sponsibilities.

While both male and female citizenship had to be re-framed, the problematic was different in each case. Since 1939, the Franco regime had institutionalized a version of female identity rooted in women's exclusive role in the patriarchal family.1 The combination of social and economic transformations and political democratization made this ideal seem increasingly anachronistic, but creating a new "democratic female citizen" proved to be a conflicted and ultimately unresolved process. My project attempts to map and understand this process by exploring the dynamic space where female citizenship was being reconstituted. Specifically, this article examines the role of women's housewife associations in the 1970s, both as protagonists and as discursive subjects, in the re-working of female citizenship. More broadly, it examines the consequences for Spain's transition to democracy and in how we conceive both the process of transition and the construction of citizenship.

Gender, Citizenship and the Transition: A Problematic Relationship

To frame such an analysis of citizenship and the transition requires a rethinking of the way these categories are used in the dominant scholarship. Most of the literature on transitions and on citizenship highlights the behavior and evolution of state institutions (and individuals connected to them) as the arena where both democratic transitions and forms of citizenship are created. (2) Within this rather limited framework, both phenomena are top-down constructions, a subset of the history of the state. This perspective leads to what has been called the "thin" conception of citizenship as simply a "status" guaranteed by the state, a set of rights and responsibilities bestowed upon the population. (3)

While the state's role in these processes is certainly important, I would argue that a state-centered approach provides only a partial view of both the transition to democracy and the construction of new forms of citizenship. Instead, the state needs to be placed in a larger political equation that includes the realm of civil society in order to understand the full scope of these processes. (4) In particular, a strong democratic project is inevitably rooted in a partnership between the state and civil society at a specific historical moment.

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Citizens and Housewives: The Problem of Female Citizenship in Spain's Transition to Democracy
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