Still from the Movie Milicianas
Milicianas or militiawomen played a significant and underestimated role in the Republican war effort. The upheavals of total war meant that women on both sides were able to exercise a new agency, as the division between public and private space was eroded. Many women served as nurses and worked in the rearguard, but an important number enlisted as combatants on the Republican side and fought as equals alongside men.
On the Francoist side, milicianas were regarded as unfeminine and evidence of the morally degenerate nature of the Spanish Second Republic. On the Republican side, their image was contested, depending on political affiliation: at first, women who fought at the front were seen as courageous and self-sacrificing heroines, but this view changed and by autumn 1936 there was pressure for them to return home. Socialists regarded women’s place as contributing heroically to the home front, but there existed Communist and Anarchist women’s movements which enabled women to play a greater role in the war effort, if not fighting at the front. As a result, women’s participation has been greatly underestimated.
Following the transition to democracy in the 1970s, feminist historiography focused on stories such as that of milicianas, who fitted into a progressive narrative of social change which could be linked to photographs such as that of The Militia woman take leaving of her son taken by Albero y Segovia. In more recent cultural representations, the miliciana plays an active role in questioning gender roles. Vicente Aranda’s 1996 film, Libertarias, and Dulce Chacón’s 2002 novel, The Sleeping Voice (adapted for cinema by Benito Zambrano in 2011), have helped to create new cultural afterlives of the figure of the miliciana, influenced in each case by contemporary memory debates in Spain. Chacón’s novel places Albero y Segovia’s photograph on the front cover, erasing political differences on the left at the time of the war, and connecting the transmission of the characters’ stories to an assertion of female agency connected to the maternal rather than the erotic, offering yet another afterlife of the image of the militiawomen.
Recent research, such as that conducted by Tània Balló and Gonzalo Berger for the film Milicianas as well as their Museo Virtual de la Mujer Combatiente, has continued this cultural trend, seeking to uncover the stories of the many forgotten women who fought on the frontlines in the war and to convey their experiences to a wider audience. This memory initiative will restore to civic awareness a significant element of Spain’s forgotten history.