Women of the Spanish Civil War: Part 1 – Lucía Sánchez Saornil

cntLucía Sánchez Saornil was born in Madrid on 13 December 1895, and raised in poverty by her father. Sánchez got accepted into the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando (Madrid) with her passion for poetry, and by 1919 she had already been published in multiple journals, where she used a pen name. As a man, she was able to write of lesbian themes; at that time, all gay relationships (and anything related) was subject to censorship and prison time, all still illegal in Spain. This lead to Sánchez having to keep her private life very private for her safety. However, she wrote alongside many modern new authors, dedicated to promoting new literary styles, but only as a man.

1933Sánchez worked for the as a phone operator at Telefónica, and in 1931, participated in the union strike arranged by the CNT (anarchist workers union), and ignited her passion for activism. In 1933, Sánchez gained a role with the CNT in Madrid, as their Writing Secretary, and edited their own journal, right until the start of the Spanish Civil War in 1936. Her writing quickly established her as a feminist and addressed the urgent need for better equality in Spain. At that time, gender roles were extremely strict and went unquestioned. Sánchez wrote of how motherhood should not have to define a woman and that women deserved far better treatment. The anarchist movement praised equal rights, but it seemed as all talk and no action, with men who claimed to be anarchists still sexist in the home. Women still were forced into marriage and single women required a chaperone in public. Women still received half the income of men. The working class women were not receiving any benefits promised by the Second Spanish Republic.

In 1935, Sánchez decided to form the Mujeres Libres (Free Women), along with Mercedes Comaposada, a socialist lawyer in Madrid. They argued that social revolution and women’s revolution were the same thing; that women’s issues were everyone’s issues. They started their magazine, and were soon joined by Amparo Poch y Gascon, a doctor who believed in sexual freedom and the abolishment of double standards for women. The women felt that their contribution to the CNT was not being treated equally, and that sexism was rampant. At same time, Soledad Estorach in Barcelona started the Grupo Cultural Feminino, a group committed to equality in unions. In 1936, the groups came together and formed the Agrupacion Mujeres Libres, a group which would grow to 30,000 members.

The anarchists believed that women’s equality would be naturally created after the social revolution, when the working classes received better rights. However, the Mujeres Libres believed women’s rights could begin right away, and they created networks of support and reported on sexist issues within their unions. By the start of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, coinciding with the Spanish revolution, Mujeres Libres were already formed and prepared, so that women could participate in war fully, both in the revolution and as militia in battle. Sánchez and her team spread propaganda, radio news, and travelled to rural women to give them support.

In order for women to be free as the Spanish Civil War and revolution progressed, the Mujeres Libres organised schools, women’s only social occasions and a women-only newspaper, so women could feel safe and confident as their political consciousness was educated. Many working class women could not read or write, so Mujeres Libres set up classes for these women to attend, and women were trained as nurses for the ever-increasing wounded from the front. At the same time, they were taught about sexual health and post-natal care, to pass on to as many women as possible. Much had been denied to working class women in the past, and they finally started to receive basic help.

Mujeres Libres did not become part of the CNT or FAI, as they wished to be an independent anarchist group. As men left to fight at the front (along with many women, who are largely forgotten by history), the Mujeres Libres had women work-ready to fill men’s roles. While still stuck in female roles like cooking for the militia and nursing the wounded, women were also being training in shooting by Mujeres Libres. Also formed was daycare for children as women empowered themselves, and the children were educated in the causes their mothers fought to achieve. Mothers, in turn, received information on child care and development, for the better of the whole family. They also published their first Mujeres Libres magazine as the war broke out, being printed until the front reached Barcelona.

Mujures Libres had much opposition, as feminism does today, believing women cannot be a good mother and a good working woman. Their roles would always be limited to parenting. Many believed that anarchism could not work if women soughtto undermine men, even though one of their aim goals was an egalitarian society with freedom for all. As Mujeres Libres flourished, so did the man tears, who got scared and voiced opposition. To this day, no one has figured out why men are so scared of women.

The revolution broke down ten months after the outbreak of war, and the ability of the Mujeres Libres faltered. The inability to work together got the better of the left-wing factions, and the strength of the Nationalists slowly ate away at freedoms gained for the working class. Fighting and killing became the only activity in all parts of Spain.

Sánchez fled to Valencia and worked as a journal editor for Threshold, and met the love of her life, America Barroso. Sánchez became a member of the SIA (international antifascist union) and worked as their General Secretary, who supplied anarchist aid to the wounded and fleeing during the war. Sánchez and Barroso were forced to flee to France in 1939 as anarchists, but were forced out of there by Nazis in 1941. Sánchez did not have the luxury of anonymity and had to live quietly in Valencia, living with her ‘wife’s’ family, as all same-sex relationships were illegal, and fascism and Catholicism were raining down. Sánchez worked as an editor and Barroso worked at the Argentine consulate, until Sánchez died of cancer in 1960, aged 75.

Sánchez was buried quietly in Valencia with a headstone which reads –

¿Pero es verdad que la esperanza ha muerto? But is it true that hope has died?


This is not a detailed analysis, just a highlight of the Sánchez’s life. Things get lost in translation – Feel free to suggest an addition/clarification/correction below. The more the world remembers, the better. All photos are linked to source for credit

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