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'Never of Feminism': Pilar Primo de Rivera and the Spanish Right

Jessica Davidson


     Few women dominate the modern history of Spain like Pilar Primo de Rivera. Founder and head of the Sección Femenina (or SF), the female branch of the Falange, the Spanish fascist movement, Primo de Rivera led the organization from 1934-1977 during the regime of dictator Francisco Franco (1939-1975). Sister of the Falange founder, José Antonio, and daughter of Miguel, Spain's first modern dictator, Pilar Primo de Rivera continued a legacy of right-wing politics. Despite the short-lived political careers of her male relatives, she distinguished herself as a durable, malleable, and adept politician remaining in the public spotlight for over forty years in Spain. Her success can be attributed both to her political savvy, family name, and also to her embodiment of gender expectations of the time. She presented herself as humble and passive, both traditional and celebrated female roles during the dictatorship, while carefully maintaining control of the largest women's group.

     The SF proved to be a formidable and dynamic organization throughout the Franco years. The group began as a small, marginal organization during the Second Republic (1931-1936). But, during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and the Franco regime the SF exploded in numbers and responsibilities. It offered social services to women and provided a doctrine for their activities. In fact, after the Civil War, it became the largest and most important women's group in Spain with more than half a million members.1 The Franco government entrusted Primo de Rivera and the SF with the mission of "forming" Spanish women, hoping to create devoted and exemplary wives and mothers. Even when the Falange began to lose prestige and power after the Second World War, the SF headed by Pilar Primo de Rivera continued and expanded its influence at once fulfilling traditional gender expectations and also challenging them. The longevity of the organization has much to do with its leader.

     Pilar Primo de Rivera was born in 1910 into a well to do military family in Madrid.2 Her father, Miguel Primo de Rivera, held an important military post and became dictator of Spain from 1923-1930. He ruled the country foremost with the politics of nationalism, as well as fidelity to the Catholic Church and to the King, Alfonso XIII, who supported his bloodless coup.3 Pilar Primo de Rivera grew up around Spain including in Madrid and Catalonia and lived a life absent from her parents. Her mother died in childbirth with the sixth child. After her father lost power in 1930, he lived briefly in exile in Paris before dying. Pilar rarely saw him and was raised by relatives. Nonetheless, her father instilled in her and her siblings an intense patriotism while her aunt's influence kindled a deep religiosity.4 While one of her brothers joined the Army, several of them followed in their father's footsteps with political careers. Two of her brothers, Fernando and José Antonio, were killed during the Spanish Civil War fighting on the side of the Nationalists for their falangist convictions. Another brother, Miguel, took a political post under Franco as the Spanish ambassador in London. It was José Antonio, however, who made the most significant name for himself in politics as founder of the Falange, the Spanish fascist party. Pilar held him in the highest esteem and sought to emulate his politics. She described him as a poet and intellectual more than he was a soldier.5 In fact he was not a soldier but a lawyer by training.

     Pilar became active in politics in the early 1930s during Spain's Second Republic (1931-1936). The Republic's radical program of social policies, including offering the right to vote, divorce, and civil marriage to women, alienated much of traditional Spanish society and led to political division. Middle-class Spaniards feared the spread of revolutionary, often communist ideology.6 The policies of the Second Republic mobilized many of the conservative groups, including Monarchists (the Carlists), Catholics of the CEDA (Spanish Confederation of the Autonomous Right), and the military. Spain's tumultuous thirties also witnessed the formation of the Falange, among other marginal groups united in their desire to overthrow the Republic. Pilar with six other women created the Sección Femenina in turn in 1934. Responsible for distributing propaganda and offering ideological support to the Falange, the SF played a minor role in the divisive politics of the Second Republic.

     Within three years, the country's political divisions led to Civil War. In July 1936 a battalion of the Spanish military in North Africa under the direction of Francisco Franco launched a coup commencing the conflict. The war proved to be the battleground not only between Nationalists and Republicans, but farm workers and landowners, as well as the Catholic Church and anti-clericalists. The Spanish conflict also proved to be the first encounter between forces that would battle in World War II. Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy aided Franco and the Nationalists, while the U.S.S.R. intervened on behalf of the Republic.

     During the Spanish Civil War, Franco enlisted the SF to administer social services. At that time, the women's branch acted as an auxiliary group, providing nursing services to wounded Falangist soldiers. During the conflict, the SF visited "Falange centers to say goodbye to [the soldiers], they [brought] them sweets and tobacco, they cheer[ed] them up, and [their] flags, sewn by the women of the Falange, w[o]n the first victorious battles."7 The SF took over leadership of the Auxilio Social, which was based on the Winter Service of Nazi Germany and provided services and aid to those affected by the Civil War on the Nationalist side, particularly orphaned children. The program sought to protect children from the threat of the "red disorder" of communism. The SF mission statement declared that "All of the soul of the Falange goes into this work. [The SF] teaches the love God and to understand the Falange. They wash them, comb their hair, get them dressed, make them cleaner of body and soul."8 This program allowed the SF to monopolize social services at the war's end.

     Primo de Rivera experienced her fiercest competition for control of Spanish women during the early years of the Sección Femenina when Franco joined together the right-wing political parties. The JONS (Juntas de Ofensiva Nacional Sindicalista), founded by Onésimo Redondo, rivaled the Falange. Redondo, like José Antonio, was killed during the Civil War. His wife, Mercedes Sanz Bachiller, inherited his mission in the early Franco years as the National Delegate of the Auxilio de Invierno and its later organization, the Auxilio Social. Sanz had a vision for Spanish women that did not always match that of Pilar Primo de Rivera. Sanz wanted the Auxilio Social to be a joint effort between male and female political groups, while Primo de Rivera envisioned it as a strictly female project under the realm of the Sección Femenina. After political maneuvering, Primo de Rivera eventually won this battle and the Auxilio Social became part of the Sección Femenina of the Falange, evolving into the Servicio Social. Fellow Falangist Dionisio Ridruejo sized up the power struggle of the two women in his autobiography; "the Primo de Rivera myth was more powerful that the Redondo myth." Pilar Primo de Rivera and the Sección Femenina proved to be Franco's female favorites. Though they would have to share power with the other conservative groups that comprised the new official state party, they remained uncontested as the official women's organization. 9

     After three years of intense fighting, Franco proclaimed victory and the end of the Civil War in 1939. Franco lost no time, after his seizure of power, in unraveling the reforms of the Republic and reinstating the primacy of Roman Catholicism. He returned to the protectionist economy and nationalist crusade begun by Miguel Primo de Rivera. Spain suffered from severe physical destruction and extreme poverty as well as disunity as it reeled from the disastrous conflict. Franco's Spain sought to restore order and combat communism in many of the same ways as Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.10 The regime exiled, jailed, and killed thousands of Republican sympathizers and Franco proclaimed the restoration of national peace under his authoritarian government.11

     By the early 1940s, the SF consisted of a hierarchical chain of command, headed by Pilar Primo de Rivera, that answered ultimately to the male director of the Falange.12 The National Delegation of the Sección Femenina acted as the central authority for its provincial and local delegations. Within the SF's National delegation were various branches including the religious, political, and judicial advisory boards, the National council, the advisory group (Junta Consultiva), and the group of central offices (Junta de Regidoras).13 Major departments included Press and Propaganda, Personnel, and other administrative groups. The SF also had a cultural department, a student department (the S.E.U.), and a youth department. In the social service sector, it had several programs for social assistance, including hygiene and literacy campaigns as well as work training and education for women. The SF also employed instructors in various schools and programs as well as social service workers.

     After the Civil War, the SF expanded its size and activities. The organization quickly enlarged on its war time functions of providing relief to the impoverished through charity-based programs that provided literacy and childcare training. It began to offer an educational curriculum to all women in all primary and secondary public and private schools. SF instructors entered scholastic institutions where they taught several core courses that included religion, politics, and home economics. The group created escuelas de hogar (domestic schools) to instruct young girls and women in physical education, politics, religion and home economics including cooking, sewing, and childcare. The SF was responsible for a large portion of women's education that reached all corners of Spain and rivaled Catholic educators for influence and power. 14

     Already in 1939, the Servicio Social, dominated the efforts and resources of the group. The program offered aid to post-war Spain through orphanages, hospitals, and other charitable locations. One of the official purposes of the Servicio Social, the largest outreach program of the SF, was Spanish women's "incorporation in the duties of the state." It beseeched married women to care for their homes, and thus contribute to the well-being of the nation. An SF propaganda pamphlet stated "homes today are important factors in the economy…above this, homes have to be…the base of unity of national integrity and the mothers in them, are responsible for raising their children, as much in knowledge and love of God as in the service of the fatherland."15

     In the 1940s, the Sección Femenina offered a wide range of activities and programs designed to benefit women and children. It aimed to reach all of Spanish society, including remote, rural areas. The cátedras ambulantes (traveling classrooms), for example, journeyed through the most backward parts of Spain to bring health care and education to the rural poor.16 SF teachers, nurses, and doctors operated out of trailers. A youth instructor also accompanied them and guided local children in gymnastics, dance, and other social activities. They taught hygiene and infant care to mothers as well as other home economics courses like sewing and cooking. The SF personnel also taught the illiterate to read. They sought to create schools and educational programs that would be continued once the traveling classroom left, normally after two months. They also attempted to instill a political awakening in the areas they visited. An SF pamphlet described the goals of these classrooms as "stir[ring] up the town spiritually, politically, culturally and socially, so everyone participates in the revival of their own community."17

     During the Second World War, the Sección Femenina sought to facilitate the spiritual and physical enhancement of women for the benefit of the state. The SF described its highest purpose as the "formation" of Spanish women through "religion, national-syndicalism, and preparation for the home," the last considered the most important of the three. It believed that the "principal base of the state is the family, and accordingly the natural purpose of all women is marriage."18 It spread its mission through women's education in special schools and programs including the outreach to poor rural areas. According to historian Suárez Fernández, the SF believed that women were the "platform for the construction of the family."19 The SF wanted women to take responsibility for their families, but also play a role in the creation and fortification of the new state through participation in the SF. In its manual, the SF claimed that

     We consider women, there is no reason to excuse them, an integral part of this community, with their own duties, just like men have, on a different level. Women are also historical beings, but their mission will be to be an active member...of the historical, political life of her country.20

     Pilar Primo de Rivera remained a prominent political figure throughout the years of change after the Civil War. During the Second World War, she fulfilled an important diplomatic duty for Francoist Spain. As well as meeting with António de Oliveira Salazar, right-wing dictator of Portugal, she visited Adolf Hitler in 1941 as the representative of Franco's regime. The trip to Nazi Germany proved significant not only because of the false rumors about an amorous union between Primo de Rivera and Hitler but because Franco himself, Head of State, did not go to Germany with her. Franco, in fact, met with Hitler only once during World War II in Hendaye on the border of Spain and France to discuss strategic issues as the war progressed.21 In 1941, Pilar wrote to the head of the Frauenschaft, the female section of the National Socialists before her visit to Germany to express her contentment at their invitation; "of course we are pleased to be able to go to greet with sympathy and mutual feelings all of our German comrades whose cordial relationships unite us in friendship."22

     Led by Pilar Primo de Rivera, during the dictatorship the Sección Femenina made numerous trips ostensibly in the name of spreading Spanish culture with their artist troupe, the Songs and Dances (Coros y Danzas) beginning in 1948. These cultural trips were in fact also methods of spreading Falangist and Francoist propaganda. The group traveled extensively throughout the world performing traditional Spanish folk dances and songs. Several members of the women´s group also served in a special commission of the United Nations in 1962, the Social Juridical Commission, in an effort to promote their labor law of 1961. Members of the SF also served on the Inter parliamentary Union, and various commissions of the United Nations as well as numerous international councils of family, youth and education.23 Pilar and the Sección Femenina proved to be active and consistent diplomats for Franco's Spain.

     As the Franco regime changed political colors after the Second World War, Pilar and the SF also adapted. Alignment with fascist dictatorships during the war years united the SF and the regime. After 1945, however, the SF and the Franco administration distanced themselves from Axis sympathies and adopted a new political identity that sought to accommodate the Allied victors. The post-war ideological orientation of the regime, that combined Falangism and Catholicism, earned Spain international acceptance but challenged its relationship with the SF. Pilar Primo de Rivera, as well as many orthodox Falangists, resented sharing power with other rightist groups like the JONS and the monarchists, viewing it as the death knell of the Falange. Despite the conflict, the SF continued to serve Franco's state. The relationship between the Franco regime and the SF faced its largest challenge in 1956 with the state purge of Falangists.

     Primo de Rivera felt dissatisfied by the political changes in the regime in the 1950s. In 1958, in the ultimate expression of her displeasure, she threatened to resign from her post as head of the SF. She wrote in her letter to Franco "For a long time I have been thinking about leaving the Sección Femenina for many reasons because it seems time for a change."24 Amongst her reasons for leaving was her wish to let a younger generation of SF members lead the group. She continued "at this time with sadness but without bitterness, I abandon the leadership of what has been my life's work, I want to thank you for your understanding."25 Franco refused to accept her resignation and she continued faithfully in her post until the dissolution of the group in 1977.26 After this episode the tension ceased between Primo de Rivera and Franco. She explained that there was a mutual tolerance between them and that Franco "let us go our own way and he always supported us."27 Indeed Pilar received seemingly endless accolades from the dictator. He appointed her as a member of the Spanish pseudo-parliamentary cortes. She also received the title of Countess of the Castillo de la Mota, location of one of the SF's schools for women.

     Vital to the survival of the SF was Pilar Primo de Rivera whose adept leadership and ability to change with the times allowed the organization to weather the political storms of the regime. Early in her tenure as head of the SF, she defined herself as a significant political player. She directly inherited the Falange flame from her brother, José Antonio Primo de Rivera, and stood as one of its most devout leaders. At the same time, she molded herself and her group to fit the changing political circumstances under the dictatorship. The deliberate political choices of Pilar Primo de Rivera earned the support and respect of both Franco and the Falange. She balanced her concern for the purity of the Falange with her increasing interest in serving the state and women.

     It was the creation and successful passage of the labor law (Ley de Derechos Políticos, Profesionales, y de Trabajo de la Mujer) in 1961 that most represents Pilar's personal power as well as the evolution of the role of the SF. The 1961 measure signified the beginning of a new course for women's labor rights in Spain. It opened opportunities and expanded work privileges as it promoted equal pay for men and women and prohibited discrimination in the workplace on the basis of sex or civil status. It also recognized a married woman's right to employment, overturning conservative popular opinion and legislation. It continued, however, to require marital permission for wives who wished to work. In another example of adherence to conservative Spanish legal tradition, the law also recognized old precedents for women's labor restrictions for "dangerous" work. The legislation juggled the two ideologies of tradition and progress. With the proclamation of the labor bill, the SF firmly established itself as an advocate for reform, albeit limited and within the system.

     Pilar convinced the male representatives in the cortes that "every necessary precaution has been taken so that the law does not disturb in any way married life." If women could move beyond their small sphere, she argued, they would be better prepared to fulfill their other, more essential female roles. She claimed that "a cultured, refined and sensible a much better teacher for her children and companion to her husband." 28 Pilar further maintained that she presented the labor law "without any feminist inclination, that would horrify us."29 She lobbied in the cortes on behalf of the law, "For a sense of justice, never of feminism, contrary to our way and to Spanish characteristics."30 She made apologies:

     It doesn't even resemble a feminist law, we would be unfaithful to JOSE ANTONIO if we made it that way, it is only a just law for working women... 31

     Careful not to jeopardize her allegiance to Falangism and the regime while advocating reform for working women, including married ones, Pilar did not make waves. Her party line justification for the labor rights of married women ultimately convinced Parliament to accept the law without further delay. The labor law passed on July 15, 1961 after Pilar Primo de Rivera gave an effective speech to the cortes and earned a standing ovation.

     With the death of Francisco Franco and the end of the dictatorship in 1975, Pilar and the SF lost their prestigious role. When democracy reemerged after the regime, all parties affiliated with the dictator were marginalized. In 1977 the SF officially ceased to exist and some of its functions became part of the Ministry of Culture. Pilar's involvement in politics also was minimized. When she died in 1991 several of Spain's largest newspapers published a report on her life. They noted her role as member of the cortes and her forty-three year post as head of the Sección Femenina, but did not mention the specifics of what she, or the group achieved. The two largest newspapers in Spain, representing both ends of the political spectrum, remembered Primo de Rivera only for her dubious family name and for her connection with the Falange. 32

     To assess Pilar's role today raises conflicting issues. She was a single independent woman in the public sphere, an obvious anomaly in the context of a conservative right-wing dictatorship. Yet she preached traditional ideology and expectations for women and consistently denied her political prowess deferring instead to that of her deceased brother. Her life does not fit any one mold and points to a new area of women's history that debates the significance of right wing women's political activity.33 Regardless of which interpretation emerges of Pilar, she held an unusual position in twentieth-century Spanish history that merits scholarly analysis and study.

Jessica Davidson is an Assistant Professor of History at James Madison University. She can be contacted at


1 The Sección Femenina claimed to have 580,000 members, Karen Offen, European Feminisms, 1700-1950 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999), 327.

2 Victoria Enders, "And We Ate Up The World," Right Wing Women (New York: Routledge, 2002), 85-98. There is some discrepancy as to the year in which Pilar Primo de Rivera was born. While Paul Preston uses the date of 1907, other sources cite the year 1912.

3 Raymond Carr, Modern Spain, 1875-1980 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 98.

4 Victoria Enders, "And We Ate Up The World," 87-88.

5 Pilar Primo de Rivera, Recuerdos de una vida ­(Madrid: Ediciones Dyrsa, 1983), 30.

6 Carr, 606-607.

7 La Sección Femenina: Historia y organización, 15.

8 Ibid., 18.

9 Joan María Thomás, Lo que fue la Falange (Barcelona: Plaza & Janés, 1999), 142-143; Dionisio Ridruejo, Casi unas memorias (Barcelona: Editorial planeta, 1976), 82.

10 Tim Mason has argued for Germany that, in reaction to the perceived emancipation of women in the 1920s, the National Socialist party adopted pronatalist policies in an effort to return women home in Nazism, Fascism, and the Working Class (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996),131-211.

11 Paloma Aguilar captures the false sense of peace proclaimed by Franco when she wrote "Peace was celebrated, that is true, but it was a peace lying in wait, a vigilant calm, one that did not overlook the enemy within; it was a peace that warned the opposition of the defensive and offensive capacity of the regime. It was an almost aggressive peace, incapable of producing either social integration or creating a valid collective identity for all." Memory and Amnesia: The Role of the Spanish Civil War in the Transition to Democracy (New York: Berghahn Books, 2002), 72.

12 Archivo General de la Administración (AGA), 23/21.209-304, signatura 3, 3 January 1951.

13 25 Años de Política Española, AGA, 23/27.304, signatura 3, 45-48, 1961.

14 Luis Suárez Fernández, Crónica de la Sección Femenina y su tiempo (Madrid: Asociación Nueva Andadura, 1993), 189.

15 La Sección Femenina: Historia y organización, 42.

16 Spain's Second Republic also launched a similar program. See Sandie Holguin, Creating Spaniards: Culture and National Identity in Republican Spain (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2002).

17 Cátedras ambulantes, AGA, 23/31.201-31.209, signatura 25, 1965.

18 Misión y organización de la Sección Femenina, 1942, 16-17.

19 Suárez Fernández, 95.

20 La Sección Femenina: Historia y organización, 42.

21 During World War II Franco was hesitant to involve himself personally with Hitler in fear of alienating the Allies. Instead, he sent his more "fascist" ministers, including Ramón Serrano Suñer, his Falange foreign minister during the War (who he dismissed shortly after), and Pilar Primo de Rivera.

22 Real Academia de Historia (RAH), carpeta 108A, serie azul, document 3.

23 AGA, 23/27.406, sig. 2, Relacion de organismos internacionales en los que esta representada la Sección Femenina del Movimiento, 1966.

24 RAH, carpeta 108C, serie azul, document 2.

25 Ibid.

26 Pilar Primo de Rivera, Recuerdos de una vida, 185-189.

27 Ibid., 185.

28 AGA, 23/25.201-25.302, sig. 534, Pilar Primo de Rivera, 1961.

29 RAH, carpeta 108 A, serie azul, document 8, 1966. Palabras del Pilar Primo de Rivera, a las Cortes Españolas en defensa de la Ley de 1966.

30 AGA, 23/21.209-21.304, sig. 12, Pilar Primo de Rivera, 7-16-60.

31 AGA, 23/25.201-25.302, sig. 534, Pilar Primo de Rivera, 1961.

32 El País, 3-18-91, ABC, 3-19-91, RAH, Carpeta 108 A, serie azul, documento 6.

33 See "Problematic Portraits: The Ambiguous Historical Role of the Sección Femenina of the Falange" Victoria Lorée Enders and Pamela Beth Radcliff, eds. Constructing Spanish Womanhood: Female Identity in Modern Spain (Albany: State University of New York,1999), 375-397 and Kathleen Richmond, Women and Spanish Fascism: The Women's Section of the Falange,1934-1959 (London: Routledge, 2003).



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