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Courtesy: Fons MNAC, Barcelona
Whither the women? Discovering the famous women of Catalunya
Self-portrait of Lluïsa Vidal i Puig
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Courtesy: MAE. Centre de Documentació i Museu de les Arts Escèniques. Institut del Teatre
Whither the women? Discovering the famous women of Catalunya
Carmen Tórtola Valencia, 1943. Unknown photographer.
I came to Barcelona one year ago, drawn to the city like so many for its art, architecture, proximity to the Mediterranean and overall quality of life. But soon after arriving here, having spent considerable time with the likes of Gaudí, Picasso, Miró, Dalí, Tàpies and Puig i Cadafalch, I began to wonder about the famous women of Catalunya. Surely they existed. Surely they hadn’t been rendered completely invisible by the renowned machismo of the Iberian Peninsula.
So I began to ask. I asked locals, I asked foreigners. I asked my daughter’s Catalan teacher, I asked my Castilian teacher. I asked the pharmacist, the pediatrician, the gynecologist and the physiotherapist. I asked the barista and the grocer and the baker. And everyone had the same response. They would look up, they would look down. They would furrow their brows and scratch their chins. “Ahhhhhhhhh!” each one would ultimately conclude (as in, “I’ve got it!”). Arms raised, in happy victory, they would shout, “Montserrat Caballé!”
Don’t get me wrong. I’m a Montserrat Caballé fan. (Her famous duet with Freddie Mercury singing ‘Barcelona’ is not to be missed.) But she couldn’t possibly be the only one. Additionally, I was seeking the female counterparts to those aforementioned chaps whose very disdain for conventionality made them famous. I was looking for the anarchists, the poets, the painters, the sculptors. The women who had crossed artistic, literary and political lines; the women who had left a mark. I was looking for women like this:
LLUÏSA VIDAL I PUIG , 1876-1918
Like her contemporary Pablo Picasso, Lluïsa Vidal went to Paris to study, in 1901 at the age of 25. In fact, she was the only female Spanish painter of her time known to have studied there, according to her biographer, Marcy Rudo, who re-introduced Vidal to Catalunya. But while Picasso went on to become the most famous artist of the 20th century, over time Vidal simply lapsed in to obscurity. Rudo emphasises the notion that in 19th-century Spain, for a woman to have a profession, let alone a career, was "unthinkable". Women were consistently invisible, says Rudo, even during arguably the most creative period in Catalan history. In Paris, conversely, Vidal was seen as an artist, not as a woman. She returned to Barcelona in 1902 and joined the feminist movement. Despite the sentiment, according to Rudo, that she "painted like a man", Vidal exhibited her work internationally and went on to become a renowned portraitist but, in the words of Rudo, "this narrow appraisal... was the price leveled by society when a woman of Vidal's genius rejected the circumscribed, domestic world of women to embrace the public life of the artist."
CATERINA ALBERT I PARADIS, 1869-1966 (aka VÍCTOR CATALÀ)
As Lluïsa Vidal is to Picasso, Caterina Albert i Paradis is to Joan Maragall (though Albert i Paradis was also a painter and a sculptor). Albert i Paradis won the Jocs Florals d’Olot prize in 1898 for her poem ‘Lo llibre nou’ (The new book) and for her theatrical monologue entitled ‘La infanticida’ (The infanticide). However, scandal ensued once the jury learned that the author was a young woman, and from then on she took the pseudonym ‘Víctor Català’ for all her writings. According to the website of the Generalitat de Catalunya, this ultimately enabled her to become “one of the foremost figures of Catalan narrative of all time” due to her capability for “transmitting an infinite amount of sentiment and sensation.” Her book Solitud (1905) marked the starting point of the exploration of female identity by a female writer and, again according to the Generalitat, is “one of the principal novels in Catalan of the 20th century.” Albert i Paradis generally wrote tragic narratives about the rural world that focused on the struggle of the individual against hostile elements, a theme not uncommon in the Modernisme movement. The ‘Víctor Català prize’ was established in 1953 in homage to the writer.
CARMEN TÓRTOLA VALENCIA, 1882-1955
The dancer Carmen Tórtola Valencia was “one of Spain’s most famous and controversial women,” according to Carlota Caulfield (Corner magazine, an ‘electronic online journal dedicated to the avant-garde’, Spring 1999). Tórtola was born in Seville, but lived in London and Mexico before reclaiming the patria of her father, Catalunya, as her home. Apparently Tórtola rejected formal dance training from a young age, choosing instead to develop her own personal avant-garde style marked by an “innovative use of movement and mime,” in the words of Caulfield. She led a very private life and, like her contemporaries mentioned above, never married. Influenced by Isadora Duncan, Greek tragedy and Arab, African and Indian cultures, Tórtola was known as an anthropologist of dance and gained popularity as an international performer. Painter, vegetarian and ultimately a Buddhist, Tórtola also fought to abolish the corset. Despite being satirised in the Catalan press as another ‘Mata Hari’ and despite Tórtola’s own admission that Spanish audiences simply did not understand her art, her fight for recognition eventually won out among fellow intellectuals. “Her independence, both in her art and her life,” writes Caulfield, “was often perceived as a menace to the stability of traditional Spanish society.”
One of the most important figures I came across during my quest to uncover the famous women of Catalunya is Dr. Mary Nash, a professor of Contemporary History at the University of Barcelona. Originally from Ireland, Nash arrived in Barcelona in 1969 and enrolled at the University as a history student. While wandering through the University’s archives, and with the help of librarians and archivists to whom Nash will forever pay homage, she began to uncover the stories of suffragists, anarchists and feminists. “I was simply pursuing an idea,” she recalls. “This was a place I could change things. At that time, what you did here was really worth while.”
The change, however, did not come easily. Nash’s pursuits went against the wishes of her professors, and she was even accused of “inventing” the women whose stories she continued to discover. “There was historical amnesia,” says Nash. “There was no recognition of women’s history or voice or organisation. The idea was that because there weren’t women of notoriety on record, they didn’t actually exist.” But Nash was persistent, and went on to take enormous academic and social risks as she continued her studies of the women. “It was tough for a long, long time,” she recalls. “It was going in to a room and having to defend what you were doing constantly.”
Under Franco, the whole trajectory of women was cut down “like a tree,” says Nash. In fact, Franco used the progress of women as a measure of the failure of the Republic and the democratic system in general. According to Franco, it was because of this “contamination” of women and the questioning of traditional domesticity that the country had become too decadent and had lost the essence of Spanish values. The Second Republic was highly advanced regarding the emancipation and the social rights of women—including maternity, education and labour rights—all based on the principle of equality. “The Republic had made women visible,” says Nash. “There was a strong suffrage movement; women labour leaders were household names at the time.” Even Catholic feminism existed within the Church, as women questioned the dominant discourse and were apt at using alliances and resources. “Historically, women had a significant presence within the Church because church was one place they were admitted,” adds Nash. “There were women who promoted education for women, women who gave grants to poor women.” But all of this never really fully materialised and, given the duration of the dictatorship and the use of the Church as a pillar of the repressive state, there was no going back.
Nash, meanwhile, went on to become the first women’s history professor in the country. It could easily be said that Nash introduced women’s history to Spain, a feat she might not have managed had she herself been a Spaniard. She is most proud of her work uncovering the women of the Civil War, and of the general acknowledgement of the role of women that had for so long been denied. Nash’s approach to the historiography of women, followed by scholars worldwide, is unique in that it is about “recuperating” and “resurrecting” women’s history within a much more complex and synthesised analysis, as well as transferring that history from the academic world to the general public. “My tendency has been to open up new fields and new ways of conceptualising,” says Nash. “I don’t go back over the same things over and over.”
Among the women ‘resurrected’ by Nash was Teresa Claramunt, one of the founders of the Spanish anarchist movement who fought for women’s equality and against male dominance during the late 1800s and the early 1900s. Another of Nash’s subjects, Carmen Karr, is now known as one of the most “advanced” Catalan feminists of the early 20th century. A journalist, Karr founded the feminist magazine Feminal in 1907, which advocated equal rights for women. Suceso Portales, favoured by Nash for her strong personality, was a member of the anarchist group Mujeres Libres, the first “autonomous, proletarian feminist organisation in Spain,” founded in 1936. Mujeres Libres existed not only to liberate women and to address such concerns as illiteracy, economic dependence and sexuality, but also to address the primary sources of women’s subordination. “This was the vanguard for feminism in Europe,” says Nash. “In comparison to labour movements elsewhere, these were committed, convinced feminists—powerful women who were subsequently jailed, exiled, executed.”
More than 40 years after arriving in Barcelona and having witnessed the evolution of women’s liberation movements worldwide, Nash continues to teach, write, research and lecture. “The new generation has a completely different discourse,” she says of her students now. “There have been huge changes in women in terms of equality, and huge changes in men in terms of redefining masculinity.” That said, the credibility of the women’s movement is already being questioned under the new government, says Nash, which recently dissolved the Ministry of Equality under the auspices of “the false notion that women’s rights have been achieved.”
Dr. Mary Nash is the founder of the Spanish Association of Research into Women’s History and the founding director of the Research Group in Multiculturalism and Gender at the University of Barcelona. She received an honorary doctorate from the University of Granada in 2010. Her collection of publications includes the books Defying Male Civilization: Women in the Spanish Civil War (1995), Mujeres en el mundo. Historia, retos y movimientos (2004), and Rojas. Las mujeres Republicanas en la Guerra Civil (2006).