The Spanish Riveter: A Muddy Road Ahead – Spanish Women’s Writing Since the End of the Spanish Civil War by Mazal Oaknín

Since 2000, ten women authors have won the Premio Planeta de Novela, the world’s most lucrative literary award. Nonetheless, before attempting to answer the question of whether gender parity has finally been achieved in Spain – and we would of course be limiting ourselves to the cultural landscape – we must bear in mind that in 2023, only eight of the forty-one current Real Academia Española (Spain’s language academy) members are women. Thus, it would appear that gender bias in the reception and marketing of women writers in Spain is not behind us – and the road ahead might be muddy. Yet, today we can celebrate that, despite the numerous legal, social and cultural obstacles in their way, from the end of the Spanish Civil War until the present day, the role played by Spanish women writers in rewriting the country’s defining historical moments, as well as in shaping its collective identity, is both astonishing and revealing.

The label ‘woman writer’ is still a highly contentious one in Spain. While confining women to a literary ‘ghetto’ might be a danger, it cannot be denied that the label sheds light on their work and brings them wider public attention. Still, the ideological connotations and prejudices associated with this label would explain why, whenever asked about the existence of a women’s literature that has specific characteristics and a distinct tradition, Spanish women writers from different generations seldom offer unambiguous, unbiased answers.

Whatever their views on this debate, the recognition of the particular difficulties they have faced as women writers is a common feature in interviews with authors from generations from the end of the civil war until the present. This is true even of those widely acclaimed by the cultural establishment, such as Ana María Matute (1925–2014). When interviewed by Rosa Montero (1951–) in 1996, Matute reflected on the isolation and intimidation she felt when, at the time of her first marriage, she was the only woman to frequent Café Gijón, the legendary meeting-place for intellectuals, writers and artists in post-war Madrid. Nowadays, despite the emergence of an increasingly commercialised and web-based literary market, which has brought an ever-growing number of promotional opportunities for women writers, studies conclude that the gender bias in the marketing of writers continues. Not only are women writers personalised as more domestic and as more closely aligned with their literary characters, they are not immune to the objectified and sexualised mass-media approach to the female body in general. Thus, in recent years, Paula Izquierdo (1962–) has repeatedly lamented that the way her work is promoted is conditioned by the importance attributed to her physical appearance. And the image of a leather-clad Lucía Etxebarria (1966–), who inserted herself on the cover of Nosotras que no somos como las demás (‘We Who Aren’t Like the Others’), is a powerful example of how marketing strategies for male and female writers differ.

Following the approval of the ‘only yes means yes’ consent bill, Spain’s equality minister, Irene Montero, made international headlines last summer as she claimed to be pushing through the most progressive gender equality reforms in the world. Nevertheless, despite the widespread perception that Spanish women writers are now living in an era of unprecedented opportunity, traditional sexist stereotypes persist. In the area of literary criticism, writers of various generations have united to denounce the ongoing tendency to make negative allusions to the sex and gender of women authors, and to define writing by women as over-emotional and deprived of action and excitement; a genre that portrays only female characters and addresses only a female readership. According to Etxebarria, a long-time supporter of the ‘women’s writing’ label and self-declared feminist, women writers will struggle to attain parity as long as critics and reviewers continue to identify male issues as universal and female issues as niche. Not only has the virtual era failed to mitigate the traditional gender stereotyping dating back to the Franco regime, but it has also added to its complexity by over-emphasising the visual marketing of the literary author.

Another shift that has affected the Spanish literary market in recent decades is the arrival of the current globalising, capitalist consumer economy in which an author’s exposure to the mass media is key to determining their selling potential and success. In the case of Rosa Montero, while she described the launch of Crónica del desamor in 1979 as a small, intimate event in a bookshop that was attended by a small number of friends, twenty-six years later the launch of Historia del rey transparente at the Teatro Español de Madrid boasted celebrity contributions, including a dramatised reading by actress Pastora Vega and medieval songs by countertenor José Hernández Pastor. Yet this same globalisation, and the literary boom it has engendered, have also offered spaces for women writers to depict new role models for women and to examine the shifting social expectations around them; in this sense literature by women is seeking to end the confusion between women’s socially constructed roles and their biologically determined ones.

Yes, it might be a muddy road ahead, but there is light at the end of the tunnel, and it is taking shape as, arguably, one of the most refreshing and ground-breaking contributions by Spanish women writers for
decades: the fictional representation of experiences and issues that have seldom been seen in literature. By embracing intersectionality, a theory from Kimberlé Crenshaw (1989) that posits that all forms of oppression are linked, Spanish women writers are increasingly acknowledging that, besides gender, social categorisations such as race, class, religion, sexual orientation, physical ability, formal education, neurodiversity, etc., can marginalise people. Hence, bringing together intersectionality and literary innovation, Esther Bendahan has rewritten the demise of Moroccan Sephardic communities and shed light on the little-known Sephardi Jewish community in Spain; Ángeles Caso has narrated the ordeals of women from poor countries who emigrate in search of a better life and by doing so enable the career progression of Western women; Sara Mesa has denounced the use of language as a tool to pursue exclusion and difference; Najat El Hachmi, by focusing on Maghrebian immigration, has engaged with questions of migration, nationhood, cultural assimilation and the mother-daughter relationship; Cristina Morales has carried out an earth-shattering exploration of female desire and autonomy, queer sexuality, female solidarity and institutional oppression; Aixa de la Cruz has grappled with the question of whether there is a genetic predisposition to addiction and mental disorder, and with the notion of psychiatry as a form of institutional violence; and Trifonia Melibea Obono has denounced the lack of women’s and LGBTQI+ rights and the legacies of Spanish colonisation in Equatorial Guinea.

The fight goes on, but this wealth of voices, perspectives and experiences provides an expansive and generous vision of what is possible, and thus offers us a powerful weapon against stereotyping and bias.

Mazal Oaknín

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