Federica Montseny Mañé (1905-1994)

     For more than five decades, activist Federica Montseny contributed to numerous anarchist journals and newspapers, wrote nlovels and remained a powerful force within the Spanish anarchist movement until her death in 1994.

    Montseny was born in the working class neighborhood of Cuatro Caminos, Madrid in 1905. The only daughter of Catalan libertarian activists and educators Federico Urales and Teresa Mañé, Montseny never attended formal school but rather was educated by her mother, a Normal School teacher by training, following the pedagogical methods of María Montessori and Ferrer i Guardia. In 1912 the family returned to Catalunya, where, after various farming enterprises in the outlying areas of Barcelona, they established their residence in the city.   At 17, she joined the clandestine anarchist labor union CNT (National Confederation of Workers), contributed to numerous anarchist publications such as Solidaridad Obrera, Tierra y Libertad, and Nueva Senda among others; and published her first novel under the name “Blanca Montsan” in the series “La Novela Roja”.

    In 1923, Montseny urged her parents to re-launch the anarchist journal of cultural criticism La Revista Blanca  which they had previously published between 1898 and 1905. Likewise, the Montseny family established the publishing firm Ediciones de La Revista Blanca, specializing in promoting libertarian ideals throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Federica Montseny participated as an editor of the serials “La Novela Ideal” and “La Novela Libre”, writing many of the novels herself. The “Novela Ideal” had a weekly edition of 50,000 issues and the “Novela Libre” a monthly publication of 64 pages, 20,000 issues. Montseny proudly recalls in her autobiographyMis primeros cuarenta años (1985) that “La Novela Ideal. . . según el franquismo, envenenó a tres generaciones de españoles” (41). As an anarchist intellectual Montseny supported women's emancipation throughout her writing career. In her many novels, short stories and articles for the anarchist press she analyzed the origins of the deplorable status of women in Spanish society and presented theories that challenged her readers beliefs regarding women's capabilities.

    Montseny was twenty five years old when the Second Republic was proclaimed. Married to fellow anarchist Germinal Esgleas and the mother of a child, dedicated to her family's publishing business and active in trade union affairs, Montseny was the epitome of modern Spanish womanhood As a propagandist for the CNT  she traveled throughout Spain during the first half of the 1930s lecturing about the labor union's policies while promoting the local labor associations. Montseny’s talent for public speaking in addition to her political credentials and her astute defense of the FAI (Federación Anarquista Ibérica, the leftist faction of the CNT) in internal disputes promoted her public career so that within a short time she was a prominent member of the labor union's National Committee.

    In November of 1936, Montseny was appointed to the post of Minister of Health and Public Assistance by Largo Caballero. During her six month tenure as Health Minister, Montseny initiated a series of measures and implemented numerous programs that were ahead of their time. She down sized the Ministry's bureaucracy in favor of efficiency and made it her policy to incorporate women into leadership positions.

    In the few months that Montseny directed national health and human services policy she laid down the basis for what was to be the Republican refugee program throughout the war, allocated funding to construct rest homes for battle worn troops and established a national home program to evacuate orphaned and displaced children from besieged cities such as Madrid. Likewise, Montseny, taking advantage of the legal reforms of the Republic, secularized charity, formerly the domain of the Catholic Church, by creating programs to distribute State aid to those in need.Federica Montseny, accomplished a series of reforms that directly affected women's health policy. This progressive view favored sexual education, family planning and the legal termination of pregnancy among other programs sympathetic to women's needs. Another innovation were the “Liberatorios de prostitución” or halfway houses for women who were trying to break free of prostitution. Moreover, Montseny along with the feminist advocate Dr. Amparo Poch, launched a nationwide campaign to prevent the spread of venereal diseases through education and vaccination campaigns among civilians and troops.

    The May events of 1937 precipitated the fall of the Largo Caballero government and signaled the rise of the Soviet supported Spanish Communist Party. Refusing to join the cabinet of the new Prime Minister Dr. Juan Negrín, all anarchist ministers, including Montseny resigned their posts.  Montseny held a variety of political offices in the CNT and the FAI  throughout the war: President of the UGT-CNT committee, Secretary of Propaganda of the National Committee of the CNT and member of the Peninsular Committee of the FAI. During this last year of the war, Montseny remained in Barcelona with her family. Pregnant with her second child she limited her activities and speaking engagements to a minimum.  At the end of the war, Montseny like hundreds of thousands of Spaniards who had defended the Republic fled over the Pyrenees into France. The holder of a diplomatic passport, Montseny was able to enter France with her most of her family. However, her husband, father and half sister, María, were interned in refugee camps until they were later reunited with Montseny in Paris. Until the German occupation, Montseny was busy rebuilding the CNT labor union in exile. In 1942 she was imprisoned at Perigueux and later in Limoges awaiting extradition to Spain. However,  pregnant at the time with her third child, her extradition was denied and she was confined to house arrest until the end of the war.

    During the long exile that was to be the destiny of many Spaniards following the end of the Spanish Civil War, Montseny continued to participate in the Spanish anarchist movement after the liberation of France in 1944. She collaborated with the anarchist newspaper CNT/L’Espoir published in Toulouse, traveled throughout Europe on lecture tours denouncing the Franco regime while simultaneously supporting the continued existence of the Spanish anarchist trade union CNT in exile.

    Unlike the majority of the exiled activists who had returned to Spain upon the re-establishment of democracy Montseny did not stay to Spain permanently but chose instead to continue her residence in Toulouse. During the brief periods Montseny spent in Spain, especially Catalunya, she sought to recover that "other" Spanish history which, for obvious reasons, had been banished from the collective memory. Towards the end of her life Federica Montseny was perceived more as a catalyzing symbol, comparable to Dolores Ibárruri, rather than a political leader capable of uniting the diverse political forces of the anarchist movement.

Selected works by Federica Montseny

  • Montseny, Federica. La Victoria Ediciones La Revista Blanca:  Barcelona: 1927.
  • ---. El hijo de Clara. Ediciones La Revista Blanca: Barcelona: 1929.
  • ---. “Heroínas” in Bordonada, Angeles Ena. ed. Novelas breves de escritoras españolas. Madrid: Castalia. 1990.
  • ---. "Mi experiencia en el Ministerio de Sanidad" .Valencia: Comité de  Prensa y propaganda de la CNT, 1937.
  • ---. Mujeres en la cárcel . Toulouse: Ediciones Universo, 1948.
  • ---. Cien dias en la vida de una mujer. Ediciones Universo, 1949.
  • ---. María Silva: “La libertaria”.  Toulouse: Ediciones Universo, 1951.
  • ---. ¿Qué es el anarquismo? Barcelona: La Gaya Ciencia, 1976.
  • ---. El éxodo: Pasión y muerte de los españoles en el exilio. Barcelona: Galba Ediciones, 1977
  • ---. Seis años de mi vida (1939-1945). Barcelona: Galba Ediciones, 1978.
  • ---. Mis primeros cuarenta años.  Barcelona: Plaza y Janés.1987.
  • ---. La Indomable.  Mª Alicia Langa Laorga. ed. Madrid: Castalia. 1991.
  • ---. Federica Montseny en Andalucía, verano de 1932. Sevilla: Las Siete  Entidades, 1994.

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