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A Feminist Movement for Us All

Sofia Castañón

Spain's right has declared feminism Enemy Number 1. To defeat the backlash, feminism can't just be one side in a culture war. It must be about providing everyone with the material basis for autonomy over their own lives.

Students shout slogans as they protest along the streets during the International Women's Day on March 08, 2019 in Madrid, Spain. Pablo Blazquez Dominguez / Getty Images

Interview by
Tommy Greene

Commenting on the rise of the radical right ahead of Sunday’s general election, Podemos MP Pablo Echenique told the Financial Times that the female vote “was one of the few things that can save this country.” Though the conservative Partido Popular (PP) lost over half its seats, the election also saw a far-right party enter parliament for the first time since Spain’s late-1970s transition to democracy.

Securing 10 percent in the April 28 contest, the Franco-nostalgist Vox represents a beacon for reactionary forces internationally. This especially owes to its misogynist agenda. Not only is it supported by Steve Bannon and far-right Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, but it was recently  uncovered that it is funded by a US super PAC with links to a network of ultra-conservative, anti-feminist groups active across multiple continents.

These reactionary forces see Spain’s feminist movement as a particularly powerful enemy. 2018’s International Women’s Day mobilizations saw record turnout of between five and six million demonstrators, also leading to an impressive mobilization on this year’s March 8.  At the same time, events such as the notorious “Wolfpack” rape trial have connected the clash between feminists and the far right to a wider polarization.

As Podemos candidate Isa Serra explains, for Vox these battles cohere a wider reactionary agenda, with an anti-feminist discourse that reformulates the talk of an “enemy within … previously deployed against communists, anarchists, gays, and atheists.” For Serra, Vox feels threatened by a feminist movement that is “charting the path for progress and social advances in Spain, pushing back forcefully against neoliberalism.”

Jacobin contributor Tommy Greene spoke with the Unidas Podemos Secretary for Feminism and MP for Asturias Sofía Castañón about the stakes of the fight between feminism and the far right, and the role of women’s demands in a broader progressive agenda.


TG

Today it seems that we are seeing the ebb of the left-wing political engagement and activism that were set in motion by the 15-M anti-austerity movement. But the International Women’s Day demonstrations in Spain last year appeared not only to spark its own series of mobilizations but also to galvanize other strikes that developed in subsequent months — including actions by pensioners, taxi drivers, and Amazon workers. What specifically has feminism done to build such movements?

SC

The feminist movement that made its presence so felt on International Women’s Day in each of the last two years, which had been prepared from March 8, 2017 onward, has led two historic walkouts and created a more or less permanent feminist movement in Spain. Yet these March 8 demonstrations are not the only important thing. Every time the Spanish justice system has demonstrated its misogynist, patriarchal streak, the Spanish population has taken to the streets to protest it.

The most important thing about March 8 is not the day in itself. The massive turnout each year shows that feminism is now hegemonic in a way it has never been before. But there is also a continual mobilization against the discrimination that so targets women, just for being women. This mobilization does not just consist of women but draws in a broad cross-section of Spanish society.

It is true that today we don’t have the “mareas” [the tides of protests against post-crash austerity measures] that we had following 2011 and the 15-M movement. Since we [Unidas Podemos] have entered national institutions, it may seem as if such mobilizations are less important than they were beforehand. And it is possibly true that the terms of possible political change have also shifted during this period. But I still would not say that this is a moment of “low mobilization.” For many industrial disputes and labor conflicts have not entered into decline.

I think the key thing is that over the past few years something genuinely new has happened, in the sense that women have organized politically across many different sectors. Sections of labor that would never previously have organized are now doing precisely that. I think this is very important. Perhaps it isn’t as visible or as evident in the same way as the 15-M movement was. But having domestic workers — who in the past were often out of sight and out of mind when these kinds of acts were brought up or discussed — organized and mobilized politically is something that is qualitatively very important.

TG

With Vox’s electoral advances and the radicalizing effect that this party is having on the broader Spanish political spectrum, feminism has become a key polemical target for the Right. What do you think explains this?

SC

In a sense, the ultra-right’s reaction is logical. Any time the threat of an advance in social rights appears, it is only normal that those who have a certain set of privileges will respond in a reactionary way. From a feminist perspective, the issue in the election was the possibility of continuing to broaden the space of social rights and to keep making gains in this sense. This means guaranteeing the same level of liberty and equality for all citizens, such that it is possible to exist in both public and private spaces without having your rights put at risk.

It’s only logical that the far right is fighting back. This just demonstrates that feminism is indeed winning social gains. You can never advance rights or achieve a transformation of society without there being a reaction from those who see their privileges under attack.

TG

In the Spanish public broadcaster’s election debate, Unidas Podemos candidate and Deputy Leader Irene Montero made an appeal to female voters with the words “Now is the time to redress the balance.” How can Podemos’s program help achieve this objective? One of the main axes of its program, for instance, is the idea of a “purple horizon.” Could you explain this concept with a few examples of key measures?

SC

There are two main axes in Podemos’s program — a “green horizon and a “purple” one — both of which are designed with a feminist perspective in mind. What this means is that the policies laid out along these lines have to be thought with reference to the largest and most significant areas of social exclusion experienced by this country’s citizens.

Feminism means no one being left excluded. If we want an energy transition, we need to do it from a feminist perspective and with feminist criteria in mind. We can’t possibly think about changing our energy production model without also understanding what needs to be done to improve labor conditions in important sectors and recognize the legitimacy of the still-invisible labor being done by half of the population. An energy transition also has to place this kind of care work at the center of its process. This also implies a kind of sustainable way of thinking, taking into account our productive model in a much wider sense. That is what “redressing the balance” means.

TG

In the run-up to the election, women were thought to be the largest undecided demographic. To what extent was this reflected in the kind of campaign that the different parties ran?

SC

I think all the parties have now realized they need to speak about questions of equality — much more so than they had to three years ago, for instance. But I think there is still a clear disconnect between their discourse on many economic points and ideas of gender equality. By contrast, Unidas Podemos is very clear that speaking about the economy means advancing a new vision of work that encompasses gender and sexual concerns which have thus far been obscured by many mainstream parties’ discourse.

We recently put forward a bill emphasizing the protection of our sexual freedoms, in a positive sense. Right now, we are seeing a number of completely irresponsible interventions — in particular from the conservative Popular Party. It is emulating the posture of the far right, in clear attacks on human rights and basic democratic principles. This embrace of hate speech seems unlikely to work, even in terms of the center-right’s own tactics.

TG

How would you define Podemos’s understanding of feminism? Does it have a class content, or an intersectional character that would distinguish it from, say, the liberal feminism of the center-right party Ciudadanos’s deputy leader Ines Arrimadas?

SC

Absolutely. We understand feminism as the guarantee of a particular democratic push to achieve social justice and equality for all peoples. Some politicians like Arrimadas feel that, in order to feel comfortable within this new wave of feminism, they need to add a liberal label — or else they’re left outside and feel irrelevant to the movement.

Such politicians are not defending radical freedoms but are defending a system fundamentally rooted in hidden class relations. Such socio-economic relations only allow for freedom and equality among a certain set of women and necessarily exclude a number of marginalized groups.

I don’t share this vision of feminism. We think feminism is something that guarantees social justice. This is an approach that leaves no one behind. The discriminations limiting your freedoms are not only related to your sex, but also your gender identity, your sexual identity, your relative freedom of movement, whether your administrative situation is regular or irregular, if you’re a person who is racialized or not.

Not all women experience the same degree of oppression. There are multiple contexts or situations to create discrimination against you. And, obviously, for this very reason, a class perspective is an essential place to begin from when thinking about feminism. It’s not good enough to break the glass ceiling just for the privileged few.

TG

What distinguishes this latest iteration of feminism in Spain from previous ones  that arose during the late 1970s Transition to democracy, or those that followed?

SC

The difference is that the hegemony of feminism today has been made possible in large part thanks to the efforts women made in previous decades. They didn’t sign the Constitution in person. But they fought enormous battles and paved the way for the advances of recent years. For an example, look at actions of the women of Asturias in 1972, who went on strike to defend labor rights in the face of a brutal dictatorship. Their history also draws on the miners’ strike of 1934 and the Second Republic. This whole long-ignored genealogy of feminism in Spain — the same legacy we’re now trying to make visible — is what made today’s movement possible.

Perhaps during the 15-M anti-austerity protests, someone would have raised a banner reading “The revolution will be feminist or there won’t be one” and someone else would have removed it, arguing “Here we are with something that unites us even more” as if feminism necessarily divides or segregates us. I think one of the most important changes we’ve seen in recent years has been precisely the fact that the feminist movement has been the one that has maintained the spirit of the 15-M movement, which was itself very diverse.

TG

One criticism of Podemos you tend to hear in mainstream media is that the party is dominated by “alpha males.” This was a point made by the Guardian‘s Giles Tremlett in a recent piece who claims that because of this many of Spain’s leading female leftists have remained outside the party, citing the example of Barcelona’s mayor Ada Colau. How would you respond to this?

SC

This is a bit misleading. Ada Colau is not a member of Podemos because she is leading another formation specific to Catalonia and which she and the people working with her helped to create. But she has always been closely allied to us. The forces and movements that have emerged across Spain in the last few years represent a complicated political geography and these groups have always worked in parallel.

Podemos has its chauvinism, yes — as do all existing political formations. We live and have been brought up in a chauvinistic society and this is inevitably reflected in political organizations. In Podemos we are at least aware of this and are seeking to identify the sexist and chauvinistic practices which we have reproduced, so as to be better able to combat them.

We have mostly male leaders, yes, but increasingly less so. And this is not just down to the formal mechanisms we have implemented or because of a generally feminist identity, but also because the feminist movement is also having an effect on our organization. We are being forced to incorporate lessons from this movement about why some grassroots activists have felt alienated and to think through what we can do to open up our structures to their voices.

If you look at our front bench it has become ever more female. But this is not enough. We do not want to be like the PSOE — simply having lots of visible female ministers in Sánchez’s government but then reproducing the same patriarchal dynamics. Our praxis has to change so that we not only include a minority of women, but the majority. The fact is there are higher costs for women to involve themselves in politics, not least due to family responsibilities. And that is something we must change.