Friday, October 12, 2012

Spanish Anarchist 'Milicianas': Women in Combat During the Spanish Civil War

Having just finished Antony Beevor's excellent 'The Battle for Spain', and while still working through the very characterful 'A World Aflame' rules from Osprey, I thought I'd paint up some more SCW figures to add to the collection.

In reflecting on Beevor's book I was particularly struck by the important role that women played in the conflict. Many women of Republican Spain took up arms and fought as milicianas on the front lines alongside their male counterparts. This is particularly extraordinary as Spanish culture at the time was very conservative in it's view to women's roles both at home and in their communities. The surge in new political ideologies such as socialism, communism and anarchism, and the subsequent outbreak of civil war all acted as a catalyst to release many women from their previously restrictive positions in Spanish society.

What makes this especially remarkable is that these milicianas did not have any real intellectual template or framework of what a 'women's movement' was, or specifically what feminism meant. Literacy amongst women in Spain was relatively low, and even if all Spanish women could read there was very few books on feminism available in their language. Instead these women fought for a very pragmatic desire to secure down-to-earth yet fundamental changes to their position within Spanish society.

As such the women that fought for Republican Spain took risks that were often far greater than their male counterparts. They knew the fate which awaited them if they were captured by the Nationalists, especially if they were composed of North African troops (there are several instances where milicianas took their own lives rather than be captured). So with the stakes so high, their courage was often very inspirational to their male comrades.

A Scottish volunteer, Tom Clarke, related an incident that occurred during the Battle of Jarama in January 1937:
I remember there was a bit of a retreat. There was a rumour that went around, I can't remember what it was, and we started retreating. We'd gone back a bit, and some of (us) were actually running. And here we came across three women sitting behind a machine gun just past where we were, Spanish women. I saw them looking at us. You know, I don't know if it shamed us or what. But these women stayed there. 
I found this to be an evocative mental image and wanted to create some sort of vignette to try to reflect it. This was actually made pretty straightforward thanks to the excellent range of female Militia figures offered by Empress Miniatures,  with one pack featuring a wonderfully sculpted machine gun team who are crewing a Czech ZB-30 LMG (the precursor to the British Bren).

I wanted to give the impression that the LMG team was deployed in a more urban setting. So, inspired by photos of the city fighting of the period, I cut up some balsa rod to make bricks and boxes, in order to mock up an ad hoc barricade.

The third figure in the LMG group is a kneeling woman firing a revolver. To me this figure seems to be directly inspired by a photo taken by Gerda Taro (photographer and then lover of Robert Capa) of a female 'miliciana' near Madrid.

The figure firing the pistol has a very close resemblance to Taro's photo - very cool.

For a uniform colour, I decided to mainly go with variations of blue which was common with workers' overalls (often called a 'mono') worn by militia units in cities such as Barcelona and Madrid. Several of the figures are wearing red and black side caps and scarves, which indicates them as being part of one of the anarchist workers militias under the FAI (Federacion Anarquista Iberica) and/or CNT (Confederacion Nacional del Trabajo).

Male FAI Group Leader

In time I'll probably add a few more figures to this group to take it up to a full squad. 

Next for this period will be the utra-conservative Catholic monarchist fighters, the Carlist Requetes.

I'll end my post with this very striking photo taken by Juan Guzman of Maria Jinesta, 17, a miliciana in her home city of Barcelona. The photo was shot in the summer of 1936, just a few days into the conflict. I look at her face, which is so full of optimism and pride, and am curious to know of her fate in the following months and years. It would be nice to think that she survived the Civil War and perhaps achieved some of the dreams and aspirations she bravely wished to defend.

Maria Jinesta at the Colen Hotel in Barcelona. Photo by Juan Guzman, 1936.