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Retrieving the untold story of Spanish feminism: delivering new cultural products and influencing public recognition of pre-Francoist feminist cultural legacy

Cartasvivas

Project Leader: Prof. Nuria Capdevila-Arguelles

Pre-Francoist feminist writers and artists were erased from public memory by the Spanish Civil War and the decades of dictatorship that followed. Capdevila-Argüelles’s research has preserved and given the public access to this lost feminist cultural heritage both in Spain and internationally.

She has collaborated with creative industry businesses and Fundación Banco de Santander on many new cultural products, including critical editions, English translations, documentary and feature films, multimedia projects and plays. Elena Fortún’s previously unpublished Lesbian autobiographical novel became a bestseller and El Pais book of the year, reinstating Fortún in Spanish cultural life and leading to official acts of memorialisation including public building renaming. A two-part documentary about this generation of feminist writers reached over 500,000 households and produced material introduced into the school curriculum by the Spanish Ministry of Education. Capdevila-Argüelles’s research has led to wider understanding of gender roles pre-Franco, contributing even to cultural tourism with historical feminist walks.

The Spanish Civil War and the ensuing 40 years of Francoism succeeded in erasing feminist memory in Spain. After 1975, scholars were quick to declare the feminist debate open and activists started to dismantle Francoist misogyny, but with little awareness of a feminist legacy to support the heavy burden of undoing deeply rooted sexism. Women’s rights and gender equality seemed new. Orphanhood characterised feminist debate until the new millennium. Research by Capdevila-Argüelles has contributed to reversing this lack of engagement with the legacy of the mothers of Spanish feminism via monographs, critical editions and extensive collaboration with non-academic actors. 

Capdevila-Argüelles has accessed and researched new, privately held, archival material by women artists and intellectuals, placing the archival research in the frameworks of memory and gender studies. Examples of this detective work of discovering and framing the works and lives of these women within the historical context and contemporary struggles for gender equality include: Elena Fortún’s previously unpublished lesbian novel Oculto sendero; Hildegart Rodríguez’s letters, held in London; Carmen Laforet’s letters; Isabel Oyarzábal’s memoirs; Marga, Marisa, María and Consuelo Roësset’s art and literature in Marga Clark’s archive; and Lucía Sánchez Saornil’s works in lost avant-garde magazines (now published as an anthology including 56 new poems). 

The results of this research were first published in 2008 Autoras inciertas[Uncertain Authors], with the second edition published in 2018. The decade between the first and the updated edition of Autoras inciertas produced a substantial peer-reviewed body of research on the “uncertain authors” of the title and on the groups they belonged to, with abundant output including new editions of their work, documentaries and creative collaborative activities. Particularly notable is the publication, with Capdevila-Argüelles’s extensive critical introduction, of Oculto sendero [Hidden Path] in 2016, a novel hidden by the author due to its lesbian content, and passed for decades between private archives in Argentina, USA, and Spain until Capdevila-Argüelles and her co-director of the Bibilioteca Fortún series, found it and negotiated its release to the Madrid City Council. The novel is now a best-seller and its English translation was published by Swan Isle Press in September 2020 with a foreword by Capdevila-Argüelles. 

Biblioteca Elena Fortún series of critical editions of published and previously unpublished books and materials has been particularly impactful in reviving a feminist legacy for Fortún, creator of the celebrated children fiction series centred around the ‘Celia’ character, and now established by Capdevila-Argüelles’s research as an important feminist figure of Francoist Spain. In her co-directorship of the Fortún series, Capdevila-Argüelles supervised the preparation of extensive critical introductions contextualising the volumes, and wrote the critical materials for titles particularly relevant in terms of feminism and women’s history.  

The flow of Capdevila-Argüelles’s research and impact is ongoing and expanding, as new research on new archival material is commissioned by leading publishers, and new ventures, such as the ongoing CartasVivas, are developed to disseminate its results . This story of research and impact momentum is the unifying thread of the book El regreso de las modernas, commissioned by La Caia Books for their collection on ‘women rebels’ (Las rebeldes). The book creates a narrative of the journey that led to the definitive return of Spanish modern authors to the cultural realm, a point emphasised in the prologue written by leading Spanish novelist Elvira Lindo.

Confirming her influence abroad, a recent evaluative review of Capdevila-Argüelles’s work in the literary supplement of Argentine broadsheet La Nación notes that pre-Francoist women’s history has finally been connected with post-Francoism, and that the importance of the public, private and secret lives of women, along with the need to know about the impact of gender violence and discrimination in all three, has been understood by Hispanic audiences and those interested in Spanish history and culture, influencing public debate as well as cultural, educational and political development.