February 20, 2021


Feminism in the Union

An interview with Begoña San José

Begoña San José is a feminist activist and trade union leader.

Maya Adereth: Tell us about your introduction to political activism and feminism.

Begoña San José : I had a religious upbringing and went to school at a convent when I was very young. The first movement I participated in was around the Second Vatican Council, which was about renewing the commitment to working people and the poor. When I left my parents’ house at the age of eighteen, I started working as a house cleaner, and in 1970 I was hired by OSRAM, a multinational company producing light bulbs and lamps. Even before I started working, I wanted to join the CCOO. I knew priests who were involved with it, and I knew about meetings held in Orcasitas, a working-class neighborhood in Madrid. But union operations were clandestine, and I had to join the ORT, a Maoist organization, in order to join the union.

I finally joined the CCOO in 1971, when a collective agreement was being negotiated at my factory. In 1973 I got arrested during a CCOO meeting and imprisoned without a trial. Shortly before entering prison I joined the PCE, and after I was released I continued working for the same firm. In 1974 I was arrested again and this time I was fired from the factory. In prison, I met members of a feminist organization called the Democratic Movement of Women. They worked closely with the PCE to organize solidarity efforts for political prisoners; they brought us books, clothes, and food. In 1975, Franco died and the feminist movement erupted. A common platform was developed, demanding equal access to employment, universal access to early childhood education, the legalization of contraceptives, and the elimination of sex-differentiated criminal sentences. I was active in this through the CCOO. We would meet exactly at the location where the Atocha massacre occurred in 1977, and after one of these meetings I was invited to a DMW meeting. My boss, a man, said I shouldn’t go, and that is what drove me to attend.

That was the first feminist meeting I attended in my life. I vividly remember watching the wives of trade union leaders and politicians criticize their husbands for defending democracy in the street and ignoring it in their homes. This feminist call for equality and democracy in the home hugely impacted me. One or two years later, the CCOO created a Department of Women, and I became an active member in 1976. I’ve been active in the Spanish feminist movement ever since.

MA: Can you give some more details about your participation?

BSJ: With respect to contraceptives, I knew workers who were working in factories that were producing them and distributing them secretly. So, with these workers, the feminist movement called for legalization of this medicine and medical supervision of its production. There were pharmacies, very far away, which sold contraceptives without requiring a prescription, and there were also gynecologists who would secretly provide them. Once Franco died there was a moment of enormous political opportunity. The PCE was legalized in 1977, and we were capable of pushing reforms not only in economic and electoral policy, but policy around contraceptives, marriage, education, and so on. There were two congresswomen, one from the socialist party and the other from the communist party, who proposed to legalize contraceptives and dispense them through the public healthcare system. It was one of the only laws that were adopted during those constituent elections, and it was revolutionary. In every village across the country, family planning services were opened.

MA: How did unions respond to the introduction of women to the workplace?

BSJ: There were many debates surrounding the creation of the Department of Women in the CCOO. Some argued that the DoW should be autonomous from the union, while others wanted it to operate entirely under the union. The difference is in how decisions would get made— whether they would come from the members, or whether they would be decided by union officials. Ultimately the latter was adopted. There were people in the union who wanted us to be what the Feminine Section was to Franco’s regime, that is, that we would approve everything the leadership said and get female dominated factories to sign on. But we didn’t want to be women loyal to the union, we wanted to bring the feminist movement into the union, and the union movement into feminism. This position meant that I was too feminist for the union, and too much of a trade unionist for the feminists. In both places, I was a minority.

One interesting moment was with respect to abortion. At a certain point, many people grew comfortable with the idea of contraceptives, but there was still silence on abortion. In the 1980s, the feminist organization in Bilbao began mobilizing against an abortion trial. There were six women there who had had an abortion, as well as the woman who had carried them out. The women all came from working class backgrounds and had several other children to care for. At that moment people in the labor movement began to realize that women didn’t have abortions for fun. The mobilization turned abortion into a political issue, and the feminists within the CCOO asked the union to defend it as a right. But the union leaders insisted that it was not an issue of the labor movement. To us, abortion was a worker’s issue. Working women needed access to abortion in order to maintain their jobs and their economic independence. Finally, in the first congress of CCOO the demand for abortion rights was passed.

We struggled a lot against the feminized stereotypes of the Franco regime: of women’s vulnerability and fragility. On the one hand, we didn’t want to call attention to issues of health and pregnancy which made us vulnerable. But on the other hand, we recognized that pregnancy needed to become an issue in the workplace. We knew many women who had miscarriages because of their working conditions. So these issues were deeply related: women should be able to work as well as carry their pregnancy to term.

Another complicating element was the fact that many women entered the labor market just as the oil crisis hit and unemployment soared. When companies sought to minimize their workforce, women were the first to go. Employers argued that women mostly worked so that they could buy clothes; that women were taking jobs away from family men. This tied into another one of our enormous battles: Divorce! The struggle for divorce involved a confrontation with the Church that almost dissolved the government. The feminists presented a bill defending the right to divorce and we also argued that adultery should no longer be considered a crime. So there was a lot of change in a very short period of time.

MA: What was your relationship to the PSOE like?

BSJ: Felipe González’s Minister of the Interior came from UGT, his name was José Luis Corcuera. Once the PSOE was in power, we actively agitated against the discrimination of women in the workplace. At one meeting Corcuera came and told us that defending women’s right to employment is destabilizing the democracy. He said we all had to make sacrifices for democracy to survive, and that women had to sacrifice employment until the situation improved.

But the PSOE had a group named “Women and Socialism,” of which Carlota Bustelo was a member. She was also a member of the Women’s Liberation Front, which was a group of highly educated professional women. So while the minister was saying that women should sacrifice the right to work to preserve democracy, there was this congresswoman arguing that without gender equality there was no democracy to begin with. Between us and the socialist feminist movement there was a culture of dialogue and unity. Though we were in competing parties, we coordinated closely over feminist issues. This was also true of parties to the left of the PCE; there was a unity of action. We all went into an action to demand that the constitution included women’s rights. During the Bilbao trial of 1979, we demonstrated for the right to abortion together. Later on, there were feminist socialist leaders who were brought up in the party and didn’t have a relationship to the movement. That is when the alliance started to fall apart.

MA: Were there differences in the ways that the parties approached this issue?

BSJ: The differences for me were largely rooted in the relationship of the parties to Franco’s regime. While the PCE resisted Franco, the PSOE was hardly visible. All of the people whom I loved and respected were in the CCOO and the PCE, and that’s where I wanted to be too.

In 1980, there were tensions between the PCE and the CCOO over labor legislation. The party primarily sought to reach an electoral consensus, while the union cared primarily about advocating for job security. Notably, domestic workers were excluded from the worker’s statute (this persists to this day, forty years later). We in the CCOO argued that domestic workers should be entitled to the same rights as all other workers: they should be paid above a certain minimum wage, should not work longer than a certain number of weekly hours, and should receive holidays and benefits. In that moment the CCOO was clearly more radical than the PSOE or the PCE. I was comfortable in the PCE not because of feminism, but because it was on the whole the more radical party.

But with democracy, many organizations, including the unions and the Democratic Movement of Women, gained a new life. They slowly broke from the party because they had the possibility to serve new social functions. And between these organizations there also emerged contradictory interests: that which was a priority for feminism wasn’t necessarily the same as that which was a priority for the union. For example, we launched a campaign around this benefit which was given exclusively to the male “head of the household.” We argued that there is no reason why the man should be the head of the household. But just as the union gave in on abortion, they denied us on this issue. They told us that we lived in a patriarchal country, and it was unrealistic to make women the heads of the household. Of course, that was the reality, but that is exactly why we wanted to change it.

JP: Were there any differences between the leaders in exile, regarding these issues, and the party members in Spain?

BSJ: Definitely within the PCE. At the time of the 1977 elections, there was no one over the age of fifty running for candidacy. Some people thought there wasn’t enough recognition for those who had lived through the civil war—the exiles like Simón Sánchez Montero, Marcelino Camacho and Tranquilino Sánchez. What happened with Santiago Carrillo was very complicated. He was correct in some way, because thanks to the Moncloa Pacts the Constitution got approved. But the manner in which he began doing politics generated a lot of resistance from the base. You can’t ask your supporters, who are on strike, to stop just because you reached an agreement that you believe is more important.

JP: What was your assessment of Felipe’s program as a member of the PCE at the time?

BSJ: Some changes started to take place immediately after Franco’s death; in 1976 nursery schools were created and women weren’t forced to leave their job upon getting married. From my perspective as a union member, democracy was a new world. But social reality never changes as quickly as the law. In laws we express some element of public will, but in our day to day life we continue to recreate behaviors out of inertia. Ultimately I think we achieved many things during the transition. The PSOE was pretty coherent on women’s issues after the 1982 elections. But you can’t separate women’s issues from economic issues more broadly. The emphasis on increasing interest rates, on cutting the public debt and prioritizing banks over public services—these things have been devastating, and they have been devastating for women too. Because if the state doesn’t provide care, health, services for the elderly and the disabled, women do it. That is the issue with the economic policy of the PSOE.

JP: How do you define yourself today?

BSJ: I am a feminist of the left. All of my activity in recent decades has looked for the convergence of these two elements. What this means is that I think feminists should prioritize the struggle over distribution and ownership in order to defend social equality. To this end, I think the feminist movement must always seek alliances with other movements for social equality—labor rights, the rights of racial and ethnic minorities, and so on. At the end of the day, the question for me is: what do you have to do in order to eat?

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