Montseny, Federica (1905–1994)

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Montseny, Federica (1905–1994)

Anarchist leader, feminist, novelist, and writer on social issues, who became minister of health in the Republic during the Spanish Civil War, the first woman to hold a ministerial post in Spanish history. Name variations: Frederica Montseny y Mañé. Pronunciation: Fay-day-REE-kah Mont-SAY-nee (in Spanish); Mun-SEIN or Moon-SAYN (in Catalonian). Born Federica Montseny on February 12, 1905, in Madrid, Spain; died in Toulouse, France, on January 14, 1994; daughter of Juan Batista Montseny y Carret (used pseudonym Federico Urales), and Teresa Mañé (used pseudonym Soledad Gustavo); educated at home; married Germinal Esgleas, in 1930; children: Vida (b. ca. 1934); Germinal (b. June 1938); Blanca (b. March 1942).

Edited, published and wrote for La Revista Blanca (1923–36); joined FAI (the Iberian Anarchist Federation) (1928, or 1927 or 1933); served on the Anti-Fascist Militia Committee, Barcelona (July 1936); appointed minister of health and public assistance (November 4, 1936); arrived in Barcelona to mediate fighting between anarchists and others, and the Communists (May 5, 1937); resigned from the government (May 16, 1937); testified in favor of the political prisoners arrested in Barcelona (October 1937); fled Barcelona with her family and journeyed to France (January–February 1939); arrested by police of Vichy France (November 1941); court of Limoges rejected Spanish government's extradition request (November 1941); published the weekly CNT in Toulouse (after 1939); returned to Barcelona from exile (April 27, 1977).


La Victoria: Novela en la que se narran los problemas de orden moral que se la presentan a una mujer de ideas modernas (Barcelona, 1925); El hijo de Clara (Barcelona, 1927); La indomable (1928); Tres vidas de mujer (1937); Militant anarchism and the reality in Spain (Glasgow: Anti-Parliamentary Communist Federation, 1937); Pasión y muerte de los españoles en Francia (Toulouse, 1950); María Silva, la Libertaria (Toulouse, 1951); Seis años de mi vida, 1939–1945 (Barcelona, 1978).

Federica Montseny was a remarkable example of an intellectual who was also a woman of action. Well known as a publisher and a writer on social, particularly women's, issues for The Blank Sheet, a distinguished anarchist journal, by the late 1920s she became actively involved in political work. In 1928 (other sources cite 1927 or 1933), she joined a secret anarchist organization, FAI, and was later an eloquent speaker for the huge syndicalist labor union, the CNT (the National Confederation of Labor). After the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War and of revolution in Catalonia, she emerged as an important figure in the ad hoc government of Barcelona. One of the most important anarchists and one of the most important women during the Spanish Civil War (1936–39), she became minister of health of the Spanish Republic in November 1936. Her energy and imagination transformed a second-rate ministerial portfolio into a first-rate position. Among her many achievements, she was instrumental in making Spain the first country in Europe, outside the Soviet Union, to possess a system of safe and legal abortions.

Federica Montseny was born in 1905, the only child of two well-known anarchist writers, "the descendant," as she pointed out, "of a whole dynasty of anti-authoritarians." She "sucked anarchist milk at her mother's breast." Teresa Mañé , Federica's mother, was famous as the anarchist author "Soledad Gustavo." Juan Montseny, Federica's father, was an extreme individualist anarchist who in his writings adopted the pseudonym "Federico Urales." The family lived on a farm north of Barcelona. There young Federica lived, read, and educated herself. As a child, she astonished her father with her flawless knowledge of the kings and queens of Spain, and of the gods of Olympus with all their attributes. As he relates in his memoirs, Juan Montseny boasted to his friends: "I have a daughter who will be worthier than her parents." By 17, Federica had already written and published her first novel.

From the time she was 18, she worked closely with her father on producing La Revista Blanca (The Blank Journal), so called because of the habit of the government censors of rejecting anarchist articles, whose absence was made apparent by the lines or columns of empty space left in the publication. The historian Robert Kern considers The Blank Journal crucial in educating an entire generation of Spaniards in anarchist philosophy. Besides the distinguished array of foreign anarchists who wrote for this journal, Federica and her father also made major contributions. Federica wrote about 50 short novels, many on feminist themes, published by The Blank Journal in the series La Novela Ideal (1925–37) and La Novela Libre (1929–37). She wrote hundreds of articles as well, and assisted in the publishing, editing, and the typesetting, by hand, of the journal, which appeared every 15 days. She also wrote for the Montseny weekly, El Luchador.

To the greatest extent possible, Montseny believed in promoting individual liberty and self-development. She believed that the emancipation of women would lead to a quicker realization of the social revolution in Spain and called for "future-women" and "future-men" to lead the battle against sexism and a repressive society. "We ought not content ourselves with all the rights which men have. We ought to aspire, with an indomitable will, to all the rights he should have." At the same time, she was against a narrowly defined feminism: "Feminism? Never! Humanism? Always!"

In 1924, Federica met her future husband, Germinal Esgleas, who spent some time in prison with Juan Montseny. In 1930, Federica and Germinal were married in a civil ceremony.

In the late 1920s, she and her father quarreled with the anarcho-syndicalists at the AIT (International Association of Workers) conference in Berlin, since the Montsenys worried about the authoritarian tendencies of labor unions and labor leaders. Federica, like her family, saw in the village commune a better basis for a free society. She championed the long Spanish tradition of the "free commune," in which land was socialized and production was directly in the hands of the producers. She later said that her beliefs owed more to the Spanish federalist thinker Pi y Margall, than to Michael Bakunin, the fire-breathing founder of modern anarchism. Nonetheless, around 1928, protesting against the government's arrest of her father, she joined the secret Iberian Anarchist Federation (FAI). The FAI aimed to unite Spanish and Portuguese anarchists and also provided a base from which to infiltrate and control such groups as the CNT, the huge syndicalist labor union.

In April 1931, the king fled Spain, not long after the collapse of the Primo De Rivera military dictatorship, and Spain became a republic. Journalists and writers could now publish more freely than ever before. In her writing, Montseny demanded immediate freedom for jailed anarchists, full rights for labor, and full political liberty. She began to use her considerable oratorical talents—fellow anarchists referred to her as "the Lioness"—on behalf of FAI, praising it before crowds of people as the only weapon available to fight labor oppression. She also became active in the CNT, and eventually, following the creation of a union for intellectuals and the liberal professions, joined the organization.

In the tumultuous years which preceded the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, Montseny sided with the left-wing anarchists and fought to wrest the CNT from the control of the moderates. The latter group nicknamed Federica "Miss FAI" because of her militant support for radical anarchism. In 1934, in this increasingly chaotic and violent atmosphere, the Montsenys' publishing center was ransacked. Federica worked to expand the anarchists' ties with the Socialist labor union, the UGT, and also to develop a joint militia force.

In July 1936, right-wing elements of the Spanish army began a revolt, which soon developed into a full scale civil war to overthrow the government of the Republic. Almost immediately, Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany backed the revolt, pouring in troops and supplies to aid General Francisco Franco and his army (who were soon referred to as the Nationalists). A general strike stopped the army from seizing Barcelona, and the anarchists began cooperating with Catalan nationalists, Trotskyites, Socialists, and Communists in running the city. An "Anti-Fascist Militia Committee" was set up to coordinate these activities and resistance to the Nationalists. Montseny often participated in its meetings as a representative, along with others, of the CNT. She argued that the anarchists must take part in this de facto government, because otherwise a Fascist military dictatorship "worse than Stalin's" would result. She also assumed the task of forming an anarchist militia column, known as Land and Liberty, to defend the city and drive back the forces of General Franco.

With the success of the far Left in saving the Republic from a military takeover, the CNT and the FAI grew enormously, with the CNT claiming a membership of three million and the FAI of 150,000. Federica became a member of the national committee of the FAI and during the autumn of 1936 acted temporarily as national secretary.

The danger that Madrid might fall any day to the armies of General Franco and the inability of the anarchists to advance on the Aragon front in northeastern Spain caused the anarchists to take the unprecedented step of joining the government of the Republic. Four anarchists became ministers, including Montseny, whom the CNT chose to represent it. She took over the post of minister of health and public assistance, the first woman in Spanish history to achieve ministerial rank, and the last for many decades. Montseny became minister of health with the greatest reluctance. At first, she had vehemently opposed the idea of becoming a minister, but finally yielded to pressure from CNT and FAI leaders. She, along with the justice minister, Juan García Oliver, were to represent the left wing of the CNT; the CNT's national leadership, said Montseny, "hoped that I would check the opposition of the puritans" (the ideologically pure anarchists). As James Joll points out, Montseny's "sincerity, integrity and intellectual clarity commanded great respect."

Later, after she had resigned from the Cabinet, Federica would explain what it had cost her to accept her post. As an anarchist, she had been among those:

who had always affirmed that through the State nothing at all could be achieved, that the words "government" and "authority" signified the negation of every possibility of freedom for men and for nations…. What inhi bitions, what doubts, what anguish I had personally to overcome in order to accept that post! … For me it implied a break with my life's work, with a whole past linked to the ideals of my parents. It meant … many tears.

But Montseny felt that this painful step was necessary, not only to stop Franco and his Fascist allies, but also because of the memory of what had happened during the Russian Civil War of 1918–21, when the anarchist leader Makhno had avoided political entanglements and commitments. Although very successful at first, ultimately he had become isolated and had lost all of his revolutionary conquests in the Ukraine to the Bolsheviks.

Montseny endured many bitter experiences during her seven months in the government. Almost immediately after she and the other anarchist ministers arrived in Madrid, they were informed that the prime minister wished to transfer the seat of government to the seaport of Valencia, far from the front lines, since Madrid was in imminent danger of capture. The anarchists felt betrayed, as if they had been brought into the government simply to share the responsibility for moving the capital, a move which appeared cowardly, as if they were abandoning the people of Madrid to their fate. But, as was to occur time and again, lengthy discussions concluded with the anarchists reluctantly accepting the majority's decision. After journeying to Valencia, however, Montseny and the other anarchist ministers returned to Madrid to bolster the morale of the population. For several days, Montseny slept in the basement of the War Ministry. At the request of General Miaja, the military commander of Madrid, she rallied the fighting spirit of the anarchist forces, and journeyed to Albacete, the site of an arms depository, to obtain weapons for the capital.

Concerned with growing Communist influence over the Spanish government, Montseny sought to persuade the leadership of the CNT that the foremost anarchist military leader, Buenaventura Durruti, should leave the Aragon front in northeastern Spain and come to the aid of besieged Madrid. Despite his objections, Montseny and other anarchists finally convinced Durruti to come with 1,800 hand-picked men. The Republican command in Madrid placed Durruti's brigade in the most dangerous sector of the front, just in time, on November 15, to receive the brunt of a major Nationalist offensive to seize the capital. After ferocious fighting in which he lost 60% of his men, Durruti retreated but prevented the Nationalists from advancing into the heart of the capital. On November 19, he was fatally wounded, and died the next day. According to the historian Abel Paz, when the news of Durruti's death reached Montseny in Valencia, she broke down, weeping.

Despite all the obstacles she faced, Montseny transformed her modest Cabinet post into a major political position. As historian Kern points out, previously her post had been a mere directorship below Cabinet level. She fired the old bureaucrats and brought in social activists. Whenever possible, she sought public opinion on the development of social services before setting policy. She tried to involve delegates from the anarchist and socialist labor unions. Encountering opposition from other government ministries, Montseny resolved the problem by creating new organizations to implement her plans. She formed a Council of Social Supplies to purchase medical equipment, clothing, and food for the needy. She set up a council to attract doctors to help in developing public health projects, such as a massive inoculation campaign against infectious disease.

Montseny also pushed for the legalization of abortion, which, despite the resistance of some ministers, was finally decreed on Christmas Day 1936. Spain became the first country in the world (after the Soviet Union) to legalize abortion, and for a time it was the only country, since Stalin banned the procedure in 1936. Concerned about the repercussions of legalizing abortion, the government kept it virtually secret, not publishing the new law until March 5, 1937. In the end, however, doctors carried out thousands of abortions as a result of Montseny's law. Working with the anarchist minister of justice, Montseny amended the previous laws to provide for legally binding common-law marriages protecting both partners equally and removing the stigmatism from any children who were born to such unions. She also set up women's centers open to all, including prostitutes and unmarried mothers, and homes for the blind.

In January and February 1937, her efforts to find safe havens in France for Spanish orphans led to a trip to Geneva, Switzerland, to address the International Health Committee of the League of Nations. There she spoke on behalf of the women and children caught behind the lines of General Franco's army. Inside Spain, she gave scores of speeches to publicize the role of anarchism and of the revolution in making a better life for the people of the country.

Throughout the period of Montseny's ministry, tensions grew between the anarchists and the Communists. Inside the Cabinet, the anarchist and CNT ministers were forced inch by inch to yield up the "conquests of the Revolution," and allow the reimposition of national authority. As Montseny wrote, "The arguments of the Communists, Socialists, and Republicans were always the same: It was essential to give an appearance of legality to the Spanish Republic, to calm the fears of the British, French, and Americans."

The Soviet government, which was the major arms supplier for the Republic, supported this policy, tactfully but continuously pressuring the CNT and FAI leaders to accept, as Montseny described it, a "controlled democracy (a euphemistic term for a dictatorship)" in Spain. When Montseny planned to attend a meeting in Geneva of the International Health Committee of the League of Nations, the Soviet ambassador urged her to visit Russia, where she would be treated royally. On several occasions the ambassador also suggested that, while away, she send her daughter to Valencia to live in the ambassador's villa with his wife and children. When Montseny heard these suggestions "the blood froze in my veins." The ambassador's offer implied not hospitality but hostage-taking.

On May 3, 1937, growing tensions in Barcelona between the anarchists, Catalan nationalists, and the Communists erupted into full-scale fighting. Montseny explained later that the news of the battle had caught her and the other anarchist ministers completely by surprise. She had been so immersed in the work of her ministry that she had failed to notice the signs of a growing rift in the Catalan capital. The Spanish Communists had become bolder in their efforts to challenge and dominate the anarchists and other leftist groups. To stop the fighting in Barcelona, the Republican government wanted to assume control of public order and military affairs throughout Catalonia. During a four-hour Cabinet meeting, Montseny led the opposition to this measure, since it threatened to undermine the influence and authority of the anarchists in Spain. Although the vote went against the anarchist ministers, they were able to obtain a promise that the measure would not be put into effect until the anarchist and Socialist representatives had had a chance to negotiate a peaceful settlement.

Concerned that a protracted civil war in Barcelona and Catalonia would destroy the Republican war effort and ensure a swift victory for the armies of Franco, Montseny and the anarchist minister of labor rushed to Barcelona to mediate the crisis. Courageously, they drove through the streets of Barcelona, using all their influence to persuade the anarchists to stop fighting. Later, they sought to ensure safe passage for the special Republican guards whom the government sent to Barcelona to help restore order.

Despite their peacemaking, in the early morning of May 6 Communist hit squads tried to assassinate Montseny, as well as other leading anarchists. Escaping unharmed but infuriated by the continued treachery of the Spanish Communists, Montseny sped off to protest their actions to the local government authorities. Her car came under attack, and two of her companions were wounded, although she remained unhurt.

Determined to follow up their triumph in Barcelona, the Communists forced the resignation of the Socialist Largo Caballero's government. In a Cabinet meeting on May 15, 1937, Montseny sought to prove the complicity of the Communists in the May crisis in Barcelona, but the two Communist ministers simply walked out. Since the Spanish Republic was utterly dependent on military supplies from the Soviet Union, and Stalin demanded cooperation between the Communists and the Republic, the prime minister, together with the four anarchist ministers who had supported him, resigned on May 16.

In October 1937, the new government headed by Juan Negrín tried the leaders of POUM, a splinter Spanish Socialist party hated by Stalin, for the crime of rebellion during the Barcelona fighting. Montseny and Largo Caballero, the former prime minister, defended them, but to no avail. Forged evidence was used to convict the POUM members. After the end of this trial, the three leading anarchists, Montseny, Abad de Santillán, and García Birlán, visited President Manuel Azaña to denounce Negrín as a dictator and to demand a change of government. Azaña sympathized with the anarchists, but could do nothing.

In late December 1938, Franco began his final offensive into Catalonia and a month later captured half-starved Barcelona. Hundreds of thousands of refugees fled toward the French border, including Federica Montseny and her family. Montseny witnessed terrible scenes at the frontier. "I remember a horrible sight of a large group of wounded, who were driven back. The Senegalese [French colonial troops] with sticks in their hands beat them. The mass of humanity, howling and sobbing, fled beneath the blows. Those who fell to the ground were trampled on." The authorities gave permission to enter France to Federica's mother, an elderly woman who had broken her leg during the march and was being carried on a stretcher, but denied it to the others. "You can't go through," said the guard to Federica, as she held the hand of her five-year-old daughter Vida and clutched her seven-month-old son Germinal. "That's my mother!" pleaded Montseny, but the soldier simply shrugged his shoulders. In pouring rain, Federica stood waiting in the crowd for almost two days. Finally an official of the Catalonian government recognized the former minister and interceded with the French authorities, who permitted Montseny and her family to cross.

Her difficulties, however, were far from over. In early November 1941, the Vichy government, which was collaborating with Hitler, arrested Montseny together with Largo Caballero. General Franco had applied to the French government for their extradition to Spain. Since other Republican politicians extradited to Spain had been executed, Montseny and Caballero faced firing squads should they be sent back. At the end of November, in consideration of Federica's pregnancy (her daughter was born in March 1942) and also, perhaps, of international pressure, the French court of Limoges rejected the extradition requests. Montseny's husband, however, remained in prison until after the Allied invasion of Normandy in June 1944.

Montseny's years of exile in Toulouse, southern France, were filled with activity. She took a leading role in reviving the CNT. Despite schisms, she helped develop a flourishing organization among the Spanish refugees in southern France and directed the publication of the periodicals CNT and Espoir (Hope). Montseny also participated in the largely unsuccessful attempts to create a secret anarchist organization inside Franco's Spain. On April 27, 1977, two years after Franco's death, she at last returned home to Spain, and presided over a great anarcho-syndicalist meeting in Barcelona.


Ackelsberg, Martha. Free Women of Spain: Anarchism and the Struggle for the Emancipation of Women. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1991.

Bolloten, Burnett. The Spanish Civil War. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.

Carr, Raymond. The Spanish Tragedy. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1977.

Enciclopedia Universal Ilustrada Europeo-Americana. Suplemento Anual, 1977–1978. S.v. "Montseny (Federica)."

Fraser, Ronald. Blood of Spain: The Experience of Civil War, 1936–1939. London: Allen Lane, 1979.

Fredricks, Shirley. "Feminism: The Essential Ingredient in Federica Montseny's Anarchist Theory," in European Women on the Left. Edited by Jane Slaughter and Robert Kern. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1981.

Joll, James. The Anarchists. NY: Grosset and Dunlap, 1966.

Kern, Robert. Red Years-Black Years: A Political History of Spanish Anarchism, 1911–1937. Philadelphia, PA: Institute for the Study of Human Issues, 1978.

MacDonald, Nancy. Homage to the Spanish Exiles: Voices from the Spanish Civil War. NY: Human Sciences Press, 1987.

Mitchell, David. The Spanish Civil War. Based on the Television Series. London: Granada, 1982.

Montseny, Federica. Seis Años de mi vida, 1939–1945. Barcelona: Galba, 1978.

Montseny Y Carret, Juan. Mi Vida. 3 vols. Barcelona: La Revista Blanca, 1930.

The New York Times. November 5, 1936, November 8 and 22, 1941, April 28, 1977.

Paz, Abel. Durruti: The People Armed. Translated by Nancy MacDonald. NY: Free Life Editions, 1977.

Peirats, José. Anarchists in the Spanish Revolution. London: Freedom Press, 1990.

Thomas, Hugh. The Spanish Civil War. Rev. and enlarged ed. NY: Harper and Row, 1977.

Woodcock, George. Anarchism. 2nd ed. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986.

Wyden, Peter. The Passionate War: The Narrative History of the Spanish Civil War, 1936–1939. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1983.

suggested reading:

Alcalde, Carmen. Federica Montseny: Palabra en rojo y negro. Barcelona, 1983.

Fredricks, Shirley. "Social and Political Thought of Federica Montseny, Spanish Anarchist, 1923–1937." Ph.D. dissertation, University of New Mexico, 1972.

Montseny, Federica, and Agusti Pons. Converses amb Frederica Montseny: Frederica Montseny, sindicalisme i acracia. Barcelona: 1977.

related media:

"The Spanish Civil War" (VHS: 6 parts in 2 volumes), television documentary, including extensive interviews with Federica Montseny, Granada Television International-MPI Home Video, 1983–1987.

Richard Bach Jensen , Assistant Professor of History at Louisiana Scholars' College, Northwestern State University, Natchitoches, Louisiana

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Montseny, Federica (1905–1994)

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