All of the dictators profiled in this book, no matter their political stripes, used repression of one sort or another to hold power. It was often directed at their enemies, sometimes illogically, and often with disastrous results. Spanish dictator Francisco Franco was also no stranger to repression and the occasional crazy decision.

The lifelong military man came to power in 1939 after the nationalists defeated the republicans in the Spanish Civil War. Franco instituted a rightwing dictatorship that had all the trappings of fascism, yet he was careful not to go too far down that road.

Franco instituted political repression that was considered to be extreme and crazy even by some Nazis who visited Spain in the 1930s, but he never signed onto the Axis alliance, which allowed his regime to survive World War II. In fact, Franco ruled Spain until he died in 1975, a relic of the past that most in Europe wanted to forget.

But Spaniards can’t forget everything that happened during the Spanish Civil War and Franco’s regime, and have to live with the legacy of the war and some of Franco’s crazy decisions.

One of the crazy things Franco did that had long-lasting repercussions was his policy toward women. To say Franco was old fashioned with gender roles would be a bit of an understatement. The decrees he passed kept women out of most professions, outlawed their political activities and right to vote, and even limited their abilities to have bank accounts.

Franco believed that good Spanish women should be barefooted and pregnant.

But even many of the pregnant women during his regime still faced problems. Due to their political affiliations or any number of other reasons, many pregnant women had their newborns taken from them. Tens of thousands of Spanish children were born in orphanages during the 1940s and ‘50s, creating a generation of lost souls.

Some scholars believe that this act alone set Spain back decades behind the rest of Europe.

El Paquito

Francisco Franco Bahamonde was seemingly born with a silver spoon in his mouth in 1892, but his life took a more circuitous route than originally seemed likely. Franco came from a long line of proud Spanish naval officers.

He could point to ancestors who helped build the Spanish Empire in the Americas and others who fought in the Spanish Armada against the British in a valiant but losing effort.

Things were all set for Franco to follow in his father’s and ancestors’ footsteps by becoming a naval officer, but then the Spanish-American War happened.

As a result of the war, the Spanish lost most of their fleet.

Still wanting a career in the military, Franco entered the army at the age of 14.

Life in the army wasn’t easy at first for Franco. He was teased by his fellow recruits for his young age, small frame, and 5’3 stature, earning the nickname “El Paquito” or “Little Franc.” But the future leader proved to have a thick skin, which gained him points in the eyes of his superior officers. Franco also demonstrated a keen memory and an aptitude for military life.

By the 1920s, young Franco was well on his way to a rewarding career in the military.

After impressing the Spanish high command in action in Spanish North Africa, Franco was promoted to Colonel and eventually General. The political situation began to fall apart in Spain in the 1930s, though, as it did throughout most of the rest of the world. Spain was adversely affected by the Great Depression, which allowed a leftwing government to come to power in 1936.

The military, the Catholic Church, nationalists, and fascists weren’t happy with the turn of events so they decided to go to war.

The ever pragmatic yet politically astute Franco took advantage of the situation by organizing the sometimes opposing groups on the rightwing into a powerful army and later the political movement known as ‘The Falange’.

Franco’s time in power began with some of the worst repressions and “paybacks” ever seen in an authoritarian regime. The leftwing government imposed its own brand of oppression known as the “Red Terror,” which was primarily directed against the Church, often against Church leaders who were, for the most part, apolitical.

The Red Terror left thousands dead, was the primary catalyst for the Civil War, and led to the Franco nationalist government’s own version of repression known as the “White Terror.”

The White Terror was extremely more directed than the violence of the Red Terror. Leftist leaders were singled out for torture and murder, ultimately leaving between 50,000 and 200,000 people dead across Spain.

Among those singled out were Republican/leftist women. To Franco, they were the worst sort of revolutionaries because they not only didn’t have the right ideas, but they also didn’t know their place.

So Franco embarked on a years-long campaign to show women their proper roles in Spanish society.

Women Are Mothers, Not Workers

It’s crazy to think of a modern society where women aren’t allowed to vote, work, or even have bank accounts, but this was all true in Spain into the early 1970s, which really isn’t that long ago. Even Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy accorded women more political and social rights than Franco did for Spain’s women.

As soon as Franco took power, he initiated his anti-feminist crusade through a combination of state-sponsored propaganda, laws, and police-state repression.

The mode of propaganda was just like you’d find in any other authoritarian regime in the world at the time. Posters, films, and later television told the dangers of feminism and how feminism led to drug use, sedition, and other anti-social behaviors.

The Franco government’s definition of feminism was basically any activity by women other than motherhood. A woman didn’t have to be Susan B. Anthony or Gloria Steinem to fall into the feminist category in Francoist Spain.

The laws instituted were directed at keeping women out of the workplace. Other than servant/maid positions, it became almost impossible for women to find work outside of the home in the early years of Franco’s rule and nearly impossible for former Republican women to do so.

The policies against women in the workplace led to some of Franco’s first real problems. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, due to the population decline from the Civil War, there was a labor shortage in Spain. The dictatorship had a difficult time attracting foreigners to work there who were considered compatible with its social ideals, so the economy lagged for several years.

Finally, Franco relented and allowed more women to enter the job force in the early 1960s.

And when all else failed, Franco wasn’t afraid to use good old police state tactics to keep women in line.

More than 30,000 Republican mothers had their children removed from them in the 1940s and ‘50s and more than 15,000 were imprisoned during the Civil War and in the first few years after it ended. Some of Spain’s top female artists and writers were forced into exile during the period, with many never returning.

Franco’s female policies were one of the many reasons that Spain remained isolated for his entire rule. Realizing that this was the case, Franco did relent on some of the more repressive laws regarding women in the early 1970s, but the damage had already been done.

Did You Know?

  • In Franco’s Spain abortion was illegal and women who had an abortion performed faced prison time. Abortion for extraordinary reasons wasn’t legalized until 1985 in Spain. Abortion for birth control wasn’t legalized in Spain until 2010.
  • Adultery by women was a crime punishable by jail time in Francoist Spain.
  • Divorce also wasn’t an option until the end of Franco’s rule.
  • Franco married his wife Carmen in 1923. They had one child, a girl named Maria.
  • Franco’s Spain became a haven for former Nazis, authoritarians, and other wanted people. Notable Nazi Otto Skorzeny lived on and off in Spain until his death in 1975, and Argentine dictator Juan Peron lived in Franco’s Spain during his exile.
  • Franco died on November 20, 1975, at the age of 82.