In 1901 two women, Elisa and Marcela, married in a church in A Coruña. It wasn't because Catholicism was experiencing a particularly progressive moment: to be able to do so, Elisa had to disguise herself as a man by radically changing her appearance and rechristening herself Mario. Three months later, however, they were discovered. Pursued by the law and brutally mocked in the press in cruel caricatures, they managed to escape to Argentina where, luckily, all trace of them was lost.
Photos of both women before and during the ceremony, newspaper reports and illustrations form part of the exhibition Mujeres bajo sospecha. Memoria y sexualidad (1930-1980) (Women under suspicion: Memory and sexuality (1930-1980)) at the Ateneo de Madrid. The show is a review of the role women have had and the treatment they have received in Spain's recent history. It's a journey that ranges from anguish to affection, from anger to smiles and the main thread running through it is women's sexuality in this period.
Original documents, books, magazines, photographs, posters, paintings and clothes serve to narrate this history, which is divided into five main themes: the Moderns, the Immoral, the Domesticators, the Decent and the Liberated.
The start of the exhibition finds Spaniards offering a more cosmopolitan image, closer to that in big cities all around the world. From the first decades of the 20th century to the arrival of the Second Republic saw the first women daring to cut their hair, smoke in public, walk around without hats, drive cars and play sports. Singers, athletes, artists and writers were the first women to change their destiny. Treated like dirt by intellectuals and politicians, these women were responsible for raising the profile of their gender by winning the right to universal suffrage and starting to enter the university classroom.
But it all ended with the Civil War. Progressiveness became categorized as immorality and rebellious women were punished with prison, violence and exile. Nuns and the women's arm of the Falange took on the job of domesticating them. Feminism and sexual freedom did not return until the death of Franco and the transition to democracy when sex outside marriage became possible, as well as nudity, the legendary magazine Vindicación Feminista (Feminist Vindication) and Spain's first lesbian bar, Daniel's. Out of those varied and numerous voices emerged the first street protests in favor of sexual freedom and abortion rights, aims that some continue to question to this day.
Mujeres bajo sospecha. Memoria y sexualidad (1930-1980). Until February 10 at Ateneo de Madrid, C/ Prado 21, Madrid. www.ateneodemadrid.com