On the 8th of March 2019 I stood in a plaza outside the Reina Sofia museum, near the central train station in Madrid, behind me was a Starbucks that had had its signs turned into the circular feminist sign. In front of me stood masses of different people all there for one cause: International Women’s Day.
The Friday included many events throughout the city promoting equality and the feminist cause. In the build up to the general strike many trade unions had been arguing about how to approach the 8th of March as it was such a big phenomenon the year before. There had been disagreements about whether men should be allowed to go on the protest, and whether men should be on strike. All those worries and concerns were put to bed when the protest started at 7 PM from Atocha station.
In traditional Spanish fashion everything was a little unorganised and a little late, however, you cannot blame them, there was 350,000 people there, 10% of Madrid’s population. They took to the streets in a raft of purple clothing, and with signs talking about all manner of things from Hermione from Harry Potter, to uteruses, bosses, salaries, periods, voting and vaginas.
One common enemy that many of these women had were right-wing politicians, even more so the new popularist far right-wing party Vox. They have become popular because of their strong pro-Spanish message and anti-Catalan separatists, and anti-progressive stance. Vox also encourages a stronger national identity, less immigrants and a more Catholic value based society.
The weekend following the protest the television and newspapers were full of extreme examples of feminists, but they were also celebrating the success of the day. It doesn’t appear to have had the same reaction as it did in 2018 despite an extra 100,000 people turning out.
The media appeared to be very calculated in targeting small-scale events that had extreme feminists in attendance. During these reports they described these women as men hating psychopaths with no clothes on. The women on the protest I saw were nothing of the sort. Many women of all ages and ethnicities walking together enjoying the random chants and pointing up at different imaginative signs.
A Political Day
The only people who seemed flustered were the right-wing politicians. The leader of Partido Popular, Spain’s answer to the Conservative party, Pablo Casado said that the far left had sown division between women and men and had politicised the protest. With a general election looming over the heads of the politicians many of them were eager to get in on the act of the protest one way or another.
This is a vital time for all parties in Spain as it is said 40% of women have not decided which party to vote for in the up and coming general election. PSOE seem to have championed the cause but was not overtaking it, which was a smart move from Pedro Sanchez who may have played his cards right when calling this election around this time, being honest though, he never had much choice. Ciudadanos were keeping to themselves at their own events and even Vox showed their ugly face in some areas.
Podemos should have tried to claw back some of their previous popularity, which came from protests in the first place, however they were not visible at any protests or events I went to.
Political parties were not a main feature at this day which is how it should be. Yet the media would make you think otherwise, they used the day as a background to overemphasise political collisions between groups and politicians’ speeches. I suppose that how politicians and the media work off each other, whether they mean to or not.
I suppose the feeling I got, was that it was a general day out for people, not a moral stance against the patriarchal establishment. With an event this big it will attract a wider range of people to the cause.
What the day stands for
There is an ongoing debate whether it is ok to say “Happy Women’s Day” or not, is it a happy day? After all, the day was originally because of women fighting for equality. Although, many of the women I saw, along with men, seemed to be happy and enjoying the day.
Exposure to different causes is always good in any form. Many of the women that were out didn’t seem to be your “typical” feminists, if there is such a thing, but people that have a belief in equal rights.
Many women may have been there for many reasons. Protesting against sexual assault, sexual harassment and for equal pay and respect. We should respect everyone’s right to protest and listen to what they have to say. People should not try to take advantage of this or change the message.
The main message the trade unions promoted, and by many other organisers, was that being a feminist is not enough, but you also have to be anti-racist, anti-capitalist and pro worker. This was refreshing to see, but I’m not sure how much this message got over, or if it was appropriate on such a day. There is no denying that it is all interconnected, so why not promote it?
I spoke to several Spanish women that did not go to the protest and they said they felt they didn’t want to go because it had been politicised, which I can see their point, but then again it is a political day.
Some people say feminism is above politics. I agree, but it’s also politics. Respect amongst genders, between couples, colleagues and friends is not going to change itself. It will change with awareness and with changes in society. This cannot be achieved alone.
Changes to the school syllabus, abortion laws, healthcare rights, quotas, female representation in the courtroom, assistance from the state for victims of abuse, access to psychological help, tax free items and a whole host of other things. The feminist movement can hold a government to its word and ask it to implement these changes.
The state and the law has to change. So things like the court case of La Manada don’t happen. The state should reflect the will of the people. Not the other way round.
So, you have a lot of women and men going to this protest, having been exposed to various forms of feminism and seeing a mass movement of solidarity, but where does it go from here?
Spain has one of the most generational defining elections coming up since its transition to democracy. There is a high possibility, and it has been shown in the polls, that Vox will gain seats and that they could form a right wing coalition as they have in Andalusia.
My one criticism of International Women’s Day is that despite this year drawing in well over a quarter of a million people, the feeling from the media and on the ground is that it has become more of an event than a demonstration.
It is good that he movement has been brought into the mainstream by this day, but on this day I cannot help but feel it may have been damaged by its own popularity, and that it may have happened too soon. A similar thing happened with Pride, albeit at a slower rate, as it started out as a demonstration movement and has now become a celebration of sexuality.
Many people feel this is a positive thing, and I am one of those people when it comes to Pride, as I think it matured into a celebration after it achieved a great deal. Many same-sex couples experience a good quality of life in Spain which still surprises me in a catholic country, it is something that should be celebrated.
I feel that this is a difficult time for the feminist movement as there is a lot of work to be done, especially here in Spain. The forces of tradition and machoest thinking are against it. Maybe the movement should have had more time to organise and build a movement rather than be taken over by its own popularity. Time will tell.
Feminism could have stretched out its demonstration lifespan and possibly gained more from this. Sadly on this day, the number of shops open was the same as most days and the number of women striking seemed minimal, however the crowds at the protest speak for themselves.
Feminism, and International Women’s day, can show if has made an impact on voting day.
Will we see a democratic revolution? Maybe the feminists will save the left that is non-existent in Spain.
This year, in the run up to International Women’s Day, I was followed around online by adverts for purple feminist T-shirts. I saw these designs in the hundreds at the protest. Despite it being a day of anti-consumption, many people in the centre of Madrid went for dinner, in their mass produce T-shirts, with friends after and during the protests. I think many of the restaurants around the centre had never seen so much business. The protest continued well into the night down the main avenues of Spain’s capital city, all the while the people eating in these restaurants were being waited on by women who probably couldn’t afford to strike.
Hopefully the popularity, and people who were introduced to this movement, will vote for a woman friendly government at the end of April. A government that will benefit all women. Feminism was very much in fashion over that weekend and will probably stay alight in some people’s brains for a few weeks afterwards.
I hope the things it exposed them to, and the facts someone told them, on the 11th of March, stay with them long enough to remember that right-wing governments have endangered Spanish women’s rights for many years. If they don’t vote, International Women’s Day message will have been in vain.
It’s what you do at the ballot box that makes a difference and these women and men can make a difference. If only elections were as popular as protests then maybe we would see a very different result to those that have been predicted.