SJFE : Women and Law in Europe


January 1997 (english, french, spanish)

Agnès Pardell (Lleida University)

The Second Republic (1931-1936) generated important legislative work and women were granted many new rights of which they had been hitherto deprived. The 1931 Constitution granted suffrage to women. Spain was therefore one of the first among South European states to enfranchise women. In 1932, laws on divorce and civil marriage were passed. Women were accorded full legal status ; abortion was legalised, the crime of adultery was abolished and legal measures ensuring women's equal access to the labour market were taken.

Franco's dictatorship (1939-1975) tolled the knell of all those democratic rights. The Catholic national state which came into power after the defeat of the Republicans was eager to restrict women to the home and confine them to the private sphere. The Catholic Church ethics and its influence upon education and society at large worked with the same objective. One should bear in mind that this social pattern took place against a background of severe repression of all democratic trends. During this period, the law served that purpose. Numerous republican and democratic laws were abolished, like the laws on civil marriage and divorce. Abortion was severely punished. Women's legal ability was greatly restricted, and subjected to the authority of the father or the husband.

During the period of transition to democracy (1975-1978), political reforms paved the way for the first democratic elections in June 1977. Women's legal ability was restored and extended : free and equal access to work and the right to hire were recognised to women. This period also saw the revival of women's liberation movements with their specific cultural means of expression (magazines, bookstores, editorials...). The legalisation of political parties and trade unions opened up a controversial debate amongst feminists on the question of whether the women's liberation movement should become involved in the larger democratic strategy of the parties or remain independent.

The place of women in society today must be analysed in the light of the legislative development linked with the 1978 Constitution. This new constitution established a pattern for a social and democratic state, where the rule of law prevails. It proclaimed equality, liberty, justice and political pluralism as superior values (art. 11 CE) and trusted the public power with the mandate of making them real and effective, special emphasis being put on liberty and equality of individuals and of the groups to which they belong (art 9.2 CE).

Participation in political life is determined by Article 6 of the Constitution. It states that political pluralism is guaranteed by free political parties, which participate in the formation and expression of the will of the people and are the basic instruments for political participation. The fact that parties are considered by the Constitution as the only instruments of political participation has led to division amongst the feminists, opposing those who advocated involvement in both political parties and feminist movements and those who claimed that women's liberation should be carried out specifically by women's political parties. The result was a complete split between the two tendencies.

The Constitution also states that citizens have a right to participate in public affairs, whether directly or through representatives elected by universal suffrage. It stipulates equal treatment in access to public positions. The equality principle is clearly defined by the Constitution : 'The Spanish are equal in the eyes of the law, and no discrimination by birth, race, sex, religion, opinion or any other condition or circumstance, private or social, can prevail " (Art. 14 CE). The Constitution also established a new organisation of national territory, and created new local government entities called autonomous communities (CCM). They are endowed with extensive autonomy and self-government, in accordance with the distribution of powers between central government and autonomous communities. They are exclusively responsible for the promotion of women. Many autonomous communities develop their own plans of action, trying to respond to the needs of the population either in their own spheres or within the framework of the competencies they have been granted. Thus, decision-making concerning women occurs at different levels : central government, local government (the autonomous communities, local authorities).

When dealing with the Constitution, one should not forget to mention the constitutional Court which, according to the Constitution, is its supreme interpreter. It is the guardian of the conformity of the law with the Constitution. Sentences must comply with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the international treaties and covenants ratified by Spain. That is the reason why, in its sentences, reference is made to the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights. Its contribution to the elaboration of the concepts of legal equality and non-discrimination has been very important.

Since the first municipal elections, the feminist movement has lost some of its most active leaders. They have joined political parties or have held executive positions in the various administrations, which has to some extent contributed to the institutionalisation of the functions of the women's movement.

This institutionalisation has been greatly criticised and certainly had a strong impact on the feminist movement. Nowadays, there are still many women's associations, but they cannot be stricto sensu defined as 'feminist'. Recently, more than three hundred feminist organisations - the trade unions' women's departments - drafted a third Action Plan for Equal Opportunities for Women, which develops the directions of the Fourth EU Programme for Equal Opportunities and the Fourth World Conference on Women's Global Platform for Action (Beijing, 1995).

The most remarkable action planned is the modification of the electoral law, with the purpose of ensuring parity democracy : it provides that neither of the sexes would hold more than 60 % or less than 40 % of the national representation. This project will be submitted to the government, the political parties and the parliamentary groups in order to be subsequently enacted by the national Assembly.

Female political participation : data and figures

Women's participation in parliamentary assemblies,
see also Women and political life in Spain tables

a) Women's representation in the Congress of representatives (national level)

In the 1993-1996 legislature, there were 55 women MPs, i. e. 15,7% of the MPs in Congress. Table 1 shows the evolution of the return of women elected to Congress (data per party and per legislature) From 1979 on, the number of women MPs has increased threefold, rising from 6% to 15,7%. The most significant progress occurred during the 1989-1993 legislature, when the percentage rate of women MPs rose to 14%, 7,5% higher than in the former legislature (1986-1989).

b) Women's participation in the Senate (national level)

During the 1993-1996 legislature, out of a total of 256 Senators, 32 were women (12,5%). A comparison of Table 2 with Table 1 shows that, of all the legislatures, women's representation was at its lowest in the Senate. Since the 1979 elections, the number of women senators has increased four-fold, rising from 2,9% to 12,5%, the greatest increase taking place during the 1989 legislature (+10,8%).

c) Women's participation in the autonomous community parliaments (local level)

Table 3 shows how the presence of women has grown significantly at community level : from 6,4 in 1986, it rose to 14,4% in 1993. But there are great disparities between the autonomous communities. The greatest increase in the presence of women has been in the autonomous communities of Castilla-la Mancha and Navarre. In the first, women representatives rose from 2,3% to 19,2%, and in Navarre, they rose from 2% to 18%. In Asturias, the Balearic Islands, Castilla-La Mancha, Estramadura, Madrid, Navarre, La Rioja and the Basque Country, it is above average. It is below average in Andalusia, the Canaries, Castilla-Leon and Galicia. But women's representation has nevertheless increased three-fold since 1986.

Women's participation in central government (as senior or junior ministers, Secretaries of state...)

In 1994, women holding senior positions in the central government represented 12,9% (see Table 4). This figure is five points higher than in 1990 and 8 points higher than in 1985. The highest percentage rate of women is found for the position of secretary of state (21,7%). In 1986, only one woman held that position. In the 1986-1993 legislature, women ministers accounted for 18,8% : out of 16 ministerial positions, 3 were held by women. Today, there are four women ministers. As regards general executive positions, women accounted for 13,9% during the 1993-1996 legislature. The rate fell to 9,6 % for the positions of prefects and to 6,8% for those of under-secretaries and general secretaries. At the level of central government, the proportion of women rose mostly for the positions of ministers and secretaries of state. The proportion of women ministers rose from 11,8% in 1990 to 18,8% in 1994. It is notable that it did not rise above 5,6% in 1982, which meant that there was a three-fold increase by 1994. As general directors, women represented 1,4% in 1982, 9,2% in 1990 and 13,9% in 1996. As general secretaries or under-secretaries and government delegates, the growth was less marked : from 5,6% to 6,8%. The analysis of senior positions held by women in the ministries (see Table 5) shows that women were the most numerous in the following sectors : social welfare (40%), culture (39%), public administration (40%), relations with the Cortes (22%), education (17%), economy (16%), industry, trade and tourism (15%). As concerns the autonomous communities, in May 1994 only one woman held the presidency of an autonomous government : this was in Murcia. Two were vice-presidents, for the communities of The Balearic Islands and La Rioja. Only 19 women ranked among the autonomous government councillors, i.e. 11,7%, that is 2 points higher than in 1993. In each of the autonomous communities - The Canaries, Cantabria, Castilla-Leon and Navarre excepted - one or several women held such positions (see Table 6). It can be noted that women's representation rises to 37,5% in Asturias, .33,3% in La Rioja, and 20% in Andalusia or The Balearic Islands.

Women's participation in local representative bodies Table 7 shows the rate of women mayors per autonomous community in 1994, and between 1983 and 1994. Table 8 shows the rate of women holding executive positions at town hall level (as mayors, vice-mayors, municipal councillors) per autonomous community in 1994. We lack the figures for the years before 1994. but in 1994, 4,9% of town halls were headed by women. Women vice-mayors represented 10,2%, and women municipal councillors 12,6%. The figures show that women's participation decreases as the degree of responsibility rises. The present challenge is to ascertain the social benefits gained through struggle, the more so as the states have chosen to discard their social role. It is necessary to devise new instruments and new rules to answer the needs of a permanently changing society. The struggle must go on to enable women's points of view and demands be taken into account and integrated into policies and political action. Diversified strategies must be developed with the aim of enforcing a more balanced and fairer participation of both men and women in national decision-making. Fair practice must be sought and promoted.


La mujer y el poder politico. Ed. Ministerio de Asuntos Sociales. Instituto de la Mujer. Serie Debate num.16. Madrid 1994.

Conferencia de la UE preparatoria de la IV Conferencia Mundial sobre las mujeres. Ed. Ministerio de Asuntos Sociales. Instituto de la Mujer. Serie Debate num. 17, 1995.