Isabel Oyarzábal, a silenced pioneer

Isabel (second on the right), with other women of her family.
Isabel (second on the right), with other women of her family. / SUR
  • The legacy of this Malaga writer, considered one of the first feminists in Spain, was buried by sexism and the dictatorship

The legacy of Isabel Oyarzábal Smith still vibrates beneath the earth, decades after being buried by the dictatorship and sexism. This combative and multifaceted woman from Malaga who faced up to Miguel Primo de Rivera to demand universal suffrage lives on in the feminist demands which she and other women began over a century ago.

Oyarzábal was born into a middle-class family in 1878, the daughter of a Scottish mother and a father who was originally from the Basque Country. Even as a child, she found the restrictions of the time, including being laced into tight corsets, insupportable. As she put it in her memoirs: “My mother used to think that there would be time to rein me in when I was grown up. The other girls were proud of their tiny wasp-waists and used to tell me I would always be remembered as the girl with no waist. At first their comments about my physical appearance made me uncomfortable, but afterwards I became indifferent to them”.

Isabel Oyarzábal, a silenced pioneer

For decades she questioned the dominant social order, and successfully opened up new areas of equality and freedom. She was Spain's first female ambassador, a post she took up in Sweden and Finland between 1937 and 1939, and was also the first work inspector, after passing an examination, in 1933. However, more than 70 years passed before her autobiography, 'Hambre de libertad. Memorias de una embajadora republicana' was published by Almed in Spain in 2011.

She had published the book, which was written in English, in the USA in 1940, under the title 'I must have liberty'. She was 62 years old then, in exile because of Francoism, and she would never return to her own country.

Oyarzábal, who was born in Calle Peligro, close to the Alameda in Malaga city, is considered one of the founders of modern feminism. The education she received at home is fundamental in understanding her activism, which was based on solid social commitment: “My mother was an orphan and was accustomed to doing what she liked. That must have been an added attraction for my father, who was perhaps tired of the submissive behaviour of young Spanish women of his class. When relatives and friends argued with him because he would let my mother go out without being accompanied by family or servants, like other ladies in Malaga did, or for allowing her to dance and even smoke, which broke all the rules regarding proper behaviour for women, he would invariably just shrug and say “What does it matter, if she's happy?”

Oyarzábal's fluency in English, which was very unusual in Spain, enabled her to work as a correspondent for newspapers such as The Standard and Daily Herald, and also opened doors for her with organisations like the International Work Organisation, where she presented progressive proposals to improve women's working conditions. She also went as a delegate of the National Association of Spanish Women to the Congress of the Alliance for Universal Suffrage in Geneva and was vice-president of the Lyceum Club with Victoria Kent, who was also Spanish.

She did a tour of conferences in over 40 towns in the USA and Canada to gain support for the Republic, and denounced the lack of solidarity in the international community against the advance of fascism in Europe. In New York, in an unprecendented speech by a Spanish woman, she talked to more than 25,000 people in Madison Square Garden.

The feminist path chosen by Oyarzábal clashed with the laws of the time. Her husband, Ceferino Palencia, with whom she had two children, was called before the judge on several occasions to give his consent to his wife's travels, and to allow her to manage the rights to her books as, by law, he was the administrator of her finances. This was nothing new. Isabel had already suffered sexist behaviour as a teenager. “One of my father's friends told him my legs were a temptation and I should keep them covered up. It made me wish I didn't have legs. When my father decided to present me in society he said I had to wear a long dress. The day I put my hair up for the first time, I felt as if my head was full of pins,” she said.

She related some of those experiences in her newspaper columns, after setting up La Dama magazine and writing a women's section in El Sol under the pseudonym Beatriz Galindo. She also wrote for Blanco y Negro, El Heraldo, Nuevo Mundo and La Esfera, among other publications.

Despite her professional career and personal achievements, in general she is still not well known, especially in comparison with many of her contemporaries who were not as known abroad and did not achieve as much as she did. Writer Aurora Luque, who was responsible for recovering Oyarzábal's legacy when she was the director of the Generación del 27 centre, where a room is named after the feminist, says this is because she was a woman: “There is resistance, especially at the higher levels, to any intellectual works by women. They are very reluctant to recognise the value of women, it doesn't fit into their scheme,” she explains.

Luque praises “the testimonial value” of Oyarzábal's work, saying she had the ability to weave “a relaxed chronicle of the boring and conventional provincial life at the beginning of the last century”.

Oyarzábal's autobiography was translated by Enrique Girón and Andrés Arenas, who describe her as “a pioneer, a fabulous woman with an exceptional intellect”. Arenas says she originally wanted to be an actress, but then realised that her true vocation lay elsewhere. Decades of political and social writing and activism lay ahead of her alongside the Republic, socialism and feminist values.

The translators of 'Hambre de libertad' discovered her work by accident, during an exhibition over 20 years ago. “We started to find out more about her and we were very surprised that 'I have must liberty' had not only never been translated into Spanish but had never been published here,” says Arenas. In the autobiography, she talks about her life from her childhood years and her time at La Asunción school to her exile in Mexico.

Oyarzábal died a year before Franco. She had not returned to Spain, but her family still recalls the impact of her presence before she went.

“My mother was one of the first women in Malaga to use a bicycle, and Isabel had given it to her,” says her great-nephew Pepe Oyarzábal, about the close relationship between the author of 'En mi hambre mando yo', a novel she published at the end of the 1950s, and his mother. “They loved each other very much, even though ideologically they were very different. My mother used to say that my great-aunt Ela, as we called her, had served tea to Manuel Azaña and that is how she came to occupy an important place in Spanish politics. She used to organise meetings and sometimes she'd take my mother, who was only a girl then, to give her a hand,” he says.

This year the National Drama Centre premiered 'Beatriz Galindo en Estocolmo', by Blanca Baltés, which features Oyarzábal as the first Spanish female diplomat and one of the precursors of Las Sinsombrero, women of the 27 who were also muted. Her legacy, indeed, still shakes the world out of forgetfulness and inequality.