They did not have large official portraits in gold frames, as that was a privilege reserved for men. These women challenged the rules of their times and questioned the social order. They wrote about free love and motherhood, rape and submission, suicide and marriage. They were snubbed and humiliated, saw their books reduced to secondary titles and then thrown into the rubbish bin of oblivion. They were ignored after their deaths, but in life they managed to open up a niche for themselves, publishing and leaving a record of having a voice of their own, something to say beyond the complacent silences and decorative smiles which, because they were women, were supposed to be their destiny.
The works of women writers from Malaga such as María Rosa de Gálvez and Isabel Oyarzábal Smith, and others who were local by adoption, like Gamel Woolsey, Jane Bowles and Mercedes Formica, can occasionally be found in a library, but are awaiting a definitive rescue. That, however, is not just a matter of time, but also of justice.
Oyarzábal hated corsets, as she explains in her memoirs: "The other girls were proud of their tiny wasp waists and used to tell me I would always be remembered as the girl without a waist. I was indifferent to their comments."
That detail gained symbolism as the years passed. Born in 1878, the daughter of middle-class parents (her father was Basque and her mother Scottish), she pierced the patriarchal system to conquer new areas of equality and freedom. She faced up to Primo de Rivera to demand universal suffrage and was Spain's first female ambassador and work inspector. Madison Square Garden was packed when she made a speech criticising the lack of international solidarity against the advance of fascism in Europe. However, it took over 70 years for her autobiography to be published in Spain.
María Rosa de Gálvez was born a century earlier and adopted by the Gálvez family, although it is suspected that she was her adoptive father's biological daughter. She received a good education which she complemented with talent and ambitious dramatic aspirations.
She separated from her husband, a gambler who led her to bankruptcy, and cultivated poetry and theatre in an era that was hostile towards women with a literary vocation. She adored the tragic genre, although she was best-known as a writer of comedies. She defended independent, subversive women, readers and travellers, with whom she identified.
Her biography, an example of freedom, is often summed up in one single chapter: her alleged relationship with Manuel Godoy, one of Carlos IV's ministers.
Things didn't change much in the following 100 years. Oyarzábal's feminist impulse also collided with customs and laws; her husband, Ceferino Palencia, was called before the judge on several occasions to give his consent for his wife's travels. He also arranged the rights of her books, because he was responsible for managing her finances.
Women were often relegated into the shadow of their partners. Born in the USA, Gamel Woolsey is buried in the English Cemetery in Malaga, the province where she lived with Gerald Brenan. She was never a conventional woman. She avoided social and religious impositions to make up her own mind, a poetic and free perspective which resulted in a limited but intensive literary production including Málaga Burning and a collection of poems.
She survived TB, flirted with cinema in her youth, explored sexuality in turbulent relationships and at times was overcome by her liking for drink, but above all Woolsey stood out as an extraordinary chronicler of the Civil War, although she was never seen as anything but Brenan's wife.
Jane Bowles was also overshadowed by her husband Paul, although many publishers and some colleagues such as Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote considered her one of America's finest writers, better than her husband. A supporter of sexual freedom, she spent her final years in Malaga and died there in 1973.
Another local author by adoption was lawyer and novelist Mercedes Formica, who was born in Cadiz. Although a supporter of the falange, she successfully reformed 66 clauses of the Civil Code which discriminated against women. Like many others, she was also forgotten by history but now, the dust is beginning to be cleaned off.
Jane Bowles (New York, 1917 - Malaga, 1973) - A great writer who broke taboos
Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote considered her one of the most talented but underestimated American writers. The novel Two Serious Ladies and the theatrical work In the Summer House explain why. She called for sexual freedom, overcame TB and, like Woolsey, damaged her own health through her liking for alcohol. She had a powerful personality, was heterodox and extravagant - and was the wife of Paul Bowles. That marriage overshadowed her work even though its merits transcended the literary field; she overcame the taboos of the puritanical US society and many publishers and some colleagues considered her the genius of the pair, much more so than Paul. She spent the final years of her life in Malaga, and died there in 1973.
Gamel Woolsey (South Carolina, 1895 - Malaga, 1968) - Great chronicler of the Civil War
She was a poet and wrote Malaga Burning, an extraordinary chronicle of the Civil War, although the chauvinism of history relegated her to the status of Gerald Brenan’s wife. This American writer, who was born in 1895, described the annihilation of everyday life, the effect on the bombardments on their neighbours in Churriana, dragged into an incomprehensible spiral of blood and revenge. She turned normal people into the protagonists of that horror. Paradoxically, she wasn’t published in Spain until after her death in 1998, when Temas de Hoy released a translated version which, on the front cover, referred to her marriage with Brenan to attract readers. She died of cancer in 1968 and is buried in the English Cemetery in Malaga.
María Rosa de Gálvez (Malaga, 1768 - Madrid, 1806) - A feminist icon in the 18th century
She was rescued from a home by one of the most powerful families of the Malaga of the 18th century: the Gálvezs of Macharaviaya. She overcame chauvinist prejudices, attempts to ridicule her work, court cases and matrimonial conflicts. She gave free rein to her literary ambition and came out victorious in a difficult commitment for any women of that time. Her dramas and comedies were published and premiered with success in the main theatres of the Madrid of King Carlos IV. She admired free and subversive women, with whom she identified, and denounced with intelligence the chauvinist oppression of those years. Works such as Los Figurones Literarios and Safo displayed her feminist vocation. She died in 1806, when she was 38, and was buried with no pomp in Madrid
Isabel Oyarzábal (Malaga, 1878- Mexico City, 1974) - A pioneer and social activist
Born in 1878 in Calle Peligro, near the city’s Alameda, she is considered one of the mothers of modern feminism. The education she received at home was fundamental in understanding her activism, which was based on an unshakeable social commitment. She was Spain’s first female ambassador, in Sweden and Finland from 1937 to 1939, after becoming the first female work inspector in 1933. However, it was more than 70 years before her autobiography, Hambre de libertad. Memorias de una Embajadora Republicana was published in Spain. Oyarzábal, whose mother was Scottish, had originally written the book in English, and published it in the USA in 1940 under the original title I Must Have Liberty. She was 62 years old.
Mercedes Formica (Cadiz, 1913 - Malaga, 2002) - The lawyer who challenged the regime
This lawyer from Cadiz, who was a dedicated supporter of the Falange, fought a major battle with the authorities to change the 66 clauses in the Civil Code which made women the prisoners of their husbands. She was a follower of Primo de Rivera and a friend of Lorca. The Women’s Section cancelled one of her conferences calling for the incorporation of women into the world of work. She published some novels under a pseudonym, and others under her own name. She challenged Francoism from the inside and, in the post-war period, criticised the chauvinist attitude which judged male and female adultery differently. She died in Malaga in 2002, after losing her memory through Alzheimer’s.