Support Networks among Women Lawyers

by | Apr 16, 2022 | All, Empowerment of Women in `leadership, Gender Equality

The magazine Estampa, in its February 26, 1929 edition, devoted a full page to an image showing three women from the Asociación Universitaria Femenina (AUF), the first association of university women in Spain, sticking up a poster under the title “Women helping women”. The text accompanying the photograph explained that several university women had walked the streets of Madrid putting up posters offering their help to all Spanish women. The article detailed that the AUF offered “advice, direction and spiritual, legal, medical and social support, to the abandoned mother, to the helpless minor; in short, to the helpless woman facing any problem or conflict in which she needs medical, legal or social orientation; to the worker, to the woman without help or support, all absolutely free of charge”.

This display of sisterhood and solidarity among women is not something exceptional. Women’s support networks have always existed, the need to create links and alliances between women in order to help each other has been a constant in history, although research has barely focused on them. Among these under-researched support networks are those that emerged among the first Spanish women who graduated in law. Women who took it upon themselves to raise the social demands of many others who had no voice in the public sphere, transforming those demands into legal claims.

The legal counseling work of the AUF, whose leaders were Clara Campoamor and Matilde Huici, focused on “duly informing all women, regardless of their position, about all natural and legal problems affecting their lives”. Since its inception, the association’s objectives have been focused on advising those who need it and demanding rights for women and children. Issues such as the establishment of paternity, the reform of the Civil Code regarding the right of married women to freely enjoy and dispose of their wages or the abolition of prostitution.

The achievement of women’s suffrage was also among its challenges. On the road to achieving this goal, they collaborated with other organizations in favor of women’s suffrage, such as the National Association of Spanish Women and the Lyceum Club, where many of their members were members.

With the Dictatorship, women gradually lost the few rights they had acquired and the legal equality of the sexes enshrined in the Republican Constitution was ignored. However, also during the years of the Dictatorship there were jurists who left their mark in the interest of legal equality. Because, despite the difficulties, women jurists did not remain silent during this period either. To the best of their ability, there were women who fought to recover legal equality.

One of the most active was the lawyer and writer Mercedes Formica, who specialized in women’s rights issues. She carried out intense work in denouncing the unequal treatment suffered by women in the workplace, where she demanded a change in access to jobs and official positions (a change that was achieved in a first step in 1961 and fully in 1966); she was also energetic in criticizing the criminal treatment of adultery, penalized only in the case of women. However, along with her claims in the field of public law, it was in the field of private law that she achieved one of her greatest successes. Specifically, the reform of the Civil Code of 1958 is indebted to a campaign carried out by Mercedes Formica through the ABC newspaper. The starting point were some reflections in the article El domicilio conyugal written as a result of the case of Antonia Pernía Obrador, stabbed with twelve knives by her husband, who had abused her on numerous occasions and from whom the law had not allowed her to separate under penalty of losing her home, her children and all her property. As a result of this campaign, many women decided to speak out for the first time about the dramatic situations they were experiencing. The ABC editorial office received more than 100 letters a day, also from parents and siblings of battered women who looked at the situation with impotence. Formica continued with her chronicles and with conferences on the need to reform the Civil Code. She was not alone in this endeavor. Along with the support of ABC, she had the collaboration of several colleagues. The change was achieved on April 24, 1958 with the reform of Article 66.

By the end of the 1960s, the legal situation for women had improved, but there was still a long way to go to achieve full legal equality. During these years, the associative work carried out by the lawyer María Telo stands out. In July 1971 she created the Spanish Association of Women Jurists (AEMJ), becoming the first grouping of these professionals in Spain. The aims of this Association were: “(1) the study of Law, especially that which directly affects women or the family; (2) to promote the adaptation of legal norms to the present time, and (3) the promotion of women, within their respective professions, and particularly those with degrees in Law”. One of its major milestones was to obtain the entry of women in the General Codification Commission. In this way, thanks to the tenacity and effort of these women jurists, it was possible to put an end to the marital license, which implied the almost total incapacitation of married women in social and economic life.

There is no doubt that since the first pioneering women jurists began their work, much progress has been made at the regulatory and associative levels. In Spain today there are several associations of women jurists (AEMJ, Themis, Association of Women Judges of Spain…), in addition, mixed professional groups have equality sections or commissions. Therefore, although there are still pending issues and improvements, we cannot ignore the progress we have made thanks to the efforts -sometimes superhuman- of those who preceded us and to whom we are indebted and who deserve not to be forgotten.

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