What life was really like for women during the Spanish Civil War

During the 1920s and '30s, the acrid cancer of despotism metastasized across Europe. Per History, throughout the early 1920s, Fascist strongman Benito Mussolini strong-armed his way to power, becoming a full-blown despot in 1925. In 1929, the iron-fisted "man of steel" Joseph Stalin cemented his grip on the Soviet Union. In 1933, genocidal demagogue Adolf Hitler was tapped to serve as Germany's chancellor. And in 1939, the Catholic-backed Fascist Francisco Franco commenced his brutal reign in Spain with assistance from Italy and Germany. 

Franco took Spain by force, waging in a nearly three-year war that kicked off in 1936. The Spanish Civil War was anything but civil. "The conflict ripped Spain apart," according to Smithsonian. "Neighbors turned on one another, brothers killed brothers, and thousands of teachers and artists and priests were murdered for their political sympathies." Hitler and Mussolini supplied warplanes that decimated the town of Guernica, a bastion of Basque culture. The devastating bombing inspired Picasso's heartbreaking painting, "Guernica." 

Spain's not-at-all-civil war also took an awful toll on civilians. An estimated 500,000 people died. During that ordeal, women suffered unspeakable cruelties that have often gone unspoken about. Admittedly, it's impossible to truly know what it was "really like" for them during those abhorrent times. And since we're not Picasso, the best we can do is try to paint a vastly inferior "Guernica" with words.

Franco's reign of terror and child separations

The Abraham Lincoln Brigade writes that one of the least-explored aspects of the Spanish Civil War was the "deliberate and systematic persecution of women" perpetrated by Franco's forces. Fanatical Fascists executed and raped thousands of women with leftist leanings who opposed Franco. Hellbent on humiliating political dissidents, the Fascists shaved females' heads and force-fed them castor oil to make them soil themselves in public. Women who weren't murdered saw their husbands, sons, and brothers butchered or sent into exile. 

Many women were imprisoned in cramped, unsanitary facilities where sexual assault and torture ran rampant. If they didn't die behind bars, they often became prisoners of their own psychological scars for the rest of their lives. Countless women would also suffer the trauma of losing their children, not only through death but through theft. Per NPR, lawyers and advocates have argued that Franco implemented a system of child separations between the 1930's and 1980s. Doctors and nuns collaborated to steal newborns from leftist mothers and place them in Catholic households to be raised by Franco loyalists. In other words, there are no words that can adequately capture the horrors women endured.