Spain Is at the Forefront of Expanding Women’s Rights

Irene Montero
Nicolas Allen

Women’s rights are being severely eroded in the United States. In Spain, the opposite is true. Jacobin spoke with Spanish minister of equality Irene Montero about those advances and the need to tie feminist concerns to the fight against capitalism.

Irene Montero, Spain's minister of equality, during the closing ceremony of a conference in Madrid, July 7, 2022. (Alberto Ortega / Europa Press via Getty Images)

Interview by
Micah Uetricht

At a time when women’s rights are under severe attack in the United States, Americans might be shocked to learn of the recent feminist advances in Spain. These laws include newly liberalized abortion rights, a proposal to give women paid menstrual leave, expanded sex-education laws, and more.

Those gains have come as a result of a mobilized feminist movement in the Spanish streets. But they’ve also been a result of a left-wing coalition government between the Socialist Workers’ Party and Unidas Podemos, coming to power in 2020.

Unidas Podemos’s Irene Montero, a member of parliament who has served as Spain’s minister of equality since 2020, has been a staunch advocate for these policies. On a recent trip to the United States, Montero spoke in New York with Jacobin deputy editor Micah Uetricht about the feminist gains made in Spain and the state of women’s rights in the United States. The conversation has been translated from Spanish.

Micah Uetricht

What is the situation right now for women’s rights in Spain? What progress has been made during your time in government, and what more needs to be done?

Irene Montero

We are advancing, reinforcing, and expanding the rights of women and LGBTQ people in Spain. This is largely because the international feminist movement has formulated important proposals that include women in all their diversity: women with disabilities, racialized women, poor women, LGBTQ people. They all suffer in different ways in the same patriarchal society.

Women’s rights are not only a human rights issue — all women and all LGBTQ people must enjoy the right to pursue their lives in peace and without discrimination. The international context seems equally, if not more, important: Spain, Europe, the United States and other places are all in the midst of a deep crisis of capitalism, which is not only expressed in the contradiction between capital and labor — precarity, low wages, unemployment and underemployment. It is also expressed in the sheer impossibility of sustaining this way of organizing the economy and life.

The planet cannot continue to sustain neoliberal capitalism, where there is a profound and growing contradiction between how we organize the economy and how we sustain life itself. The pandemic has shown that even the most advanced economies can be paralyzed, and yet we still have to maintain care work. We still have to clean the bathroom, do the shopping, cook, take care of the children and the infirm.

This crisis of care is asking us to choose whether or not we want to deepen and consolidate our democracies by placing feminist rights at the center of the social agenda — not just as a matter of human rights but also as one of organizing our economies in such a way that they are compatible with life itself.

Micah Uetricht

How do you discuss these matters — the connection between women’s rights and capitalism — within your party and the governing coalition?

Irene Montero

The key issue is what we call “care policies.” Until now, the state has never been institutionally concerned with seeing housecleaning or childcare as remunerated work; for governments, this was assumed to be done by families. These essential tasks, which organize our economy and our life, were privatized within the family, and women ended up working double and triple shifts at the expense of their health. Many women, for example, forego seeing a doctor, resting, sleeping, going to the movies, reading, and seeing friends because they don’t have time.

During the worst parts of COVID, we created the first public policy of “conciliation” in our country. Basically, women could go to a freely accessible public space where they could leave their children, and then use that time for themselves. They could use it to go to work or look for work, to have coffee with friends, or go to a concert. In turn, this conciliation policy seeks to make caregivers’ work dignified and recognize it as essential to society. Caregivers receive a respectable salary and decent working conditions.

On top of that, the minister of social rights, Ione Belarra, has worked to roll back cuts in social spending, expanding coverage of all those public policies that make caring and being cared for a right in the same way that health or education is a right. Care must also be a state-backed right, so it does not fall on the shoulders of women, who then are at risk for falling into poverty and have more difficulty keeping a full-time job and protecting their own rights.

Micah Uetricht

What is the relationship right now between the feminist movement in the streets and your party and governing coalition?

Irene Montero

It is a two-way street. The relationship between social movements and governments is always a tense one. Sometimes that tension can be positive, and other times it can lead to conflict.

I believe that progressive forces have two fundamental mandates when they are in institutions of power. One is to listen to the demands that movements make, in this case of the feminist movement (which has never received much attention compared to other civil society organizations). The feminist movement has always stood in opposition to public policy because governments have ignored women. So in a sense, we are learning to relate to each other. The current Spanish government declares itself feminist and is willing to listen to women — a first in national history. The first task, then, for progressives, is to listen and create public policy and laws according to what the feminist movement demands.

A crowd of protesters marches across the town hall of Burgos, Spain, during International Women’s Day demonstrations, March 8, 2022. (Jorge Contreras Soto / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images)

Second, I believe that, as a progressive government, we have the very important task of protecting and legitimizing the actions of civil society, even when it is critical of the government. I believe that a progressive government can never forget that the democratic transformations they are pursuing are achieved by building power in society.

Of course, the institutions themselves hold power. That is why Podemos was born: to exercise power from within government. Over eight years, we have achieved the first coalition government in the history of our country. But power also rests with civil society, and history shows that great democratic changes always take place when society at large is mobilized. So it is also the task of a political force like Podemos, especially in government, to legitimize and protect a mobilized citizenry.

Micah Uetricht

Could you talk a little bit about the Spanish right? I know you have had to fight the Right to achieve a feminist agenda. Could you speak about that?

Irene Montero

To understand the Right in Spain, it is useful to look at certain trends taking place all throughout Europe, Latin America, and, to a large extent, in the United States. Since the crisis of 2008, the financial crisis created an awakening and a shift in common sense among very wide sectors of Western populations. To put it in classic terms, people understood that our lives should not be in the hands of politicians and bankers, and that there are rights that should not be subject to the rules of the free market. That awakening led to a democratizing impulse that found expression in social movements, parties, and historical victories, most recently in Latin America with the government of President Gabriel Boric in Chile and Gustavo Petro in Colombia.

Meanwhile, in Spain, we saw the first coalition government in the history of our democracy — the first time a force to the left of the Socialist Party was in power. We have seen significant democratic advance under the governing coalition, although, undoubtedly, the feminist movement has been at the vanguard of recent transformations. All those transformations, it turned out, have spurred a reaction.

Now we have a situation where there are many reactionaries throughout the world who are vying for power, and, often, the political arm of those forces is dominated by the extreme right. I prefer to speak of reactionaries rather than just the Right, because, while the Right and the extreme right have their own political vehicle, they have many other tools — for example, in the media or the judiciary branch of government, where they can work to undermine democratic standards.

In Spain, for example, judicial bodies have never supported feminist policies, neither now nor with the government of [former prime minister] José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, which was another government that advanced women’s and feminist rights. The judiciary has never, ever been in favor of those advances.

These reactionary sectors, which have many sources of power, are growing more organized, and have taken central aim at women and LGBTQ people. They are a reaction to democratic advances, and the majority of us still think that the world needs more and not less democracy — more civil rights, more political rights, and, what seems to me to be the most important, more material rights. One cannot be free, nor can we speak of full democracy, if people do not have access to health, education, a life free of gender violence, and all the rights that, in the end, make life itself and the exercise of freedom possible.

Micah Uetricht

Even with all the feminist progress in Spain, it seems to me there are still similarities with what’s happening in the United States. The New York Times recently reported that, although abortion laws are moving in a progressive direction in Spain, there are still doctors who refuse to perform the procedure, making abortion availability in Spain patchy at best. The situation is somewhat similar in the United States, where, after the end of Roe, abortion is legal in some states and not in others.

Irene Montero

Before Spain’s new abortion law was passed, access to the procedure was negatively affected by a lack of regulation of those who considered themselves “conscientious objectors,” meaning those who refused to assist the voluntary termination of a pregnancy. Due to that lack of regulation, many women had to travel hundreds of kilometers to another province or autonomous community [Spain’s equivalent of a US state].

The new abortion law tries to solve this issue by establishing that all public hospitals must be the point of reference for anyone seeking a voluntary termination of pregnancy and that, therefore, women must be able to go to the hospital closest to their home for the procedure. The law also states that health personnel, not just doctors, should be able to perform the abortion if they want to.

All health care personnel have the constitutional right to conscientious objection, but this right must also be regulated in the same way as we have done with euthanasia in Spain, so that all medical personnel who are objectors appear in a registry. This guarantees that, in the hospital service where those objectors work, there are provisions to always have on staff a doctor who is not an objector and who can carry out voluntary termination of a pregnancy.

It is important to have very clear information. We met with the equality policy advisor to the governor of New York, and what’s most important now is that women have access to clear information and combat the disinformation spread by reactionaries and of those who are against women’s rights. It’s important to let women know what legislation exists in their state (or in their country) and how they can get access to a safe abortion.

We also need to be united at moments like this. We have to start from a shared understanding that, if women’s rights are under attack anywhere in the world, it is the responsibility of all of us to do something about it. Because if we do not win the maximum rights for all women, we will always be at risk of setbacks and violation of rights.

Now is the time for us to show very clearly that we feminists are the majority, and we want what we have for all women.

Micah Uetricht

What is your reading of the current political situation in the United States, and what advice do you have for the feminist movement here?

Irene Montero

The American feminist movement has always been a point of reference for us in Spain. It is an essential part of the history of women and the feminist movement. I have great hopes for the feminist movement both internationally and in the United States.

We have been pleasantly surprised, because many members of the current coalition came out of the political history of Podemos — that is to say, from an activist background. Now that we are in government, we have achieved many social movement goals. Spain has become a reference point for the guarantee of women’s rights, and that is a tribute to our work and that of the Spanish feminist movement.

Just as when Spanish feminists have had to learn from the example of other comrades, now we are in a position where we, too, can contribute to that common pool of experience and help in whatever is possible. But I say this with the utmost respect for a feminist movement like the American movement, which is an international beacon. I am sure the American feminist movement will not accept the violations of women’s rights and that they will not leave the right to decide over their own bodies to a government entity — especially because that right is the gateway to all other rights. If a woman cannot decide when or when not to be a mother, or what contraceptives to take, it is much more difficult for her to gain employment, health care, culture, and the enjoyment of leisure time. But we have great confidence in the feminist movement.