In 2019 the Andalusian writer and rural veterinarian María Sánchez (b. 1989) published a lyrical personal narrative and rural feminist manifesto, Tierra de mujeres: Una mirada íntima y familiar al mundo rural (Seix Barral, 2019). It quickly became a bestseller in Spain and went through numerous editions in its first year alone; it has already been translated to French (Rivages) and German (Blessing Verlag) and is scheduled for English translation in 2022 (Trinity UP). The popularity of this text speaks not only to the increasingly pervasive presence of feminism in twenty-first-century Spain, but also to the urgency of recognizing the women who live and work in Spain’s small villages and rural territories, as they are often overlooked or left out of mainstream political and cultural discourses. For Sánchez, rural Spain contains far more than supposedly “empty” territories dotted with “granjas y casitas y otra granja y otra casita”, as journalist Sergio del Molino’s popular La España vacía. Viaje por un país que nunca fue (2016) has led many to believe (Intro.). Instead, Sánchez’s first-person narrative effectively and defiantly counters this discourse by affirming the diversity of rural Spaniards and their communities, while also lamenting the forces that have contributed to the depopulation of the countryside, which she captures in her preference for the descriptor “España vaciada”: “No somos la España vacía. Somos un territorio lleno de vida. De personas, de historias, de oficios, de comunidades. Somos pastoras, jornaleras, agricultoras, arrieras, aceituneras, ganaderas. Somos la mano que cuida…” (96). Sánchez’s use of the collective, first-person plural narrative voice positions her as a member of these rural communities, while her deliberate use of plural feminine nouns and pronouns casts the spotlight on the marginalized members of these communities who will occupy the center stage of her narrative: rural women.

Despite its popularity and refreshing defense of both rural life and the women whose labor permeates the countryside, Sánchez’s observations and arguments are not without cultural precedent. In this regard, Roberta Johnson has pointed to the “circular path” of Spanish feminism throughout the twentieth century in which the gains women made during the Second Republic (1931-39) were rescinded under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco (1939-75), thus causing feminists of the post-Franco era to “reinvent the wheel” (Johnson, Major Concepts 16–17).[1] Johnson observes that “many feminist issues of the pre-Republican and Republican eras (1920s and 1930s) resurfaced… as Franco approached death” (17). These echoes of first-wave feminist activity have reverberated in women’s writing throughout the democratic era and into the present day, especially in topics like marriage and divorce, education, wage labor, and “the debate between difference and equality feminism” (21-23). It follows, then, that Sánchez’s twenty-first-century feminist bid to recognize and celebrate rural women would in fact have literary and artistic antecedents. As such, this paper seeks to establish a feminist dialogue between Sánchez and early twentieth-century Spanish women who expressed their voices and visions regarding female agricultural labor in the era of first-wave feminism that began in the early twentieth century and ended with the conclusion of the Spanish Civil War (1900-1939). Specifically, by bringing Sánchez’s Tierra de mujeres into conversation with essays by the author and activist Carmen de Burgos y Seguí (1867-1932) and paintings by the Avant-garde artist Maruja Mallo (Ana María Gómez González) (1902-1995), this essay will demonstrate how women in twenty-first-century rural Spain may strengthen their feminist consciousness by recognizing the historical and cultural nexuses that exist – though they have not always been visible – with their predecessors, or “fantasmas,” to use Sánchez’s words (Sánchez, Tierra 34). Such connections may lead to the articulation of a shared history, or a commonality of experience, that will advance our understanding of the diversity of Spanish feminist thought and activity, while legitimizing and invigorating rural Spanish women’s places within contemporary feminism.

To focus this initial study, I will limit my discussion to two key ideas that Sánchez presents in Tierra de mujeres: the invisibility or “invisibilization” [invisibilización] of women and women’s labor in the Spanish countryside, and the “inferiorization” [inferiorización] of Spain’s sparsely populated rural communities. Next, I will discuss several short articles related to education in rural and agricultural contexts, all penned by Carmen de Burgos at the beginning and the end of her career as a prolific journalist and writer: “La mujer agricultora” (1903), “La mujer y la agricultura” (1904), “La Granja-Escuela” (1905), and “Escuelas de agricultura” (1931). Finally, and in conjunction with my discussion of Burgos’s essays and Sánchez’s narrative, I will link these century-spanning pieces of literature to the visual depictions of rural women in select paintings by Maruja Mallo (from the late 1920s through the 1930s). As a result, we shall see how both Burgos’s repeated unanswered calls for rural education and Mallo’s forceful yet comparatively dismissed agricultural paintings function as precursors to Sánchez’s vocal manifesto. Tierra de mujeres advocates a symbiotic relationship between contemporary feminism and the rural communities and practices traditionally relegated to the margins of the women’s movement. In this sense, Sánchez echoes early twentieth-century Spanish women who aimed to recognize, support, and honor traditional rural life at a time when the intellectual and economic climate of modernity placed a higher value on progress and innovation within urban centers.[2] Despite a century of time between them, Burgos, Mallo, and Sánchez challenge hegemonic notions of modernity – and feminist activity – that prioritize the values of urban centers and consequently damage, debilitate, or marginalize those of Spanish pueblos and the women who reside in them.

María Sánchez: Tierra de mujeres (2019)

Born in Córdoba in 1989, María Sánchez grew up in a rural Andalusian village in the Sierra Norte de Sevilla where her family could trace generations. Both her father and grandfather were veterinarians, and in 2014 Sánchez became the first woman in her family to practice this profession traditionally associated with men. In 2017 she published her first book, Cuaderno de campo, a volume of poetry centered on rural life and the Spanish countryside. Her third book, Almáciga. Un vivero de palabras de nuestro medio rural (2020), is dedicated to preserving the unique language and vocabulary of rural Spanish dialects. Her second book, Tierra de mujeres (2019), will be the focus of the present essay. In this first-person narrative, Sánchez recounts the elements of her upbringing and education that led her to embrace feminism. She begins with her childhood desire to emulate the men in her family, candidly admitting her dismissal of both her mother’s and grandmother’s domestic roles and labor (33-42). Next, she recalls the stark realization during her university studies that, unlike what she had observed in her own rural community, women’s voices and employment status were entirely absent from even those purportedly objective statistics describing Spain’s ranching and agricultural industries (55-56).[3]

In opening her essay in this personal way, Sánchez identifies a core part of her identity rooted in the rural countryside, referring to it as her “narrativa invisible,” a phrase inspired by the Portuguese writer María Gabriela Llansol (1931-2008) (17). In an interview shortly after the publication of her book, Sánchez states even more succinctly: “Para mí el campo es mi narrativa invisible, porque es de donde surge todo” (Sánchez, María Sánchez: ‘El campo’). It follows, then, that in Tierra de mujeres Sánchez recognizes, reclaims, and foregrounds this invisible narrative by centering the women of rural communities whose roles have long been ignored, obscured, or even erased. Likewise, when recounting her own unseen story born of farms and fields, she centers her female family members and their labor, noting that women have become doubly marginalized in these already peripheral spaces.[4] In fact, the foundation of Sánchez’s invisible rural narrative is the private sphere associated with women: “…las que no se nombraron y existieron… las que siguen ahí, en la sombra, con voz pero que no se oyen porque no hay espacio ni altavoz posibles para ellas” (22). By vindicating her own “narrativa invisible,” Sánchez poignantly identifies this erasure of rural women not only as institutional and systemic, but also individually situated and deeply personal. Throughout its two parts and nine chapters,[5] Tierra de mujeres brings an unrecognized and unpaid rural female populace out of the shadows, footnotes, and margins and places it squarely within mainstream literary and feminist discourses.

In her first chapter, “Una genealogía del campo,” Sánchez describes the invisibility of rural women and their labor with haunting metaphors of ghosts and illness, while employing the verb “invisibilizar” to identify powerful processes of erasure. She points to the absence of women not only as active agents (authors, contributors, or professional role models) throughout her formal veterinary education, but also as subjects (excluded from statistics in books or manuals and absent from photographs of rural life in media and scholarship): “Siempre eran hombres los que posaban sonriendo con sus animales, siendo protagonistas, dueños, cuidadores. ¿Dónde estaban las mujeres?… Solo las invisibiliza” (39). As she came to recognize this pervasive absence only during her university studies, Sánchez acknowledges her own process of feminist awakening, admitting that while growing up she had neither noticed nor sufficiently appreciated the extent of the labor performed by women in her own childhood home: “A esa edad, las mujeres de mi casa eran una especie de fantasmas que vagaban por casa, hacían y deshacían. Eran invisibles… Hermanas de hombres fuertes. Mujeres invisibles a la sombra del hermano” (34, emphasis mine). Employing a collective, first-person plural voice, she acknowledges, with anger and guilt (“la rabia y la culpa”), her own former place among those blind to women’s extensive diligence in the home, on the farm, or within the rural community: “Teníamos como normal que nuestras madres y nuestras abuelas se encargaran de todo y pudieran con todo: la casa, los cuidados, los hijos, el campo, los animales. Les quitamos sus historias y no nos inmutamos” (36). As inconspicuous domestic specters, women’s voices and shared experiences were unperceived and thus unknown: “A nuestras abuelas, nuestras madres, nuestras tías, las veíamos como algo extraño y familiar a la vez, algo cercano pero que pertenece a otra galaxia, con otro horario y otra atmósfera” (36-37). Sánchez’s retrospective observations reflect what feminist rural studies scholars have identified as a gender division of labor within both the productive and reproductive spheres, as well as the lack of recognition given to tasks carried out by “farm wives”: “Women’s contribution… was central to the survival of the family farm and yet was rarely recognized in conventional analyses of agricultural production” (Little 367). While Sánchez’s reference to the living women with whom she shared domestic space as “ghosts” may appear paradoxical, the word captures the ambiguities and ineffability of rural Spanish women’s positions and value within the home, the rural community, and the nation.

According to Alberto Ribas-Casasayas and Amanda Petersen, “the ghost is neither dead nor alive, neither absent nor present, neither effective nor inoperant, neither actual nor virtual; it is both past and current, perceptible and imperceptible” (2). In spectral theory, “the ghost allows for the possibility of a transgenerational ethics, as it reveals an obligation to victims whose presence has been excluded from the historical record and hegemonic discourse” (3). In this sense, the ghost disrupts purportedly coherent or complete representations of the present social reality by inviting a questioning of dominant discourses and images (3). For Sánchez, the relegation of women and their histories, or stories (historias), to the status of invisible, otherworldly entities roaming about the home is indicative of a pervasive form of female isolation that she has observed even beyond the domestic sphere:

…es ésta la historia de nuestro país y de tantos: mujeres que quedaban a la sombra y sin voz, orbitando alrededor del astro de la casa, que callaban y dejaban hacer; fieles, pacientes, buenas madres, limpiando tumbas, aceras y fachadas, llenándose las manos de cal y lejía cada año, sabedoras de remedios, ceremonias y nanas. (34)

Proceeding with the language of illness, Sánchez laments this erasure, this cultural deficit, this personal affront: “Este aislamiento de las mujeres es una enfermedad que ha sabido expandirse por todos los estratos… No es solo la casa en la que crecí. La infección llegaba a todas las capas de mi vida: el colegio, la universidad, mi trabajo” (37). While she acknowledges that feminism has succeeded in recognizing the lives and recovering the voices and cultural contributions of many intellectual Spanish women, like those of the so-called Generación del '27, the same cannot be said for women in rural communities (176). In fact, despite the progress that has been made in terms of women’s rights and recognition, particularly over the past forty years, it seems that, for Sánchez, Spanish feminism has to some degree committed the very same offense that it purports to fight. It has rendered invisible (and inferior, as we shall see) rural women, their traditions, and their underserved communities, while recovering only those female voices who were able to assimilate, to some extent, into mainstream, male-dominated academic and intellectual circles within largely urban (Madrid-based) institutions.[6] Sánchez’s reckoning is essential for her contemporary feminist project that seeks not simply to “give voice to” rural women, but rather to amplify their existing, previously unheard or ignored voices within and beyond their respective communities (70).

Rural women’s continued invisibility has resulted in a compounded problem that Sánchez refers to as the “inferiorization” (inferiorización) of Spain’s sparsely populated communities and the individuals, especially women, who reside and work in these spaces. This does not mean, however, that the Spanish countryside and its inhabitants are portrayed entirely negatively in public discourse; quite the contrary. Sánchez observes that the campo and rural ways of life are frequently idealized or romanticized in literature and contemporary media.[7] Nevertheless, the residents of these largely agricultural communities are simultaneously perceived as inferior to city-dwellers:

Nos idealizan, sí. Pero nos inferiorizan. Porque no nos dejan hablar. Deciden volvernos mudos. Que no suene nuestra voz… No nos dejan hablar, no nos dejan decidir. La marca del campesino en la frente. La mancha de ser del pueblo. La asociación dolorosa del medio rural con términos como palto, ignorante, bruto, simple, cateto, porrino, inferior. La inferiorización está clavada muy dentro. (91, italics original)

For Sánchez, there is an inherent contradiction in the portrayal and treatment of rural spaces. On the one hand, they are idealized as sites of escape and recreation – places of leisure or repose for those who labor in the urban, industrial, or business worlds. On the other hand, they are belittled as less civilized, unsophisticated, or lagging behind when compared to the same paradigms of progress valued in urban centers. In the worst cases, they become sites of scandal, violence, or primitive unrest, lacking in education, and void of “culture” as defined by dominant intellectual classes (93-97). Both antithetical extremes marginalize and denigrate rural spaces by failing to capture the authenticity of rural life and labor.

In reality, such dichotomous narratives are mere fictions, “porque no se corresponde[n] con nuestro día a día, con nuestra existencia” (96). And while on the surface the idyllic portrayals may resemble well-intentioned attempts to shift perceptions of the Spanish countryside and its dispersed villages, for Sánchez they equally ignore and erase the realities of these spaces, causing their true needs to remain overlooked, discounted, and perpetually unfilled:

El medio rural y sus habitantes no necesitan que ninguna literatura los rescate. Necesitan que se los reconozca al fin, ocupar su espacio y recuperar su voz. Necesitan más que nunca que se afronten de verdad sus problemas y sus necesidades… Necesitan los mismos servicios a los que pueden acceder nuestros hermanos que viven en las ciudades… No necesitan paternalismos ni romanticismos, tampoco titulares que los siga definiendo como el hombre bruto que puebla nuestros campos. El medio rural quiere una mano que se abra para tenderle ayuda, no para usarlo una vez más como sitio de recreo o de escándalo. Como un bonito oasis que convertir en ficción. El campo no necesita que las ciudades lo hagan más atractivo. Ya lo es. Necesita reconocimiento y honestidad. Que los que miren aprendan a conocerlo de verdad, sin filtros ni imágenes ya prejuzgadas. (96-97)

To change these false narratives, created largely by visitors and outsiders, Sánchez brings women’s unheard voices and invisible labor into mainstream literary and feminist discourses. She not only contributes her own voice in the first half of her book, but throughout the second half she shares the stories of three generations of women in her own family: her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. In her truthful and reflective essay, Sánchez celebrates the provincial, domestic perspectives not only of rural communities, but of rural women. She lays bare the urgency of their demands for well-funded infrastructure, social services, and institutions, as well as similar forms of assistance to which residents of cities and more populated communities have access. Tierra de mujeres fuses Sánchez’s poetic and journalistic styles to create a singular literary work that, in a sense, echoes the diverse writings of Carmen de Burgos, who expressed her empathy through fiction and her advocacy through essays.

Carmen de Burgos, Beyond Madrid

While her work was censored under the Franco regime (1939-75), the prolific and versatile Carmen de Burgos has become – gradually and finally, two decades into the twenty-first century – a key voice in first-wave Spanish feminism and an essential name amidst writers of La Edad de Plata, La Generación del '98, and even the Avant-garde. Despite the fact that today’s scholars celebrate Burgos for her vast contributions to Madrid-based publications as a journalist, traveloguer, and prolific novelist (Kirkpatrick; Louis and Sharp; Johnson, “Carmen”), for her participation in and narrativization of urban life in the rapidly modernizing Spanish capital (Bender; Larson; Ugarte, Madrid), or for her complicated relationship to feminism and the mujer moderna (Bieder; Johnson, “Spanish”; Louis; Ugarte, “Carmen”), she nevertheless had a wide range of interests that went far beyond urban Madrid and its varied social, political, literary, artistic, and feminist movements and publications. Burgos in fact dedicated significant space within her creative and journalistic output to the people, places, and concerns of rural life, largely stemming from her own upbringing in rural Almería where she spent her first thirty years amidst the villages and mining towns of the Rodalquilar valley. She set several works of fiction in the Andalusian countryside surrounding Rodalquilar, and these short stories and novels appeared intermittently throughout her decades-long career in what Nuñez Rey terms a “gran ciclo novelesco…. [el] Ciclo de Rodalquilar” (26).[8] But rural life constituted more than a mere backdrop to Burgos’s fiction. She also penned articles and essays on the plights of rural workers, explicitly addressing women’s agricultural labor in her 1927 feminist treatise, La mujer moderna y sus derechos (133-40).

For this essay, I will discuss four newspaper articles centered on rural or agricultural themes that appeared over about thirty years, between 1903-31.[9] Much like the novelistic “Ciclo de Rodalquilar,” these texts bookend Burgos’s decades-long writing and activist career. Moreover, they exhibit representative features of her evolving feminist ideology, which several scholars have described as “beginning closer to difference feminism and ending closer to equality feminism” (Johnson, Major Concepts 162). Three were published early in her career: “La mujer agricultora” (1903, Diario Universal) appeared shortly after she arrived in the Spanish capital as a recently separated, single mother; “La mujer y la agricultura” was published a year later in a 1904 issue of the capital’s conservative ABC journal; and “La Granja-Escuela” appeared in 1905, again in the Diario Universal. Finally, “Escuelas de agricultura” was published outside of the Spanish capital in 1931 – only one year before Burgos’ death – in the Heraldo de Castellón, the most widely read periodical in Valencia’s northern Castellón province at the time of the Second Republic. These four concise essays touch upon issues that affected or had the potential to impact women in rural communities in terms of education (a central pillar of Burgos’ feminist thought), economic opportunity, and agency. This discussion will position Burgos as an important predecessor to Sánchez in the genealogy of Spanish feminist thought as it pertains to rural regions and the invisible, or unrecognized, female labor practices that sustain them and, by extension, the Spanish nation. I will synthesize three main themes from the four essays: rural education, the urban-rural divide, and women’s bodies.

To differing degrees, each essay reflects Burgos’s consistent view of education, or the eradication of ignorance, as “the key to empowering the individual and bringing about change” (Louis and Sharp 8). For Burgos, an accessible education for women was especially urgent, and the driving force behind “La mujer agricultora” (1903) is that Spain should promote and provide an agricultural education for women through dedicated institutes, just as England had done. Burgos admired the Swanley School of Horticulture in England, lauding the transformation of this once male-dominated institution into one in which women became the majority and exceeded men in their academic and vocational performances: “…después fueron admitidas las mujeres, que hoy forman la mayoría de la población escolar, y, pese a la vanidad masculina, trabajan mejor que los hombres y demuestran más aptitudes para los trabajos agrícolas” (148). Her advocacy for creating similar educational opportunities in Spain is apparent in “La Granja-Escuela” (1905), where she speaks of a fund-raising event at the botanical gardens organized by “las señoras de la Unión Ibero-Americana”: “A todas las anima un interés humanitario, un deseo de progreso y de cultura para nuestro sexo. Los fondos que se recauden han de ser dedicados a proyectos de trascendencia, entre los cuales se cuenta el de la creación de una Granja-Escuela para las mujeres” (159). Here, Burgos outlines a model for a residential boarding school outside of Madrid, to which female students would be admitted for a rigorous two-year education (or in three years they could become teachers themselves). The school would benefit the Spanish nation, not merely Madrid: “Las jóvenes que vinieran de provincias aprenderían en allá para difundir a su vez la educación y la cultura por sus distintas regiones, dedicándose a las industrias mas propias de cada una” (160). Burgos acknowledges the great cost and patience necessary for this project, which promised long-term rather than immediate benefits: “hay que trabajar con fe, sin hacer caso de los pesimistas” (160). But decades later, no such school had materialized, and her 1931 “Escuelas de agricultura” elaborates the success of English and Italian institutions in a subtle critique of Spanish policies. She pointedly remarks on the lack of progress in Spain, despite her own efforts to garner support for the education of women in agricultural schools (“Escuelas” 1318). As a fervent supporter of the Second Republic, Burgos finally placed her hope that the “problema agrario” would be resolved through a more democratic government’s support for rural education and the creation of specialized agricultural or horticultural schools (“Escuelas” 1318).[10]

The later publication date of “Escuelas de agricultura” is indicative of a certain evolution in Burgos’s “feminist” perception of women’s labor. In “Escuelas” she legitimizes rural work by connecting professional preparation to women’s abilities to perform domestic or agrarian tasks independently and for a salary. She again briefly refers to England’s Swanley School before praising the successful educational model of the first agricultural school for women in Italy’s Lombardy region (1317). Burgos first summarizes the Italian school’s structure, services, instructors, and pupils, emphasizing the dire need for similar institutions in rural Spanish communities, then connects this model to economic opportunity for women: “Se enseña la explotación de las pequeñas industrias, confeccionar los tejidos de lana y algodón y productos textiles, extraer el algodón… hacer las conservas…. preparar las comidas… fabricar el queso… todas las pequeñas industrias rurales y caseras, en las que no se desaprovecha nada” (“Escuelas” 1317). The ambiguous use of the word “industrias” suggests the possible transformation of women’s domestic skills and tasks into public-facing business opportunities premised on paid labor, which marks an economic shift in Burgos’s rationale if we compare her language twenty-five years earlier in “La Granja-Escuela.” There, Burgos implied that the goal of women’s agricultural education was to help them better manage their homes (“para saber dirigir su hogar”) (160), and she positioned female labor within the private sphere where it would implicitly remain unremunerated: “Se les enseñará prácticamente el gobierno de la casa, la manera de preparar la comida al uso de personas regularmente acomodadas, labores femeninas, corte y confección, conservación y cuidado de ropas, calzado, etc. Cosas todas importantes para la admiración de su hogar” (160). Thus her 1931 article reframes as valuable and economically impactful women’s knowledge and labor in rural domestic spaces. This struggle to recognize women’s domestic labor as worthy of compensation continues today, and in Tierra de mujeres Sánchez deplores the common view of rural female labor as mere “ayuda familiar” (73), an expected part of women’s largely nurturing, maternal roles, rather than as a means to economic stability or agency.[11] For Sánchez, the transformation of rural women’s unpaid labor and unequal status into sacrificial “virtues” has been, and continues to be, an immense and ongoing injustice (74), and it appears that Burgos began to recognize this disparity in her later writings.

Burgos’s arguments for improving rural education often hinge on the contrast between urban and rural environments, specifically as she challenges the preference for cities as exclusive sites of progress and opportunity.[12] In “La mujer agricultora” (1903) she argues that agricultural work promotes physical health and strength, while cities debilitate the body: “Se puede asegurar que los trabajos agrícolas son lo mejor y más sano de los ejercicios físicos, dan fuerza y salud a los cuerpos anémicos por la vida debilitante de las grandes ciudades” (146). She applauds female labor in the countryside for having the potential to save women from the vices of the cities and to prevent them from becoming “victims” of the factories’ poor working conditions (147).[13] She commends agricultural labor as healthier than both industrial work and intellectual endeavors, the latter of which is ironically her own dedication: “El trabajo agrícola favorece la salud del individuo más que los trabajos industriales y puramente intelectuales. Esto, que es verdad para el hombre, lo es también para la mujer; pero no todos lo aceptan” (147). Later, in “La mujer y la agricultura,” Burgos reproaches Spanish agricultural practices as primitive and lacking in technological advances[14] and insists that measures be taken to improve working conditions and the treatment of rural women in order to prevent their fleeing the countryside for the city: “Es preciso preocuparse con seriedad de mejorar su suerte, evitando que se disgusten de sus tareas y vengan a marchitar su lozanía en los talleres de las grandes poblaciones” (202). Correspondingly, Burgos laments the negative consequences of increasingly depopulated rural territories: “Las tierras sin cultivo, la agricultura sin adelantos y las ciudades llenas de luchadores que hacen difícil la adquisición de un empleo, o de mujeres que aumentan el número de las desgraciadas, esas fueron las consecuencias de la despoblación de los campos” (“La mujer y la agricultura” 201). This concern with the depopulation of the Spanish countryside is taken up by Sánchez today, and her critique of policies that exacerbate depopulation is particularly visible, as we have seen, in her preferred use of the phrase “España vaciada” (Sánchez, Tierra 83).[15] Echoing Burgos, Sánchez posits that depopulation is connected to the marginalization of rural women when she asks: “¿Y si el problema de la despoblación comenzó por la falta de atención y la constante discriminación hacia todas las mujeres de nuestros pueblos? Es tan obvia la respuesta que duele” (92). It is here that Burgos materializes as a first-wave feminist “fantasma” within Sánchez’s twenty-first-century world, offering an answer to her successor when she declares in the opening lines of “Escuelas de agricultura”: “Es preciso que no se piense solo en las mujeres de la ciudad” (1316). Placing Burgos and Sánchez in dialogue allows us to understand how their writing similarly challenges the policies and practices of modernity, as well as feminist activity, that prioritize urban centers and marginalize rural communities.

Finally, Burgos recognizes the physicality of agricultural labor and the demands it places on the female body. She insists, however, that women are more than capable of carrying out such tasks, going as far as to claim agriculture as “la primera ocupación femenina” (Burgos, “La mujer y la agricultora” 201). In “La mujer agricultora”, she asserts that societal perceptions of the female body’s capabilities are outdated and inaccurate, citing as evidence the bicycle, which symbolized both modern technologies and corporeal liberation: “Se dice que estos trabajos son demasiado fuertes para la mujer. Sin embargo, este argumento pierde fuerza desde que las mujeres aprenden a montar en bicicleta” (147).[16] In La mujer moderna y sus derechos (1927), Burgos returns to a sports analogy to debunk the myth that women are better suited for less physically demanding tasks. Defending women’s abilities to perform agricultural labor, she argues that women may in fact surpass non-working men or athletes when they practice strength-based movements: “Vemos a las mujeres del campo realizar trabajos que exigen gran fuerza, desempeñar las más rudas tareas agrícolas y cargar y descargar fardos en los puertos y las estaciones de caminos de hierro. Cultivando su fuerza la mujer llega hasta atleta de circo y las tenemos campeones de boxeo” (137). Despite this eventual praise for the beneficial effects of rural labor on women’s health, in Burgos’s early 1903-05 articles she admits that “those concerned with aesthetics” would resist educating women in agricultural labors for fear that they might lose their graceful figure and feminine charm: “Los estéticos son los que gritan más alto contra la mujer agricultora. Dicen que estos trabajos destruirían las líneas armoniosas de su cuerpo, altarían sus proporciones y la privarían de la gracia y el encanto” (Burgos, “La mujer y la agricultora” 147). She upholds this negative description of rural women’s appearances in “La mujer y la agricultura” – which we must recall appeared in the conservative ABC journal – when she romanticizes the female farmer who smiles and sings while toiling in the fields, despite her ongoing physical degradation: “Mientras su tez se tuesta, su juventud se agosta rápidamente, su cuerpo se encorva…” (202). Despite an apparent awareness of patriarchal critiques regarding women and agricultural labor, Burgos’s early articles make no attempt to contradict them, nor to celebrate non-traditional female bodies that displayed strong physical capabilities. As a result, in these essays she is unable to escape a difference-based feminist discourse that bows to popular perceptions of women’s weaker physical nature.

Burgos’s ambiguous comments regarding agricultural labor and its impact on female bodies serve as a perfect segue to the third and final part of this discussion: the examination of paintings by Maruja Mallo from the late 1920s through the 1930s. Unlike Burgos’s tentative recognition or reserved critique of non-traditional female physiques, we shall see how Mallo overtly celebrates corporeal transformations through audacious depictions of strong bodies that defy traditionally feminine aesthetics.

Maruja Mallo’s Rural Bodies

Born in Viveiro, Galicia, and later raised in Avilés, Asturias, Maruja Mallo arrived in Madrid with her family at the age of twenty, eager to begin her studies at the prestigious San Fernando Royal Academy of Fine Arts. She quickly became a prominent and rebellious female character amidst the 1920s Madrilenian stage of avant-garde artists and intellectuals, and Mangini has even referred to her as the fourth vertex of the renowned “triangle” of male artists comprised of Luis Buñuel, Salvador Dalí, and Federico García Lorca (Mangini, Las modernas 118–19). In the late 1920s Mallo gained recognition for her colorful series of Madrid street fairs, Las Verbenas (1927-29), which were followed by a darker and more ominous series of surrealist urban decay, Cloacas y campanarios (1930-32). In 1929 Mallo painted one of the most iconic paintings of an early twentieth-century Spanish woman: Mujer con cabra. Art historians and Hispanists alike have praised this portrait for its depiction of a physically strong woman moving freely and independently outside the confines of the traditional domestic sphere. Though it does not represent the same open expanse of Andalusian territory that informs Burgos’s and Sánchez’s work, Mallo’s rural Canary Islands setting for Mujer con cabra nevertheless complements both Burgos’ agricultural essays and Sánchez’s feminist manifesto against the “invisibilization” and “inferiorization” of rural women and their communities.

Mujer con cabra portrays two women whose open interaction with their surroundings communicates the vitality and tranquility of the countryside, in this case an idyllic island setting that would contrast starkly with the chaotic modernity of congested, polluted urban centers. In a sense, Mallo’s painting could serve as a prophetic illustration of Sánchez’s Tierra de mujeres in its quest not only to make rural Spanish women and their diverse labors visible, but to validate their stories within mainstream cultural productions and intellectual discourses that are still largely centered in Spain’s largest cities. To demonstrate this potential, I follow Eamon McCarthy’s analysis of Mujer con cabra, which astutely reframes this painting by focusing on the rural economy, rather than exclusively on the central, animated female figure who other critics have claimed is escaping the domestic sphere or migrating away from her traditional rural community (7-8). By centering the rural economy – which thus implicates both women in the painting, not merely the primary central figure outside the home – McCarthy understands Mallo’s work to celebrate and defend rural female labor in both the public and private spheres: “Mallo’s painting makes visible the fact that women were already working inside and outside the home at a time when discussions were taking place about their move into the workplace… [it] calls attention to women’s actual, but unrecognized, roles in the labour market” (8). McCarthy buttresses this convincing interpretation by citing Mallo’s later series, La religión del trabajo (Religion of Work) (1936-39), and Argentine artist Norah Borges’s drawings of campesinas, which demonstrate early twentieth-century women artists’ attention to and high valuation of rural life. Following McCarthy’s privileging of female labor and the rural economy – and considering the conversation this essay establishes between Mallo, Burgos, and Sánchez – Mallo’s paintings may serve as visualizations of the invisible female phantoms that Sánchez yearns to identify and incorporate into both her own personal narrative and broader contemporary discourses surrounding gender, politics, and history.

Yet Mujer con cabra is only one painting from Mallo’s vast oeuvre that gives visibility to rural life and female labor in a way that neither idealizes nor fictionalizes the country space or its people. It is especially relevant that by 1932 Mallo had “abandoned all urban themes… as she sought inspiration in the countryside” (Mangini, Maruja 122). Gone were the busy and colorful representations of Madrid’s street festivals and urban entertainment that she captured in her Verbenas, as well as the adulation of modern sports, cinema, and technology in her avant-garde Estampas (1920s). In their place appeared minerals, fruits, vegetation, windmills, barns, farmhouses, and assorted farm structures in series entitled Arquitecturas minerales y vegetales (1932) and Construcciones rurales y edificaciones campesinas (1933). Curiously, Mangini observes that it is precisely at this time when critics and the press began to pay significantly less attention to Mallo’s new rural-centric works and preferred instead to magnify her earlier avant-garde persona, surrealist scenes, and portraits of urban dynamism (Mangini, Maruja 122). Throughout the 1930s, Mallo would pay homage to the agricultural labor of coastal Galicia and rural Castilla, particularly in the monumental paintings belonging to her 1936-39 series, La religión del trabajo, which she began in Spain and completed in exile in Argentina.

In two of this series’ most celebrated paintings, Canto de espigas and Sorpresa del trigo (both completed in 1936), grandiose, robust, and physically strong women are the central focus. In both form and style, these imposing female figures recall stone sculptures or marble busts, as their physical representation is limited to their upper bodies – chest, shoulders, faces – alongside their somewhat disconnected hands. In the golden-toned Canto de espigas, three such women symmetrically occupy the wide canvas, their stoic expressions and extended, open hands surrounded by luminous sprigs of wheat; in Sorpresa del trigo, a single, monumental woman gazes intently into the distance as wheat sprouts spring upwards from her fingertips. While certainly avant-garde in their novelty, Mallo neither idealizes, sexualizes, nor radically fragments these female subjects, a quality that stands in contrast to early twentieth-century aesthetics common in male-dominated avant-garde movements like futurism, cubism, or especially surrealism (see Caballero Guïral). Instead, Mallo’s portrayals pay tribute to precisely those qualities that make her female figures unlike the muses of avant-garde visual art or the flapper-esque mujer moderna of cities like Madrid or Barcelona. Her women exude strength and potency, drawn with straight, geometric lines that replace the soft curves that even Burgos had associated with traditional femininity. Although unadorned and depicted in muted earth-toned palettes, these women demand attention and defiantly take up space, both in terms of their dimensions on over-sized canvases and within (or from) the vacant backdrops that evoke campestral Spanish landscapes. Mallo’s Canto de espigas and Sorpresa del trigo enshrine confident rural women in art, thus making visible their integral connection to the land whose crops spring forth from, or depend on, their labors, their hands, and ultimately their bodies.

Importantly, Mallo’s Religion of Work series not only features Spain’s wheat fields and agricultural labor, but also its coastal regions and working-class seaports.[17] Several paintings document the seaside labors of men and women, though women feature more prominently. La red (1938) boasts two robust, athletic women whose bodies, from head to toe, occupy the entirety of the canvas as they jointly support a massive fishing net. Mensaje del mar (1938) echoes the agrarian Canto de espigas from the previous year, portraying two women from the shoulders up, their extended hands reaching skywards while bearing a coastal “harvest” of tiny fish; they are adorned with a fishing net in a veil-like position above their heads. Arquitectura humana (1937) displays perhaps the most androgynous human figure of the series, as the geometric bust defies a clear gender classification, although the fishing net again rests upon the head as if it were a veil, recalling a nun’s habit or popular depictions of the Virgin Mary. Despite “androgynous” appearing as a favorite adjective in studies of these and other human subjects in Mallo’s paintings, it is noteworthy that in the Religion of Work series there are subtle or symbolic elements that suggest femininity or the female form, whereas even hints of masculinity are absent. Gluzman identifies this series’ dependency on the interwoven discourses of domestic labor and nourishment, both commonly associated with femininity and the nurturing figure of women, and points to an empowering interpretation: “Son cuerpos geometrizados, robustos y con fuertes manos, que enfatizan la agencia de estos sujetos ideales. Las figuras femeninas aparecen imbuidas de otra modernidad: aquella vinculada al cambio y a la regeneración social” (9). The reference to “another” modernity is reflective of feminist critiques of modernism and modernity for their privileging of male-dominated, urban public spaces as exclusive sites of progress, freedom, and opportunity.[18]

When evaluating the innovative, mural-like representations of female laborers gracing the Religion of Work canvases, we must recognize that Mallo understood the power that such majestic rural figures might exude within the cultural spaces of modernity associated with high art and intellectual advancement. In 1939, for example, Mallo elaborated her artistic philosophy in Lo popular en la plástica española a través de mi obra 1928-1936, a text that Mangini describes as an “artistic autobiography” (Mangini, “From” 90). Mallo describes Sorpresa de trigo, the first in the Religion of Work series, as a “prólogo de mi labor sobre los trabajadores de mar y tierra” (40). She considers it a politically and socially compromised visual text, evidenced by her militant tone of struggle and advocacy: “El trigo, vegetal universal, símbolo de la lucha, mito terrenal. Manifestación de creencia que surge de la severidad y la gracia de las dos Castillas, de mi fe materialista en el triunfo de los peces, en el reinado de la espiga” (40). Like Burgos and Sánchez, Mallo rejects as false the modern urban-rural dichotomy, instead identifying a relationship of mutual dependency in which the rural regions are powerful contributors to the sustained growth of cities: “Pueblos de España dominadores de mar, tierra y aire, héroes en la naturaleza, edificadores de ciudades” (37). The notion that rural territories are “heroically” responsible for and essential to the much-extolled progress represented by cities is a clear predecessor to Sánchez, who states clearly: “Estoy cansada de enfrentar el medio rural al urbano. Nos necesitamos mutuamente y de la confrontación no nace nada bueno… Nuestro campo, sus habitantes y sus elementos, son un patrimonio infinito” (Sánchez, Tierra 111). Mallo, for her part, credited both the land and the laboring hands that maintain it with making possible the intellectual and industrial life of cities:

Campos agostados y deshechos por las heladas donde el pan, el vino, el aceite, se desborda hasta las ciudades, se extiende hasta el mar. Las espigas brotan palpitantes por la mano del hombre, los viñedos estallan por todas partes por el año del hombre, los olivos invaden los espacios por la mano del hombre; manos que tejen, modelan, construyen: heroicas en la naturaleza, edificadoras de ciudades. (37)

Mallo’s visual celebration of rural women and their labor brings to life those otherwise invisible or ghostly campesinas – their strong and non-traditional bodies now occupying an enduring place within Spanish art – and makes both their bodies and contributions visible within Spain’s cultural history and to contemporary Spanish feminists like Sánchez.


Each of these three feminist women comes from rural regions of the Spanish nation. The early twentieth-century Carmen de Burgos and Maruja Mallo obtained opportunity, agency, and a degree of freedom by moving to the bustling, modern Spanish capital from less populated, traditional rural communities in Andalucía and Galicia respectively. For the millennial Sánchez, however, the urban/rural dichotomy has become a division fraught with tension. Crucially, the sudden and unexpected onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in early 2020 has revealed that rural lifestyles and practices long relegated to the margins of contemporary political, social, and cultural discourses on modern progress – such as traditional, non-industrial agricultural practices; domestic labors like gardening, small-scale food cultivation, or food preparation and storage; close-knit, almost familial communities – are not only more essential than ever to our collective (post)modern existence, but in some ways preferable to those purported improvements brought about by mechanized or large-scale industrial business practices. Sánchez noted this irony in Tierra de mujeres, even before the pandemic: “Es curioso que, en nuestras ciudades, cada día surgen y crecen más colectivos que buscan como fin la comunidad… No queremos ciudades frías, queremos comunidades” (70-71). And in May of 2020, as lockdowns began to end, she rhetorically asked: “¿Ha tenido que venir un virus para que te preocupes por cómo se llama el vecino de enfrente?” (Sánchez, María Sánchez, veterinaria). Yet Sánchez resists and resents the tendency to further idealize rural areas, particularly in this current moment of crisis. Idealizing or attempting to make Spanish pueblos fashionable by appealing to city-dwellers only erases and obscures the true needs of rural communities and the ongoing challenges they face related to infrastructure, social services, and support for small businesses (Sánchez, María Sánchez, veterinaria). All these issues are identified and discussed at length in Tierra de mujeres.

In the end, by juxtaposing Mallo’s agricultural-themed paintings with Burgos’s and Sánchez’s meditations on women in rural Spain, we may more effectively contextualize and expand the scope of Spanish women’s perceptions of female labor, both in the pre-Civil War era and into the present day. Moreover, twenty-first-century Spanish women may strengthen their current feminist consciousness by articulating a shared history that might legitimize rural women’s place within contemporary feminism and invigorate their quest for political recognition and social supports befitting of non-urban lifestyles. Just as Carmen de Burgos recognized the need to educate rural women and support their communities amidst the increasing development and prioritization of urban centers, and as Maruja Mallo began to stray from her celebration of urban life to cultivate more thoughtful representations of rural traditions, agricultural labor, and the female body, so too does María Sánchez continue their trajectory. Tierra de mujeres makes visible and praises the unique capacities and essential contributions of rural Spanish women and their life-sustaining labor. As this article has demonstrated, a mainstream feminist defense of rural spaces – spaces that are not empty, but in fact replete with ancestral knowledge, valuable agricultural and horticultural practices, and female domestic and agrarian labor that nourishes Spanish society as a whole – is indeed long overdue.

  1. See Catherine Davies’ study for a four-part division of twentieth-century Spanish feminist writing. Johnson summarized her divisions as follows. First, the period of 1900-30, which encompasses the Restoration, Primo Rivera dictatorship, and post-World War I era of increasing feminist consciousness and women’s participation in the workplace. Second is the (near) decade of legal, social, and political gains made under the Second Republic (1931-39), which were later lost under the third phase, the Francoist dictatorship (1939-75). Finally, during the transition to democracy (1975-1990), women once again gained equality before the law (Johnson, Major Concepts 16–17).

  2. With the increasing population of urban centers, Deborah Parsons observes that “in classic accounts of urban modernity, the city is the site where the maelstrom of social, technological, and psychological change is felt most keenly” (3). In terms of Spanish cities as sites of modernity and progress, the period from 1900-36 was characterized by the acceleration of urban growth and socioeconomic transformation resulting from the Second Industrial Revolution, the rise of consumerism and mass culture, and the aftermath of World War I (Otero Carvajal 255-56). Madrid’s population increased from about 400,000 by the late 1870s, to 600,000 by 1910 (Parsons 58), then to a booming 750,896 by 1920 (Fernández García 52–53). See Álvaro Soto Carmona for the precise demographic changes and decades-long modifications in labor markets and the workforce that led Spain from being a distinctly agrarian country in 1830 to one in which industry and service were the majority by 1930 (46-57; 188-89). In terms of cultural influence, in the early 20th-century, more than 70% of Spain’s intellectual production (official educational and scientific institutions, newspapers, publishing houses, and presses) was located in Madrid, the “cultural capital” (Otero Carvajal 265-69). The city’s explosive growth and modernization made it a powerful site in which capital accumulated and social, political, and cultural norms were established (Larson 31). Nevertheless, Parsons describes the Spanish capital as a paradoxical “castizo metropolis,” arguing that it differed from the “norm” defined by major European cities like London and Paris and had more in common with Mediterranean urban centers like Naples (1-12). See Larson for a discussion of the unique circumstances of Spanish modernity (20-23).

  3. Sánchez’s experience is not uncommon, as the invisibility of female labor and lack of recognition for women’s work has characterized nearly all strata of Spanish society throughout much of the twentieth century. However, it is especially pervasive in the marginal spaces of rural Spain where “the very notion of work, especially as it relates to women, is difficulty to define, because the nonpaid work women do in the household or in the fields often does not count in statistical tables” (Johnson, Major Concepts 117).

  4. Sánchez recognizes her own privilege, acknowledging that immigrant and migrant workers are in fact triply marginalized in these same contexts (Sánchez, Tierra 79).

  5. Tierra de mujeres opens with an Introduction (Una narrativa invisible), then moves on to Part I, which contains five chapters dedicated to broader issues related to the rural Spanish countryside, agricultural labor, and the increasing visibility of feminist movements in Spain. Part II contains four introspective chapters pertaining to three specific women in Sánchez’s family: her great-grandmother, grandmother, and mother.

  6. As a confirmation of Sánchez’s suspicion, even Silvia Bermúdez’s and Roberta Johnson’s excellent new volume, A New History of Iberian Feminisms (2018), contains no key terms for agricultural labor or rural communities in its index (though brief mention is made of women’s visible participation in the agricultural fields of Galicia and Asturias at the turn of the twentieth-century, 228-29). Johnson’s chapters on Work and Social Class in Major Concepts in Spanish Feminist Theory similarly make only passing references to women’s rural or agricultural labor, including of Rosario Acuña’s 1885 articles on women of the countryside (95-96) and the late nineteenth-century valorization of female labor in the coastal regions and farmlands of Galicia and Asturias (119-20).

  7. Sánchez’s present-day complaint recalls Raymond Williams’s identification of modern literature’s divide between the idyllic “country” and the corrupting “city”, a binary that obscures the complexities, diverse histories, and interdependence of these settings. The depiction of a stark urban/rural divide was exacerbated by Romantic literature, music, and visual arts, from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, that “discovered the countryside and its vernacular” as a “locus of resistance to the socio-cultural transformations put in motion by industrialization and rapid urbanization” (Lejeune 13). In one specific Spanish example, the idealization of the countryside as “authentic” and free of modernity’s corrupting influences was evident in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century regional zarzuelas that portrayed rural spaces as “stronghold[s] of national character” (Soria 56–57).

  8. A rural Almerian setting is the locus of one of Burgos’s final narratives, "Puñal de claveles (1931). Like Federico García Lorca’s acclaimed Bodas de sangre, penned the following year and premiering at a Madrid theater in 1933, Burgos’s tale is based on the real 1928 “Crimen de Níjar,” in which a young woman leaves her fiancé at the altar to elope with her cousin, who is promptly killed by the families of the abandoned groom and defiant bride.

  9. These essays can be found in Concepción Nuñez-Rey’s exceptional two-volume compilation of Carmen de Burgos’ short articles and newspaper publications, most of which had previously only been accessible in archives.

  10. Burgos states: “Hace algunos años yo propuse la creación de una Granja Agrícola a la Unión Ibero-Americana y acogido con benevolencia por sus inteligentes representantes, se trabajó para llevar a la práctica el proyecto que no se llegó a realizar… Ahora que una República democrática se preocupa de resolver el problema agrario, creemos que no se debe olvidar la creación de las escuelas de agricultura en todos los distritos rurales” (Burgos, “Escuelas” 1318).

  11. Sánchez elaborates this trivialization of rural women’s domestic labor: “Las mujeres de nuestro medio rural siempre han estado ahí, trabajando en el campo, una tarea que se encadenaba, como una extensión, a todas las labores domésticas que ya de por si realizan. Una injusta asignación del rol productivo que se da siempre de por sí como tal, en la familia. Ese trabajo de ellas con sus parejas en el campo – escribo ‘trabajo’ y no ‘ayuda’ porque estoy cansada de perpetuar esta desigualdad – nunca ha sido valorado como tal y siempre han aparecido, reducidas, como si no significaran nada, a la categoría de ‘ayuda familiar’” (73). Sánchez’s language (“family help”) again echoes that of feminist rural studies scholars (see Little’s “farm wives”, 367) who critique the absence of women and their labor from public records, statistics, and histories.

  12. Although Burgos herself had and would benefit from the opportunities that Madrid’s bustling cultural center offered her, she was aware of the many ways in which the city was a debilitating, even violent force. This was especially true for inexperienced, single women without economic stability or family connections. In fact, Burgos’s well-known novel, La rampa (1917), is a testament to those women for whom the city’s exciting promises of employment and freedom proved illusory (see Bender; Larson; Ugarte, Madrid).

  13. Burgos’s references recall the tobacco or cigar factories of cities like Madrid, Sevilla, and Bilbao that, despite providing well-paid manual labor for working-class women (las cigarreras), required long hours, offered little respite, and came with significant health concerns from the crowded, enclosed, and dirty interior spaces (Scanlon 85–86).

  14. Burgos describes Spain’s lag: “Entre nosotros la agricultura está muy atrasada, los procedimientos primitivos y el arado fenicio siguen usándose en muchas provincias” (Burgos, “La mujer y la agricultora” 202).

  15. Sánchez’s preferred adjective, “vaciada,” implicates long-standing forces and processes that have actively vacated these regions and reduced, but not eliminated, their populations; “España vacía,” the phrase popularized by Molino in 2016, suggests a more static image of absence and nothingness

  16. While Burgos’s reference may seem frivolous today, the bicycle as a symbol of modern female agency and liberated corporeal movement – which had potentially scandalous or erotic implications – was in line with early twentieth-century anxieties regarding women’s increasing presence and mobility within public spaces (Zubiaurre 223–25). Mallo and the poet Concha Méndez were frequently seen riding bicycles in Madrid (235) and Mallo even depicted a somewhat androgynous, muscular version of Méndez riding her bicycle in an untitled Estampa (1926-28). Mallo labels this piece “Figura de deporte” (16), though today it is sometimes referred to as “The Female Cyclist” (Mangini, “Gendered” 156).

  17. While the earliest paintings depict wheat fields and agriculture, the series actually began with Mallo sketching fishermen and their tackle in the ports surrounding Vigo in 1936 (Mangini, “From” 88).

  18. Rita Felski discusses modernity’s complex relationship to femininity that challenges single, unified ideologies presented through autonomous male subjects (2-8). Janet Wolff critiques the literature of modernity for its privileging of male experiences in the public sphere and its omission of female experiences in the private sphere (44-45). Bender offers a contextualized summary of early twentieth-century Madrid and the gendered public and private spaces of Burgos’s 1917 novel La rampa (131-32).