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Spain's feminist secret: the backlash against religious authoritarianism & the Almodóvar effect

Updated: Apr 23, 2021

Female employment and political representation have skyrocketed in Iberia. Spain pioneered the world's first female-majority cabinet. Italy lags behind, notwithstanding similar economies, climate, legacies of latifundia, and Catholic heritage.

What is Spain's feminist secret?

Economic growth?

Female employment always rises in response to economic opportunities. In Spain and Italy alike, female employment is much higher in prosperous regions, where there is stronger demand for labour and lower unemployment.

But Spain is no richer than Italy. So the country divergence does not seem due to economics.


In societies with high rates of endogamy, women's sexuality and mobility are closely policed. Families fortify bonds of kinship through marriage, and limit women's interactions with outsiders. This makes female labour supply less responsive to labour demand. So even if two societies have similar rates of growth, endogamy curbs female employment.

But Spain and Italy have similar rates of cousin marriage. Household structure is also comparable, notwithstanding subnational variation. Their traditional cultures are alike.


Immigration to Spain surged post-2000. Domestic workers from former colonies have enabled university-educated Spanish women to focus on their careers - find Farré, Gonzalez and Ortega. This underscores the importance of affordable care.

But immigration cannot provide a full explanation of the southern European divergence. Female employment, political representation and feminist activism were rising long before the recent wave of immigration. Portugal has less immigration, but has made similar strides towards gender equality.


The Catholic Church has historically proscribed divorce and abortion. Those who sin against God's will are condemned to Hell: eternal damnation. Spanish Catholics generally believe that women are the weaker sex, necessitating protective paternalism.

Religiosity reinforces gender inequalities through internalised ideologies and norm perceptions. Internalised ideologies are the beliefs that one personally endorses. Norm perceptions are beliefs about what others in the community support or abhor. If people observe widespread compliance, they may infer broad support, and so conform so as to maintain social respect. Even if a woman wants a divorce, she may be reluctant due to expectations of social condemnation.

General Franco entering the Sanctuary of the Virgin del Camino in Leon

The Catholic Church enjoyed elevated influence under right-wing fascism in Spain and Portugal. Faith was publicly paraded. 'God's will' was legally entrenched. Contraceptives were banned. A Spanish woman was not allowed to get a job, own property, or travel away from home without her husband's permission. Divorce was outlawed, notwithstanding public support. This is consistent with a wider trend documented by Htun and Weldon: sexist family laws endure in countries with politically institutionalised religion.

Under religious authoritarianism, privately critical individuals may have underestimated resistance. Widespread anticipation of social sanction may help explain why female employment remained low, impervious to the demand generated by Spain's economic miracle.

The backlash against religious authoritarianism

The best explanation for Iberia’s feminist advantage is that fascist regimes in Spain and Portugal survived into the 1970s. The discrediting of fascism then went hand in hand with the backlash against religious conservatism. When Spain and Portugal finally achieved democracy, there was a counter-cultural unleashing of social freedoms.

The Catholic Church became tarred by its affiliation with brutal, repressive regimes. Congregation rates plummeted and bishops lost legitimacy. As an anticlerical chant goes:

La iglesia es un comercio The church is a business,

el cura un comerciante. the priest a businessman.

Al toque de la campana The ringing of the bells

acuden los ignorantes. calls out the ignorants.

After the downfall of right-wing dictatorships, political parties sought to separate Church and State. Portugal and Spain's new constitutions (1976 and 1978) de-institionalised religion. Clergy became powerless to oppose the legalisation of abortion and divorce.

Most Spaniards identify as 'Catholic' but seldom go to mass or abide by dogma. Once powerful churches have emptied. Religious parties no longer command support. Secularism has increased in other European countries, along with economic development, university education, and urbanisation. But this process of secularisation has been especially intense in Iberia. Clergy and religious parties were delegitimised by their association with Franco.

Poland and Italy are secularising more slowly. Priests have not been delegitimised by associations with right-wing authoritarianism. In Poland, the Church was vital to anti-communist resistance. Italy's religious parties have maintained popular support, entrenching the centre-right.

As Iberians rebelled against authoritarian religion, young people embraced alternatives.
Film, music, art, and parties defied conservative mores - la movida madrileña.
This wasn't just a 'wild party'. Iberians had been repressed for four decades. Now that pent-up energy could be released! Widespread, public defiance of repressive patriarchal strictures emboldened further defiance.

Almodovar’s sexually subversive black comedies captured and catalysed this counter-cultural backlash. "The moral of all my films is to get to a stage of greater freedom", remarked the film-maker. The Almodovar effect – the breaking of taboos - accelerated progress towards gender and sexual liberation.

Spain's cultural transformation is consistent with a broader trend. Development, democratisation, and secularisation have advanced gender equality across the world. As women gain qualifications and bear fewer children, they become increasingly responsive to labour market opportunities. This relationship is universal, but it is weaker in societies that privilege female seclusion. Religious authoritarianism in Iberia condemned and suppressed female employment. Once this obstacle was removed, Iberian women seized job opportunities, pursued careers, mobilised for their rights, and became emboldened by a culture of resistance.

Socially democratic Spanish governments have iteratively promoted gender and sexual equality. In 2018, Spain pioneered the world's first female-majority cabinet. Men are now entitled to 16 weeks paid paternal leave. Family-friendly legislation nurtures greater progress towards gender equality. Iberia leapfrogged over its Catholic peers.

Spain's feminist secret is rebellion against authoritarian religion.

Update: Professor Libertad González has written a reply at Nada es Gratis. She shows that although women's employment and relative earnings have increased, religious conservativism persists and women are saddled with housework.

Women's Day March in Madrid, 2019
The world's first majority-female cabinet

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