Barcelona elected a feminist government. Here’s what happened next.

Why We Wrote This

Gender equality and women's rights are a topic of debate around the world today. In Barcelona, Spain, citizens have been trying a new tack on the issue: Does feminist government mean better government?

Emilio Morenatti/AP
Women shout slogans as they march during the International Women's Day in Barcelona, Spain, on March 8.

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The city of Barcelona is known for its feminist history, going back to the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), when female Republicans fought alongside men on the battlefield. Today the city government, led by Mayor Ada Colau and made up entirely of feminists, adheres to a visible feminist policy.

Nightclub bouncers have been trained to identify sexual harassment and act on it, and most bars in the city display information about how to proceed in case of gender violence. Every new project of urban planning takes gender perspective into consideration. All the companies that work with the city council are obliged to implement a plan for gender equality, including protocols against sexual harassment and avoiding sexist communication.

But critics warn that such efforts are too focused on surface gestures rather than substance. “If you change all the children’s books, women’s lives won’t improve,” says Victor Lenore, a journalist, referring to a school’s plan to cut out fairy tales they consider sexist. “They’re focusing on symbolic things, instead of concentrating on improving the workplace or demanding more free time to be with family and friends.”

When Esperanza Escribano complained on Twitter about harassment by a garbage truck driver in Barcelona, she got a reply from the local administration within minutes, asking her about the street and time of the incident and assuring her it wouldn’t happen again.

“Something changed on a symbolic level, but that in itself is really important. When I got the message, I felt much safer,” says Ms. Escribano, a journalist living in Barcelona.

In the past four years, the local government of Barcelona, led by Mayor Ada Colau, has put forward a strategy for the “feminization of politics” that tries to “incorporate the gender perspective in every area of politics and society,” as the city council website describes it. That has meant visible changes in how the city portrays gender roles, responds to sexual harassment and violence, and supports its female population. And Barcelona’s changes have been at the forefront of a deeper shift happening below the surface across Spain.

But the feminist movement in Barcelona has its critics too, and not just in “traditionalist” ranks like the ultranationalist Vox party, which entered the national parliament for the first time ever in Spain’s general election on April 28 in part on a reactionary anti-feminist platform. Some who consider themselves feminists say that the movement in Spain goes too far with symbolic gestures and reforms for the privileged and needs to do more to accommodate freedom of expression and facilitate more profound changes.

Juan Soto Ivars, an author, believes that when it comes to debating feminism, Spain is facing a “cultural war” where “there is no middle ground.” But he warns that some of the elements of the feminist movement may be fueling the response of groups like Vox.

“Women have to deal with issues men don’t have to deal with. That’s why I am a feminist,” he says. “But I am against the type of feminism that seeks to censor classic children’s books or to silence comedians or opinion writers. I am against anything that curbs freedom of expression.”

Urban planning with gender perspective

The city of Barcelona is known for its feminist history, going back to the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), when female Republicans fought alongside men on the battlefield. Despite dictator Francisco Franco’s strong repression of Catalonia after the Nationalists’ victory, women in the region began organizing and formed alliances, which paved the way for a full-blown Catalan feminist movement, one of the strongest in Europe at the time Franco died in 1975. The feminist movement in Barcelona has remained strong ever since.

Ana Prata, an expert in feminism and social movements at California State University, Northridge, believes the institutionalization of feminism in Barcelona should also be attributed to Catalonia’s demands for increased autonomy and a clearer sense of identity, which accelerated in the last few years and is closely related to the independence movement.

Emilio Morenatti/AP/File
Ada Colau raises her baton after having been elected mayor in Barcelona, Spain, in June 2015.

“The city of Barcelona in particular, and Catalonia in general, are interested in showcasing their own specific identity, experiences, and ways of organizing themselves,” says Dr. Prata.

When Ms. Colau was sworn into office in 2015, all members of her newly appointed government declared themselves feminists, a first in Spain. And the city government’s focus on feminization is visible today.

Billboards marking St. George’s Day, on April 23, no longer display the patron saint of Catalonia protecting the princess from the dragon. A school in Barcelona recently decided to remove the legend of St. George from the school library’s shelves along with 200 other children’s books that the school considers sexist and toxic, such as “Sleeping Beauty” and “Little Red Riding Hood.”

In Barcelona, nightclub bouncers have been trained to identify sexual harassment and act on it. Most bars in the city display information about how to proceed in case of gender violence, assuring women that they can and should complain.

Across the city, public illumination was improved in most neighborhoods to increase safety, and every new project of urban planning takes gender perspective and the role of women as caretakers into consideration. The improvements on public transportation were implemented with mobility issues in mind, which, according to the Barcelona City Council, affect women more than men.

Furthermore, the local government created a department to deal with the child and elder care economy. And all the companies that work with the city council are obliged to implement a plan for gender equality that includes adopting a protocol against sexual harassment and inclusive communication that fights against sexist communication.

Marta Cruells, a feminist political scientist and head of the cabinet of the Feminism and LGBTI Department of the Barcelona City Council, says that the feminist local government of Barcelona wasn’t afraid of “putting emotions and affects at the center of politics, opting for a way of doing politics which is traditionally linked to a more female way of being in the world.”

A Spanish issue

Barcelona’s feminist shift comes as Spain’s reputation as a sexist country is changing. A poll published by the Spanish online magazine CTXT last November showed 58% of women and 46% of men in Spain identify as feminists.

The trigger that brought the feminist dynamic to the surface, experts say, was the not guilty verdict against five men charged with gang rape of an 18-year-old woman during the running of the bulls festival in Pamplona. A national outcry followed both the 2016 attack and the 2018 verdict that found them guilty only of a lesser offense of sexual abuse against the teenager. Protests and a serious debate around women’s rights and an institutional culture of misogyny in Spanish society ensued.

The April 28 election was focused to a great extent on feminism. The center-left Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party (PSOE), which led the previous government in which women headed 11 of the 17 ministries, won about 29% of the vote behind a pro-women platform. The PSOE’s long-time rival, the conservative Popular Party, took almost 17%, halving its seats in parliament. Its leader had toyed with rolling back Spain’s 2010 legalization of abortion to allow terminations only in cases of rape, a risk to the mother’s health, and fetal deformities.

Vox, meanwhile, won 10% of the vote on a vociferously anti-feminist line. Since entering the Spanish political scene, Vox has denounced what it calls “gender jihadism,” called on protests against “supremacist feminism,” and asked for the reopening of the abortion debate. A recent poll found 44% of Spaniards believe the current gender violence legislation can be harmful to men. The far-right party has claimed without evidence that 87% of gender-violence accusations have been dropped, suggesting they were false accusations. Spanish government data indicates that only 0.01% of accusations are false.

‘Feminism lacks a solid organization’

Mr. Ivars, the author, argues that censorship is fueling the far-right in Spain, since some men are turning to Vox to express their resentment. “Mainstream politicians in Spain are afraid to be called sexists, which means some issues have become a taboo. Everyone knows the gender violence legislation leads to a lot of false accusations, but only Vox talks about it. Some men, even left-wing voters, have had enough of that censorship and are turning to Vox,” he says.

Victor Lenore, a journalist who identifies with the left, says that many feminists focused too much on surface gestures rather than real change. “If you change all the children’s books, women’s lives won’t improve. They’re focusing on symbolic things instead of concentrating on improving the workplace or demanding more free time to be with family and friends,” he says.

Mr. Lenore also believes the anti-feminist backlash Spain is now experiencing could have been avoided. “We saw the backlash coming because it’s happening in other countries, but we were not smart enough to understand big demonstrations don’t mean the far-right will be stopped,” he says. “Feminism is very popular in Spain right now, but its roots aren’t so deep. It’s explosive, but it lacks a solid organization. A lot of people show up for the demonstrations, but not as many show up for the day-to-day work.”

Some women living in Barcelona seem to agree with Mr. Lenore. Not all are happy about the feminist efforts of the local government, but for some it’s because they don’t believe the transformation went as far as it should have.

Daniela Ortiz is a mixed-race Peruvian artist who has been living in Barcelona for 11 years. She credits the gender parity regulations put in place by Mayor Colau’s government for invitations to take part in cultural events in the city. But she believes feminism in Barcelona is falling short of the opportunity to transform the patriarchal system.

“White feminists reduce all gender violence to the violence practiced by men and completely ignore institutionalized racist violence, which is also a symptom of the patriarchal structure they criticize,” Ms. Ortiz says, drawing on her own experience of dealing with Spain’s bureaucracy to get a residence permit for her son born in Barcelona. “These women focus mostly on breastfeeding rights and polyamory and are totally oblivious to the racism immigrants experience in public institutions.”

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