Sex and Society in Early Twentieth-Century Spain: Hildegart Rodríguez and the World League for Sexual Reform

Sex and Society in Early Twentieth-Century Spain: Hildegart Rodríguez and the World League for Sexual Reform

by Alison Sinclair

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The book traces how Hildegart’s conception, life and early death can be mapped in uncanny manner onto the rise, organization and decline of the Sexual Reform movement in Spain. Conceived deliberately in 1914 as a ‘eugenic’ child (at a date when writing on eugenics was well under way in both England and Spain), Hildegart received her early education


The book traces how Hildegart’s conception, life and early death can be mapped in uncanny manner onto the rise, organization and decline of the Sexual Reform movement in Spain. Conceived deliberately in 1914 as a ‘eugenic’ child (at a date when writing on eugenics was well under way in both England and Spain), Hildegart received her early education from her mother who in her turn had received her own from her father’s library, rich in works of utopian socialism. Subsequently and formally, Hildegart’s education through the 1920s coincided with a period in Spain when writing on eugenics and sex reform became particularly intense. It encompassed both law and medicine (favoured disciplines for those involved in the sex reform movement), and her teens provided a social education within the meetings and publications of the Campaña Sanitaria of Navarro Fernández in the 1920s. Hildegart’s own rise to a position of prominence in the world of eugenics and sex reform undoubtedly relates to her concentrated and impressive publishing activity from 1930 onwards, at a time when writings of others involved in sex reform equally reached heightened activity. The coming of the Second Republic in 1931 further facilitated this publishing activity, and made possible the organization of the Spanish chapter of the WLSR in Spain (the Liga Mundial Para la Reforma Sexual) in March 1932 with Gregorio Marañón as its President, and the youthful Hildegart (age 17) as its Secretary. The Liga gathered together the groupings of hygienists, eugenicists, lawyers and educational reformers who were already part of a wider international scene, and who had been promoting ideas of eugenics and sexual reform in Spain for some time, and particularly through the 1920s. Little more than a year after the Liga was founded Hildegart was killed by her mother, Aurora Rodríguez. It is hard to assert that this shocking event caused the death of the Liga. Nonetheless the movement in Spain seems not to have survived in coherent manner beyond 1933, although individual members continued to be active in various ways. More widely through Europe the WLSR lasted through the 1930s, although its continuity through other organizations until a later date is still insufficiently researched. In the background to the activity leading up to the founding of the Liga there is Hildegart’s correspondence with Havelock Ellis. She wrote to him to seek his advice on setting it up. The correspondence was far more than a simple request for advice, and it lasted until Hildegart’s death. It includes her record of the foundation meeting of the Liga with details of discussion of the ten planks of belief of the WLSR, and reveals the inbuilt power-struggles between professional factions in the organisation. Both the foundation document and the letters require careful interpretation. The foundation document reveals dissension within the Liga at the same time as it shows Hildegart’s energetic efforts to assert her own position within it. The letters themselves tell us much about Spanish sexual politics. But at the same time, and even more strikingly, they are full of Hildegart’s character: her style moves between business-like discussion, an endearing and ingenuous flirtatious manner, distress, and even paranoia. Above all the letters reveal a side of this youthful sexual reformer never documented elsewhere, and their extraordinary discursive nature encapsulates the paradoxes and conflicts in Spain at the time relating to thoughts on sexuality and reform. The correspondence with Ellis is moreover a text with a dramatic subtext, in that it allows us to glimpse in poignant and dramatic detail the personal tensions and anxieties in the life of this young woman who was to be murdered by her mother. The letters also testify to Hildegart’s strong and touching attachment to Ellis as mentor in the setting up of the Liga and, more personally, as a father-figure. The correspondence thus provides a unique window onto a movement and an individual both full of complexity and provide pointers the links between ideas and sexuality in England and the way such ideas were explored in Spain.

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Sex and Society in Early Twentieth-Century Spain

Hildegart Rodríguez and the World League for Sexual Reform

By Alison Sinclair

University of Wales Press

Copyright © 2007 Alison Sinclair
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7083-2470-7


The Face of Reform in Europe and the Spanish Case

* * *

You see what my work is. I am reading a great quantity of books over sexual things. Lindsey, Forel, Bloch, Van de Velde, Ellen Key, Marie Stopes, Kollontay, Renato Kohl, Sanger, and a lot of several others. But the special motive of my writing to you is to beg your help for me in the work which I have enterprised. I would desire to know the laws, the propositions, the ideas and the books which are given to publicity in all countries but specially in England where you can so well know the developpement of people in this interesting object. (Hildegart to Havelock Ellis, 23 October 1931)

In his summary of broad republican aims in Spain in the early twentieth century, Álvarez Junco indicates how certain features of 'España negra' [Black Spain] were to be set aside, and new, rational aims and ideals were to be adopted. The rowdy Spain depicted in the bullfight, alcoholism, lotteries and executions was to be discarded in favour of sanitary and hygienic progress, cremation, criminology and modern prisons, women's legal emancipation, a rethinking of marriage with provision for divorce, urban planning, and progress on a variety of other fronts, including phonetic spelling (Álvarez Junco, 1989: 356). This was a special agenda for Spain, arising from its history, its geography and the particularities of its social and political structures. Yet in the early decades of the twentieth century its social and political aims and activities also had striking resonances with what could be found in the rest of Europe. Spain's involvement with broad and international political movements such as socialism, communism and anarchism clearly had impact. In the intellectual world writers and thinkers such as Unamuno and Ortega pioneered, whether by personal activity and example or by organizational drive, the links between Spain and Europe, the foundations for which had been laid by the tradition of the Institución Libre de Enseñanza (ILE) set up by Francisco Giner de los Ríos. A canonical picture of Spain's engagement with Europe has existed by which the prime players were institutions such as the Junta para Ampliación de Estudios (JAE) [Committee for the Broadening of Study], the Residencia de Estudiantes, and publications such as the Revista de Occidente. In relation to this a much broader field of exchange with a wider range of participants has still to be fully recognized. Numerous routes through to intellectual activity in Europe were forged through publishing houses, newspapers, and reviews. Not all exchanges were within the most traditionally educated classes, and socialist and anarchist groups were significant in extending the possibilities for the autodidact. The real prominence of popular culture as a factor for our understanding of modern Spain has now been articulated (Graham and Labanyi, 1995), and the role of elites is being nuanced (Sinclair, 2004c).

The modernizing aims highlighted by Álvarez Junco above show a role of rationality being claimed as necessary: what has to be set aside is untidy tradition. Obvious areas for the importation of practices and tendencies from Europe in the process of modernization were education, the economy and political structures, while concepts of sociology, historiography and philosophy underpinned the formal framework of such study. Psychoanalysis was similarly imported, albeit less well documented (Glick, 1981, 1982). The enthusiasm of Giner de los Ríos for the advantages of study in Europe, with first Germany, and then England being his preferred pattern (Castillejo, 1997: 192), relates to formal, academic education, but both his ideals, and those of Ortega later, came from a concept of education in society that would give access to a whole culture, and would allow for informed decisions and choices on the part of those who received benefit from it.

It should not come as a total surprise that Spain participated in wider European concerns relating to social reform as it affected matters of sex. Indeed, as Cleminson shows, the ILE was a case in point (Cleminson and Vázquez García, 2007. Yet this participation is not well known. It can be glimpsed partially through the struggles to bring in divorce reform under the Second Republic but it is possible that the difficulties of achieving divorce provisions in a Catholic country have eclipsed our view of other fundamental movements towards reform in related areas including sex, hygiene and sex education.

The importation of ideas is more subject to local adaptation than is the case with material objects, and the manner of adaptation tells us more about local conditions and custom than it does about the ideas themselves. With this in mind, my intention in this chapter is to give a brief overview of how specific issues in Spanish public life in the period made it receptive to particular interests and enthusiasms elsewhere. I then place this in a broader context, first that of the general climate in the early twentieth century relating to reform in eugenics and sexual matters in Europe, with specific but not exclusive reference to England, and second in relation to the founding and development of the World League for Sexual Reform.

The life and activity of the reformer Hildegart Rodríguez (1914–33) offer a suggestive time-line for tracking the development of the sex reform movement in Spain as it developed alongside major political changes in the country, and this is followed through subsequent chapters. There are three main phases: from the turn of the century to 1923; Primo de Rivera's dictatorship 1923–30; the Second Republic 1931–36. The first two phases have a particular style of input into the development of thought about eugenics and sex reform, while the third phase made a substantial change in what supporters of sex reform could do and publish, and made it possible for the Spanish chapter of the World League for Sexual Reform to get its official foundation. Hildegart's life, from its 'eugenic' conception, through its intense and idealistic education, and its practical application of social ideas and ideals, puts flesh onto these developments and highlights conflicts and paradoxes.

Ripe for Eugenics

There is little doubt that impetus to the growth of eugenics in Spain came with regenerationist ideas (Álvarez Peláez, 1988: 183; Cleminson, 2000: 68–76; Nash, 1992: 742–3). These in turn relate to the various manifestations of public disquiet about Spain's national standing at the turn of the century, linked habitually to the loss of Cuba in 1898, but generally accepted to be rooted at an earlier date. The ideas of degeneration contained in Nordau (certainly known in Spain) and of Lombroso (equally well known, if not fully acknowledged) made a good match for feelings of national despondency at Spain's condition. Nash puts a date of 1918 on the association between the crisis being made articulate in a work about national decline, En defensa de la raza [In defence of the race] by Martínez Vargas (Nash, 1992: 742), but it is also there in key 1898 essays such as Unamuno's En torno al casticismo (1902) [On Authenticity], and is embodied in numerous works by Baroja, from his 1900 essay on the 'Patología del golfo' [Pathology of the Rogue] to his novel El árbol de la ciencia (1911) [The tree of Life].

In her foundational essay Álvarez Peláez tracks how eugenics in Spain was well under way in the early years of the twentieth century, and shows clear links between Spain and England in the field from 1912 onwards (Álvarez Peláez, 1988: 184). Eugenics would not really flower in Spain until the 1920s, and arguably became part of a general phenomenon of political displacement in the regime of Primo de Rivera by which left-wing public political activity was put into abeyance, and new outlets were characteristically found. The Residencia de Estudiantes, for example, trod a path of circumspect intellectual exploration, while the Revista de Occidente, founded in 1923, the year the dictatorship began, had the desire – according to Ortega's mission statement in the first number – to speak to a readership with a curiosity that was neither purely aesthetic, cultural nor political, although the journal included articles on the structure of society, gender and national characteristics. Meanwhile the Residencia's lectures, wide-ranging in cultural terms, offered a way to connect to European thought in a way that could not be politically irrelevant (Sinclair, 2004c: 755–61, Sinclair forthcoming). So too with the activity of eugenics, which developed within the field of social medicine, and which would go a step too far in its first attempt to hold the Jornadas Eugénicas [Eugenics Conference] in 1928. As Glick (1982: 566) observes, one of the most startling aspects of the reception of Freud is that most of the discussion of his ideas took place under Primo de Rivera. The coming of the Second Republic made much possible, but the delicate political balance between different political and social groups, and the fact that both conservative and traditional aims were to be found among the reformers themselves, meant that the sex reform movement in the 1930s was set on a course of conflict and difficulty.

Eugenic Ideals

Throughout this book the terms 'eugenics' and 'sex reform' will be used. They are not intended to be mutually exchangeable, and the high degree of overlap between the two requires some explanation and ongoing attentiveness (Cleminson, 1994: 729). Some of the overlap between terms derives simply from personalities in that many were affiliated to a number of organizations, with different parts of the agendas of such organizations appealing to them. Hildegart will be a prime example of this overlap, her case illustrating some of the resultant complications. There were social peculiarities pertaining to these activists and reformers. Lyndsay Farrell comments of the Eugenic Education Society founded in England in 1907 that it was 'one of a network of organisations representing a common front of social activists who might be doctors, teachers or social workers, or simply ladies interested in social problems. Many were active in more than one society; social activism did not confine itself to a single remedy, though a given society might be specialised in its interests' (1970, cited by Mazumdar, 1992: 9). This pattern is as characteristic of Spain in the early twentieth century as it was of England. The different circles of the universities, the Residencia de Estudiantes, the inner circle of the JAE, the ILE and the Ateneo de Madrid made for numerous informal exchanges, influences and points of stimulation. Meanwhile in popular series such as La novela proletaria [The Proletarian Novel] Hildegart rubbed shoulders with Ángel Pestaña (although the series El libro del pueblo [The Book of the People] had a predominance of elite names such as Marañón, Juarros, Baeza and Santullano). The Cuadernos de la Cultura (Culture Notebooks) published in Valencia by the energetic Marín Civera made a wide range of writings by the lettered available to a less cultured pueblo.

The degree to which individuals carry their individuality over to the organizations in which they participate, rarely if ever losing their personal passions and anxieties in the process of participation, means that nuancing and shifts of emphasis within broad organizations are bound to occur, and the case of eugenics and sex reform is no exception. The existence of overlapping networks is, however, not fully sufficient to explain the interaction between the terms. The word 'eugenics' comes from the Greek eugenes (well-born) leading to Galton's 1883 definition, 'the study of agencies under social control that may improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations, either physically or mentally'. This contrasts with the 1904 definition offered by Karl Pearson of eugenics as the 'science which deals with all influences that improve the inborn qualities of a race; also with those that develop them to the utmost advantage' (emphases mine). Freeden points out how Pearson's implied umbrella of reform appealed to many, and would account for the differences between a 'pure' form of eugenics (as defined by Galton) and a form that had built into it the prospect of a programme of social reform (Freeden, 1979: 645–6).

The precision of the term 'eugenics' for a specific movement or specific set of beliefs is also usefully challenged by Adams on four points: that eugenics was a 'single, coherent, principally Anglo-American movement with a specifiable set of common goals and beliefs', that it was necessarily bound up with Mendelian genetics, that it was a pseudo-science, and that it was essentially right wing or reactionary (Adams, 1990: 217). The Spanish case shows the justification of Adams's challenges and bears out his denial that there is a unitary form of eugenics. As detailed by Stepan (1991: 2), eugenics is a set of beliefs and practices with highly variable local forms, within which Spain forms part of the 'Latin' tradition, along with Italy, France, Belgium and Latin America, in which there is an emphasis on education, on the improvement of social conditions, and on puericulture. But there are also strong similarities between the style of eugenics in Spain and England, particularly as articulated by Havelock Ellis. Despite the general assignation of Spain to the 'Latin' tradition it also has elements of hard-line eugenics (not least in Hildegart, and to a greater degree in her mother Aurora). Finally, in agreement with Adams's fourth point, the political and social persuasions of reformers in Spain ranged over a wide and complex spectrum.

Eugenics in England is of course not solely represented by Ellis, but in the light of his correspondence with Hildegart it is illuminating to see how he drew back from certain positions in the movement, and to observe the degree of congruity between his approach and the tendencies to be observed in the movement in Spain. The Eugenics Education Society was founded in 1907, and – of some anecdotal interest when we consider the position of Hildegart Rodríguez in the Liga – was founded by a young woman, Sybil Gotto, aged twenty-one and recently widowed (Mazumdar, 1992: 7). The Society was predominantly of the great and the good: Farrell (1970) found that nearly 80 per cent of its members were listed in the Dictionary of National Biography and that they were predominantly associated with university education, two thirds of them coming from the biological or social sciences (Mazumdar, 1992: 8). Kevles characterizes the membership in the US and England as 'white, Anglo-Saxon, predominantly Protestant, and educated' (Kevles, 1985: 64), noting also that half the members and a quarter of the officers were women. A more outspoken view was that of a Brighton physician who observed that meetings of the Society would contain 'all the neo-Malthusian, antivaccinationists, antivivisectionists, Christian Scientists, Theosophists, Mullerites (who have strange ways of having a bath and of breathing deep breaths), vegetarians, and the rest!' (Kevles, 1985: 58). In similar vein to this (unnamed) physician, Chesterton launched a savage attack on the movement and its adherents in Eugenics and Other Evils (1922).

Whatever the taunts of outsiders, the Society had muscle when it came to firm recommendations. In 1914 the Mental Deficiency Act came into force, by which education authorities were required to place mentally deficient children in special schools (Mazumdar, 1992: 24), and in 1917 the Society would take a strong line on the treatment of venereal disease, urging that the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1867 be used to compel those who fell under the act and suffered from venereal disease to be detained in order for treatment to be carried out (Mazumdar, 1992: 34). In 1930 the Eugenics Society would set up a committee for legalizing compulsory sterilization (Freeden, 1979: 666).


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