The Cazalla de la Sierra CNT's Female Domestic Staff Union


Under the aegis of new labour legislation introduced after the establishment of the Second Spanish Republic, a number of Cazalla [Cazalla de la Sierra lies about 70 kms north of Seville in Andalusia] women were to wake up to their circumstances and, on the basis of the rights awarded them, tried to rebel against the deep-seated social injustice that cast them as slaves for life. Their participation in the political struggle in the area would become plain on many occasions at whatever rallies, election meetings or demonstrations occurred throughout the five years of the Republic.

Confirmation of this can be found in the high levels of female participation in elections in Cazalla de la Sierra: in the 1933 election rallies, 53% of the participants were women, as against 47% men and in 1936 67% of women took part as against 58% of the menfolk. On both occasions the female involvement was well in excess of that by the men.


The Municipal Population Register for 1931 shows that at the advent of the Republic the township of Cazalla de la Sierra had a resident female population of 5,043. An updated version of that Register for 1934 shows that that number had risen to 5,281 and by the time the 1936 census was completed, shortly before the February elections, the number had risen further to 5,492, these women being scattered around the four population centres making up the township, i.e. Cazalla proper, the mines and steelworks, the Galeón farming settlement and the La Estación district: in addition, some were resident in Las Solanas del Valle and Llanos de Santiago which were both included in the census for the first time.

That said, and the better to understand the facts and figures set out so far, we would do well to pause a moment in our narrative and run an eye over the actual backdrop against which the day to day lives of the vast majority of these working class women took place. Something in excess of 96% of the adult female population (meaning those over 22 years of age, the only ones eligible to be entered in the registers) were registered as illiterate as against an estimated 82% for the overall population: given a high birth rate – with an average of 4 to 6 children per woman – and starvation wages, theirs was a ferocious battle just to survive. The name registers of the Poor Register as well as the Alms, Hospital and Burial Registers in Cazalla de la Sierra’s Municipal Historical Archives bear eloquent testimony to that.

As the statistics from the government-commissioned Official Survey carried out by the town council in late 1932 shows, only 209 female local residents, were recorded in the municipal censuses and registers as having a specific profession, that is, barely 6% of the adult female population plied a trade or profession recognised under the law. Be that as it may, a sizable majority of the local adult women – 94% of them – claimed that they were engaged in household tasks.

Now we know that, discounting those women we might number among the so-called middle or powerful classes of the day, who were actually involved in such tasks, as far as the vast majority of those surveyed – and drawn from the less well to do segments of Cazalla society – that description was merely nominal since there was also their farm work, especially during the seasonal fruit harvests – grapes, table olives, olives for olive oil pressing, chestnuts, etc. (in which respect women’s role was as important as men’s) to be added to the usual domestic chores.

Here we should take note of the massive if overlooked efforts of the women farmers (rancheras) in Galeón or Los Solanas del Valle or Los Llanos de Santiago. These women, owing to the farmers’ dearth of resources, the poverty of the soil they farmed as well as the frequent absences of the male side of the family who had to go off in search of a day’s wages and given the slow process of converting fallow and untilled land to productivity, were often obliged to take over the reins of the farmstead and, with their own hands and sweat, carry out the whole gamut of jobs involved in harvesting.

Domestic service(maids/nannies/washerwomen/watercarriers, ironing services)…189
Farmwork: Farmers (12) + Herder(1)13
Civil Service6
Professionals: Midwives (2) + Chemist (1) + Courier (1) 4
Workwomen: Chairmakers (23) + Others (9)32
Students (highschool)3

At the time the Second Republic came in, the average pay of a woman working in the fields around Cazalla on seasonal harvesting was less than 3 pesetas a day, as compared to the 3.50 earned by the menfolk. From summer 1931 onwards, following successive protests by the day labourers over the previous spring, wages rose slightly by something over 1 peseta a day and following negotiations between the unions and the employers it was established that for that year’s grape harvest there would be a minimum wage of 4.50 pesetas per day for men and women alike. But the harvesting did not often provide more than a few days’ work. Meanwhile, at that point, the prices for basic goods in the town market were as follows: bread cost 0.50 pesetas per kilo from the bakeries; meat cost 1.50, whilst olive oil cost around 2 pesetas per litre and a litre of wine, 1 peseta. Another basic household essential at the time, coal, cost between 0.30 and 0.40 pesetas per kilo.

The figures also show us that in 1932 at the time of the latest “grant of lands” to farmers based in Los Solanas del Valle, of the 81 plots registered, only 2 went to women. One, in the La Zahurdilla area, went to Saturnina González Uceda and the other, at Rincón Chico, was handed over to the ranchera Isabel Martín Pineda.

The Statistical Survey also shows us that, despite the fact that the overall figure for girls of primary school age (split between the 6 girls’ schools in Cazalla – 4 in the town itself, one in the hamlet of Fábrica and another in Colonia de Galeón) was slightly higher than the figure for boys – 599 as against 428 – whenever we look at the figures for those receiving secondary education or studying for their high school diploma at the time, we find only three girls.

However, when we look at the Poor, Alms, Hospital or Common Grave Burial registers, women headed the lists, proportionally and literally. In none of these four lists – the only ones referring to the republican years – does the number of “female beneficiaries” not exceed that of male beneficiaries; instead, in each and every list, women led by margins in excess of 18%.

And bear in mind that the local infant mortality rate at the time stood at around 190 per 1,000 and that malaria plus flu plus typhoid fevers were regarded by the national health authorities as endemic in the area.

The union and its battles

The acquisition by the working women of Cazalla de la Sierra of a consciousness of their entitlements following the establishment of the Second Republic would prompt them during the Republic to organise a range of protest actions in the forms of rallies, demonstrations or strikes. Along with those employed in domestic service, one of the most alert and insistent groups, the washerwomen, water-carriers and chair-makers spearheaded a number of these during 1932, 1934 and 1936, not to overlook the ongoing demands from other women workers engaged in farm work and out to secure equal pay with the men.

From the outset in 1931, the female workers threw themselves into the fray with application and courage, in an attempt both to better and protect their working conditions – which were already very dismal – as well as to secure equal pay with men. Invoking the principle of equal pay for equal work, they took to the streets along with the menfolk to lobby for better pay and decent working conditions. Some of this was reflected in what they achieved during 1931 and 1932. When, at the onset of 1932’s “hot” summer the provincial government authorities ordered the closure of the Cazalla CNT’s premises and made to seize the anarchist union’s register of members listed as “Women”, they found some 99 names. Days earlier, the same authorities had ordered that Carmen Lora Salvador be arrested and her Calle Velarde home searched because she had harboured José Pulgarin Lora, one of the speakers who had addressed the rally held by the CNT a few days Before. For its part, the press of the day would report a number of altercations that occurred at the premises in the market square during the holding of certain rallies sponsored by local rightwingers, during the election campaigns in 1931 and 1933 and which had mostly involved women.

Another telling episode in the female workers’ struggle was the strike mounted in late April 1934 by the chair-makers’ union. Around 66% of those employed in that trade were women, as it was the sort of work they could do and which most of them actually did from home and at piece rates. During the strike, the Civil Guard would harass the women violently and physically, in many instances even stopping them from setting foot out of doors with threats of fines and arrest. But without doubt the most spectacular strike would be the one launched by the domestic staff in early June 1936, after which the employers refused to meet with them to thrash out working arrangements for application across the sector.

The Domestic Service Female Staff Union, sometimes also referred to simply as the Womens’ Union, affiliated to the CNT’s Amalgamated Trades Union, occupied one room on the first floor of the premises that the anarchist organisation had just opened in the Calle Baños at the intersection with the Calle Fermín Galán (the Calle Virgen del Monte these days) in Cazalla de la Sierra in the wake of the Popular Front victory in the February 1936 elections. There they set up a small office handling their affairs, as well as a night school where they could learn to read, reckon and write lest their mistresses swindle them, as one of its driving forces and most combative leaders, Luisa Calvo Vera – better known by her nickname ‘La Remangá‘ put it in her evidence to the Francoist courts when she was arrested in 1939.

In the months following its opening, the anarchist union was to mount an intense campaign to mobilise the town’s female domestic servants, promoting its proposals and framework for regularising work in a work sector that had previously been governed by wage-earner/employer relations built on servitude and dependency bordering upon slavery, by means of a range of meetings and rallies that attracted members and sympathisers.

As happened elsewhere in Andalusia where similar unions had been formed, in late May 1936, the Cazalla de la Sierra female domestic staff approached the town council with draft working arrangements that would regulate their trade. In fact, on 28 May, the Female Domestic Staff Section of the CNT’s Amalgamated Trades Union hand delivered to the town hall in Cazalla a text containing a summary of those basic rules which had just been approved at a meeting of the union’s members and sympathisers. The same text asked for a meeting with the employers so as to brief them on what had been approved and to discuss with them a number of terms which still awaited definition. That text, signed by the organisation’s treasurer, Manuela Romero Bogallo and Dolores Acosta Benítez and Manuela Gallego Sayago, set out the following points:

1. From the day of the signing of these arrangements, the seven hour work day is in force.

2. The work day will start at nine o’clock in the morning.

3. Overnight duties by serving girls in employers’ homes will be emphatically prohibited.

4. Employers will be required to pay 50% bonus to servants who required to stay the night in the employer’s home and this is to be by arrangement between employers and employees.

5. In the event of accident, the employer will be required to pay full wages for the duration of the injury.

6. In the event of permanent disability, the injured servant is to receive a given percentage of the wage in payment at the time of the accident.

7. Employers shall be required to offer Sundays as a day of rest to the women in their service.

8. In respect of general cleaning duties, employers are required to hire a woman to do these.

9. Serving girls shall not be required to fetch water.

10. It has been decided that no serving girl shall wash any clothes during her seven hour work day.

11. When it comes to the washing of clothes, employers must hire other women, known as washerwomen.

12. Overall rates of pay: Cooks, 40 pesetas a month; Household staff: 35 pesetas a month; Nannies, 30 pesetas a moth; Washerwomen, 0.75 pesetas a month [the text has month but this is obviously meant as an hourly rate; see cleaners’ rates – PS]; Cleaners: 0.75 pesetas per hour.”

The following day, the then mayor, Adelardo Lucena Sánchez, drafted and issued an order calling just such a meeting, inviting employers and the general public to attend at 4.00 p.m. on 4 June. On the appointed and at the appointed hour, no one turned up except for the mayor’s number two deputy Antonio López Romero who was to chair the meeting, the then town clerk, Antonio Martínez Martínez, and union representatives Luisa Calvo Vera, Manuela Gallego Sayago and Carmen Benítez Gil who were accompanied by two of the then leaders of the Cazalla CNT, Manuel Campos Naranjo and Enrique García Ventura. Just moments before the meeting broke up, two employers showed up, representing (they said) themselves alone, on which grounds the meeting was wound up.

Two days after that, union representatives sent the mayor a further communication containing a list of 134 employers so that these might be invited to a further meeting. The Town Hall undertook to issue the invitations; an invitation was issued to a fresh meeting on 7 July, but it never took place either, given that no one representing the employers bothered to attend. The next day, the union was to call out the women workers on strike; the vast majority of them followed the strike order. For the week and a half duration of the dispute, the women workers mounted several demonstrations in the main streets of the town, as well as organising pickets to prevent other servants from entering households and bringing complaints against a number of mistresses who had bullied their servants out of taking part in the strike.

There is no question but that the proposals tabled by the union – regulated working hours, division of labour, specific pay rates for each job, etc., – raised great expectations among the working women in the town and this would translate into significant mobilisation of them throughout the strike.

In the words of Lucia Prieto Borrego, this domestic servants’ strike became “one of the most cited examples of offending for which punishment would fall due after the civil war. Because whereas in factory and field the work was done by men and women alike, and bullying by means of pickets was enforced by groups that were nearly always male, in the case in point lots of women’s teams, barring other servants from entering households, smashing pitchers, blocking traders, essentially adopting the bullying behaviour that had hitherto only been seen from men, implied a protagonism at street level that was quite out of the ordinary and which was recounted in detail to military judges.”

Even though the domestics’ strike had run its course by the end of its third week due to exhaustion and even though the domestics returned to work, relations between the classes in local society were never the same again after it. What the women organised did not realise at the time was just what price they would have to pay for their courage and how briefly they would enjoy it. Barely two months later, on 12 August 1936, the area was overrun by Major Ganriel Tassara Buiza’s rebel troops.

From that day forth the local rightwingers would set about settling scores and taking their revenge,



Josefa Centeno BautistaBoard member murdered/executed in 1936
Carmen Danta PalancoVice-secretarymurdered/executed in 1936
Carmen Moreno PalmaBoard membermurdered/executed in 1936
Josefa Pérez RicoBoard membermurdered/executed in 1936
Dolores Acosta BenítezBoard membersentenced to 12 years in prison
Carmen Benítez GilBoard membersentenced to 12 years in prison
Luisa Calvo VeraGeneral secretary12 years in prison. Died on release from prison
Manuela Gallego SayagoBoad membersentenced to 30 year prison term
Carmen Lora SalvadorBoard membersentenced to 9 years in prison
Manuela Romero BogalloTreasurer‘purged’ in 1936

Of the 200+ women against whom the Franco regime took reprisal action in Cazalla de la Sierra between 1936 and 1950, around 72% had been CNT members. Of those executed/murdered, the documented percentage stands at upwards of 80%. Of the ten women recorded as having served on the leadership of the Female Domestic Service Staff Union, four were executed during the early stages of the terror; a further five served lengthy prison terms; and one was “purged”, losing her job after her husband was murdered. This is something that needs to be borne in mind.

From: This text is part of the book Cazalla de la Sierra: Crónica de la infamia franquista. Translated by: Paul Sharkey.