A tale of two rallies: Women’s Day in Spain shows deep feminism divisions

Rival Women's Day rallies in several Spanish cities on Wednesday showcased divisions in Spain's feminism movement and its government coalition over recent controversial gender legislation.

A tale of two rallies: Women's Day in Spain shows deep feminism divisions
Women hold placards and shout slogans during an M8 protest in Madrid. Photo: Thomas COEX/AFP

Rallies held across Spain for International Women’s Day (referred to simply as ‘8M’ in Spanish) on March 8th have revealed deep divisions within Spanish feminism, the governing coalition, and the country at large.

The divisions stem from the raft of controversial legislation pushed by the PSOE-Podemos coalition over the last year, including a gender recognition law and the backfiring ‘Solo sí es sí’ sexual consent law that accidentally led to the release of rapists and reduced the sentences for hundreds of sexual convicts.


In certain cities, including Madrid, Valencia, Sevilla, Valladolid y León, there were even two separate marches: one organised by the 8M Commission, a movement with strong ties to Podemos and Equality Minister Irene Montero, the ideological driving force behind much of the legislation, and the other by Madrid’s feminist group Movimiento Feminista de Madrid.

Some protestors at the Movimiento Feminista de Madrid march called for Montero’s resignation, and 2023 is actually the second year that different factions within the feminist movement have held different M8 rallies.

It should be said that thousands of women also took to the streets across Spain in Bilbao, Cádiz, Huelva, Logroño, Mérida, Palma, Segovia or Zaragoza, in one unified march.

PSOE government ministers hold a banner during a demonstration marking the International Women’s Day in Madrid on March 8, 2023. Photo: Thomas COEX/AFP

Controversial legislation

Gender legislation, something that has been at the forefront of Montero’s policy agenda in the year since, including the bitterly contested Ley de Trans, has deepened the divides in both the feminist movement and government.

Though recently passed abortion legislation, which introduced menstrual leave and made accessing abortions in public hospitals easier, has been widely supported, the gender recognition bill passed last year has deeply divided feminists. 

READ ALSO: CONFIRMED: Spain will have Europe’s first paid ‘menstrual leave

Supporters of the bill, which effectively makes changing gender an administrative rather than health or legal matter, view it as a progressive step forward. Some more traditional feminists, however, view it as regressive and anti-women. In the M8 march in Madrid, protestors from the Movimiento Feminista de Madrid carried banners saying: ‘M8 is for women.’

Protestors hold banners during a students demonstration marking the International Women’s Day in Barcelona on March 8, 2023. (Photo by LLUIS GENE / AFP)

Political divisions

Divisions have also emerged at the political level. Faced with the backlash from the ‘Solo sí es sí’ law and controversy over gender recognition, splits between Pedro Sánchez’s PSOE and its junior coalition partner, Unidas Podemos, have widened.

These were highlighted once again, the day before 8M, when PSOE voted in support of amendments to the sexual consent law, siding with opposition parties rather than their coalition partner.

READ ALSO: How Spain is trying to fix its new trouble-ridden sexual consent law

Spain’s Minister for Economy and Digital Transformation, Nadia Calviño, said in the Spanish press this week that she “regretted that there are disputes” within government, adding that “it seems there are divisions that are incomprehensible to society as a whole” with regards to reforming the law.

She did, however, describe the Trans Law as “positive and necessary” and called for unity.

Feminist country

An Ipsos study released the week of M8 found that Spain is the ‘most feminist country’ in Europe. After polling people in 32 countries, Spain came out on top as the country most supportive and aware of equal rights between men and women.

Over half of Spaniards (53 percent) identify as “feminist”: a 9 percent increase on five years ago (44 percent). For context, in Portugal this figure is 46 percent, and in France 45 percent.

In Spain, just 36 percent of respondents polled said they did not identify as feminists.

True though this may be, and as strong as the feminist movement is in Spain, as this week’s M8 protests have demonstrated, it’s certainly not without its internal fissures. As calls for reforms to recent legislation intensifies, expect these divides to further deepen, particularly at the political level as Spain edges towards a general election at the end of the year.

READ ALSO: Who will win Spain’s 2023 election – Sánchez or Feijóo?

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PROFILE: Spain’s Pedro Sánchez -a risk-taker with a flair for political gambles

Spain's Pedro Sánchez, who announced snap elections Monday May 29th after his ruling Socialists were routed in local polls, is a consummate risk-taker who's shown a flair for daring gambles during his rollercoaster political career.

PROFILE: Spain's Pedro Sánchez -a risk-taker with a flair for political gambles

Weakened by five turbulent years in power that covered the Covid pandemic and the economic crisis linked to the Ukraine war, Spain’s 51-year-old prime minister caught everyone off guard by announcing an early general election in late July.

The vote had been widely expected at the year’s end, but after his Socialists and their allies suffered a major blow in Sunday’s local polls, Sánchez took a risky gamble – in what observers said has been a hallmark of his career.

“The alternative was six months of governmental bloodletting,” said Oriol Bartomeus, a political scientist at Barcelona’s Autonomous University. “He’s decided to gamble it all. It’s typical Pedro Sánchez, it’s just what he does,” he told AFP.

It was, agrees Paloma Román, a political scientist at Madrid’s Complutense University, a “strategic calculation” to hang on for the next two months and improve what he already has. “For the Socialists, it’s the lesser of two evils… If they’d held out (until the year’s end) it would have been so much worse,” she said.

A Madrid-born economist and former basketball player, Sánchez went from being an unknown MP who emerged from obscurity in 2014 to seizing the reins of Spain’s oldest political party.

And he has enjoyed a rollercoaster political career.

Written off, bounces back

A leap-year baby who was born in Madrid on February 29th, 1972, Sánchez grew up in a well-off family, the son of an entrepreneur father and a mother who worked as a civil servant.

He studied economics before getting a Master’s degree in political economy at the Free University of Brussels and a doctorate from a private Spanish university.

Elected to the party leadership in 2014, Sánchez was written off politically after leading the Socialists to their worst-ever electoral defeats in 2015 and 2016.

Pedro Sánchez announced a snap election for July 23rd. Photo: Pau BARRENA / AFP

Ejected from the leadership, Sánchez unexpectedly won his job back in a primary in May 2017 after a cross-country campaign in his 2005 Peugeot to rally support.

Within barely a year, he took over as premier in June 2018 after an ambitious gamble that saw him topple conservative Popular Party leader Mariano Rajoy in a no-confidence vote.

“He is a politician who often makes these kinds of decisions,” said Bartomeus. “So far it’s mostly worked for him… although things are more complicated now,” he said, noting Sánchez had been weakened by his time in office.

Stubborn and tenacious

Always immaculately suited and booted, this telegenic politician – who likes to go running and looms over his rivals at 1.9 metres (6 foot 2 inches) tall – has made a name for himself as stubborn and tenacious.

Over the past five years, he has had to play a delicate balancing act to stay in power.

In February 2019, the fragile alliance of left-wing factions and pro-independence Basque and Catalan parties that had catapulted him to the premiership cracked, prompting him to call early elections.

Although his Socialists won, they fell short of an absolute majority, and Sánchez was unable to secure support to stay in power so he called a repeat election later that year.

Forced into a marriage of convenience with the hard-left Podemos, despite much gnashing of teeth inside his own party, Sánchez has managed to stay in power despite his coalition holding only a minority in parliament.

He has managed to push through a wide range of reforms clearly rooted in the left and overseen a government with the highest-ever number of women.

The first Spanish premier to speak English fluently since the country returned to democracy in the 1970s, Sánchez is married with two teenage daughters.

In February 2019, he detailed his triumphs in an autobiography called “Resistance Manual”, the first to be published in Spain by a sitting premier.