Throughout March we’ve been celebrating Women’s History Month with a series of posts about sometimes overlooked but nonetheless remarkable women in history with specific Basque connections. Today we continue with the story of Benita Asas Manterola, who we think can rightly stake a claim to being known as the Basque suffragette.
Born in Donostia in 1873, she studied education in Valladolid, graduating cum laude in 1897. Thereafter, she took up her first teaching post in Bilbao until 1902, when she moved to another position in Madrid. In 1910 she authored a teaching manual, Dios y el Universo. Libro de lectura instructiva para niños y niñas (God and the Universe: Book of instructive reading for boys and girls), which in essay form urged children to reflect on major themes like religion as well as to question conventionality. Subsequently, she began to take part in a series of impassioned debates on women’s suffrage in Madrid. She was a co-founder in 1913 of the daily newspaper El Pensamiento Femenino (Feminist Thought), the aim of which was to improve the social, legal, and economic position of women by encouraging hem to question their subservience and fight for their rights, and which she edited to 1916. After it folded, she continued to write articles for another publication, La Voz de la Mujer (The Woman’s Voice). She was president of the main feminist association in Spain, the ANME (Asociación Nacional de Mujeres Españolas, National Association of Spanish Women), between 1924 and 1932; and in 1929 she was a delegate, representing the Spanish Women’s League, at a League of Nations Assembly at its headquarters in Geneva, at which she proposed holding a Women’s World Congress as an instrument to help avoid any repetition of the bellicose international situation that had led to the carnage of the Great War.
With the coming of the Second Republic in Spain in 1931, as part the process to draw up a constitution, Asas was appointed to present a report to the Spanish parliament on women’s suffrage, with the right to vote eventually being extended to women in 1933. In the 1930s she joined Izquierda Radical Socialista (Radical Socialist Left Party, IRS), but all the while continued to teach. When the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, she remained in Madrid and a supporter of the Second Republic against the armed uprising of the military rebels and their supporters. Following the defeat of the Republic, however, in 1939, she reapplied to take up a position in the public education system. However, the newly established Franco regime–through the vehicle of the so-called National Movement (the one-party state)–sought actively to keep out any unwelcome elements from the system; the same system that greatly restricted women’s legal and voting rights, making them subject to the authority of the “heads of the household” (fathers or the husbands). Consequently, in 1940 the Ruling High Commission for Purging Measures declared her unfit to resume her teaching duties on the basis that, “she continues to take an interest in the women’s suffrage movement” and that “a long time ago she believed in Catholic doctrines but prior to the Movement she was a leftist.” She was, moreover, ordered to be removed from Madrid at a distance of more than 30 km (just under 20 miles) of the city.
Asas was 66 years old at the time and thereafter all records of her life appear to have disappeared. She died in Bilbao in 1968 at the age of 95. In the Egia neighborhood of Donostia there is a square named after her; and in the San Inazio neighborhood of Bilbao there is street named in her honor. A new neighborhood constructed in Gudalajara, Spain, in the 1990s named all its streets after women, one of them being Benita Asas.