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The Literary Pioneers for Women’s Rights

Juan Emilio Ríos Vera

Throughout the History of Universal Literature, it has been a given in all cultures and nations to discriminate against women writers. This stigma was already endured by authors such as Safo, who championed the ‘different’ and ‘socially excluded’ in her poems and exhibited her homosexuality without shame.

Since she was born on the island of Lesbos, female homosexuality is known as lesbianism. Then there is Hypatia of Alexandria, the Neoplatonic philosopher who, among other things, was the first known female mathematician. She was killed by a mob of radical Christians who considered her a heretic and pagan.

Andalusian poet Wallada suffered the same fate. She secretly loved Ibn Zaydun; their relationship was considered illegal because of the link between him and the Banu Yahwar tribe, bitter rivals of the Umayyad to which the poet from Córdoba belonged.

I could continue to recite the list of women writers of ancient times who suffered persecution, contempt, ostracism and even death for the simple act of dedicating themselves to writing, an activity women were once forbidden from engaging in. But these three cases are enough to expose this paradigm.

Now I want to move on to a more recent time in Spain to talk about many other women who, in an already much more civilized world, continued to suffer the same aggravation as those distant pioneers. I want to begin with the striking case of María de Zayas Sotomayor, a writer of the Golden Age. She wrote a collection of exemplary and love novels that would be considered masterpieces today, had they only been signed by Cervantes.

But, as they were penned by a woman, they were simply despised as sentimental, superficial and frivolous works. Recent studies have even put into doubt the existence of this author and believe that it was a pseudonym used by a male writer to hide his name and be able to devote himself to the erotic genre.

This is because those novels were a success in their time, and that’s not licit for a woman. The novels of María de Zayas are on a par with those of Cervantes. And yet, they are practically inaccessible due to the curse of invisibility that falls on the life and work of these brilliant and non-compliant women.

Literary Pioneers for Women's Rights

Much better known is the case of Saint Teresa of Jesus, whom all now venerate, but few know that a few years before being worshipped by all she was about to be burned at the stake for being a heretic.

In the second half of the 19th century, in the so-called late or intimate era of Romanticism, the magnificent figure of Rosalía de Castro emerged. This writer, whose work was on par with that of Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer, is always given less space in textbooks on the silly pretext that part of her work – including her acclaimed Follas novas – is written in Galician, as if this were not an official language of our country.

The main reason why she remains in the obscurity is the fact that she is a woman, since her works have nothing to envy the rhymes and legends of the great Sevillian poet and narrator. She defended her Galician fellow countrymen who were forced to go into exile in Madrid to work in the factories and who were exploited to the point of labour slavery, despised and humiliated because of their status as Galicians and rural people.

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