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Pilar Primo de Rivera, female leader in Franco’s Spain

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The leader of the only female mass organization in Francoist Spain, the Women’s Section (Sección Femenina, SF) of the Falangist movement, which was Fascist in its early years and later became rather conservative, María del Pilar Primo de Rivera y Sáenz de Heredia, passed away on March 17th, 1991 in Madrid.

Born on November 4th, 1907 in the Spanish capital, she was the daughter of General Miguel Primo de Rivera (1870-1930), Spanish Prime Minister from 1923 to 1930, and his wife Casilda Sáenz de Heredia (1879-1908).

Two of her brothers, Falange founder José Antonio (1903-1936) and Fernando (1908-1936), a pilot and physician, were assassinated by the leftist Republicans at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War (1936/39).

The third, Miguel (1904-1964) graduated from law school and served as Ambassador to the United Kingdom after World War II. While her twin sister Ángela died of measles aged five, María del Carmen (1905-1956) mostly stayed away from politics and public life.

Primo de Rivera grew up in a strict, deeply conservative and religious environment. Her mother died while giving birth to her six child and her father was often absent due to his military duties. Nevertheless, she felt a strong admiration for him all of her life.

She attended the founding meeting of the Falange on October 29th, 1933 together with Carmen and shortly afterwards they both applied to join it, although paradoxically José Antonio refused to accept them at first. He later did so, although initially through the Spanish University Union (Sindicato Español Universitario, SEU), which existed from 1933 to 1965.

On July 12th, 1934, the SF was unofficially organized, initially composed of just seven members. From the first moment, Primo de Rivera dedicated herself completely to the task. As a result, in 1936 the organization already had some 2,500 activists and expanded throughout the country.

Following the beginning of the fratricidal war in July of that year, Primo de Rivera managed to get out of Madrid and settled in Salamanca, which temporarily was the de facto headquarters for the Nationalist side, where Francisco Franco (1892-1975) was proclaimed Generalissimo on September 21st, 1936.

Within a few months, membership grew considerably to around 60,000, making it one of the leading women’s organizations in the areas over which the central government had lost control as the Nationalists slowly, but steadily won the upper hand.

This gave her immense power, although in December 1936 the creation of Auxilio Social, a humanitarian relief organization headed by Mercedes Sanz-Bachiller (1911-2007), widow of Falangist Onésimo Redondo Ortega (1905-1936), generated conflicts and disputes over competence​s.

After the forced unification of both Falangist factions on April 19th, 1937, she relinquished all resistance against Franco’s decision, who on April 30th named her National Delegate of the IS, and instead opened up her home to the old guard loyal to José Antonio’s original ideology.

Confirmed in her new position on May 11th, Primo de Rivera also became part of the National Council of the Movement (Consejo Nacional del Movimiento), the Nationalist governing institution created in 1937 and abolished in 1977.

Together with Sanz Bachiller y traditionalist María Rosa Urraca Pastor (1900-1984), who strongly opposed liberalism, parliamentarianism and secularism, she was one of the few females active there.

In 1938 Primo de Rivera received the recently created Great Cross of the Imperial Order of the Yoke and Arrows for outstanding services rendered to the Spanish nation.

In the spring of 1941 she and her surviving brother, at the time Civil Governor of Madrid, wrote a letter to Franco in which they criticized that the Falange didn’t have the influence it deserved.

Both went so far as to threaten to resign from their posts if this grievance was not resolved, handing over power to “real Falangists.” This didn’t take place, rather the opposite.

In fact, Primo de Rivera might have recommended an acquaintance of hers, José Luis Arrese (1905-1986) to occupy the General Secretariat of the single Falangist party.

Once in power, Arrese undertook an internal purge from November 1941 on to remove the most “unmanageable” or “revolutionary” elements: in the following four years around 4000 militants were expelled, which contributed to the domestication of the Falange.

A fervent admirer of Germany, during her first trip in April 1938 she had an interview with Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) in the Chancellery of the Reich in Berlin. The Führer gifted her a magnificent vase as well as a portrait with an expressive dedication in a beautiful silver frame.

Pro-German Foreign Minister Ramón Serrano Suñer (1901-2003) as well as diplomat Ernesto Giménez Caballero (1899-1988) attempted in vain to arrange a marriage between her and Hitler to forge closer bilateral ties.

Primo de Rivera traveled to Berlin again in 1941 to participate in a congress that brought together the leaders of the women’s sections of other European totalitarian movements as well as a delegation from Imperial Japan.

Although Primo de Rivera also maintained contacts with Fascist Italy, she eventually became a sort of German “Ambassador” and received in Spain several delegations of the Hitler Youth (Hitlerjugend, HJ).

In August 1943 she visited Germany a third time, accompanied by her closest collaborators Clara Stauffer Loewe (1904-1984), former head of the Press and Propaganda Office of the SF, and María García-Ontiveros y Herrera, on a tour that took her to the cities of Berlin, Munich, Salzburg, Vienna and Stuttgart.

Among others, Primo de Rivera met with her counterparts Jutta Rüdiger (1910-2001), leader of the Band of German Maidens (Bund Deutscher Mädel, BDM) and Gertrud Scholtz-Klink (1902-1999), head of the National Socialist Women’s League (Nationalsozialistische Frauenschaft).

Primo de Rivera also visited convalescing soldiers of the Blue Division, which consisted mostly of Spanish volunteers who fought in Russia. The name derives from the color of the shirts worn under their uniforms. In Salzburg she had a meeting with Spanish university students.

When in October 1943 it was decided to withdraw the division from the Eastern Front, for Primo de Rivera it constituted a “betrayal of Germany and of the Falange”.

In January 1945 Primo de Rivera managed to get the National Delegation of the Youth Front (Delegación Nacional del Frente de Juventudes) to dispense with its female branch and integrate it as a youth branch of the organization she presided over.

In 1960 Primo de Rivera was granted the title of Countess of Castillo de la Mota. This concession seemed to be more a recognition of services rendered, as she was already playing a considerably diminished role.

On May 17th, 1977 a decree by appointed Prime Minister Adolfo Suárez (1932-2014) dismissed her with a notification that included a simple “Thank you, Pilar”.

She eventually never married, but nevertheless advocated that family and children were the only goal to be achieved in life for women, going so far as to declare in February 1943 that “women never discover anything; they lack the creative talent reserved by God for manly intelligences”.

In November 1977, SF veterans formed an association of former activists, “Nueva Andadura”, and Primo de Rivera was elected life-long honorary president.

In addition to her political obligations, Primo de Rivera carried out a good deal of work compiling numerous different forms of Spanish folklore, especially in the fields of regional music and dances.

Retired from public life, she published her memoirs in 1983, Recuerdos de una vida (Memories of a lifetime). After a long, eventful journey Primo de Rivera was buried at the cemetery of San Isidro in her home town.

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