By Patricia Simón / Translation Blanca G. Bertolaza
A few meters away from Madrid’s Plaza Mayor, one of Spain’s most popular squares, we find a place where we could easily imagine, chatting at a round table, Simone de Beauvoir, Mary Poppins and the mother of the kids she took care of, suffragist Jane Banks, Dolores Ibárruri ‘La Pasionaria’, painter Remedios Varo or Egyptian activist Nawal El Saadawi. And, of course, their hostesses, booksellers Lola Pérez, her daughter Elena Lasheras and Ana Dominguez, the women responsible for Librería Mujeres and for the exquisite musical selection that is the final touch to work the miracle: a timeless place, which seems to harbor the last century of women’s History and that, at the same time, has spearheaded the liberation of the Spanish woman since it opened its doors in 1978. A time in which in this country we did not have the right to open a bank account or to rent a house without the consent of a man.
Elena Lasheras wears a purple blouse and a black beret, like Che. Her thick mane of white hair frames a broad and open smile. She has just returned from a tour promoting Mexican anthropology professor Marcela Lagarde’s latest book, Women in captivity. Mothers, wives, nuns, whores, prisoners and mad women, published in Spain by Horas y horas, the publishing house set up by Librería Mujeres. She is exultant, overwhelmed by the audience’s reception and participation. Her enthusiasm articulates the conversation, but it flares up each time she mentions the young women that make up the Madrid feminisms commission of the 15M movement, in which she plays an active role.
Periodismo Humano. How and why does your vocation to be booksellers start?
Elena Lasheras. At that time, 1978, bringing culture to the people and setting up a book shop in a working class neighborhood was completely revolutionary. So we opened one in the La Ventilla neighborhood, very poor, where the city dump was, but also very combative –they were very proud of having said no to Franco’s two referendums-. There was always a book about sexual education in the shop window and we turned a page each day. So the kids, when
they got out of school, ran over there to continue reading it. It was a wonderful experience, but the neighborhood was very poor culturally and economically, so we had to close.
Also in 78, sociology professor Jimena Alonso had opened the Mujeres Bookshop along with 200 other women who had each invested 25,000 pesetas, as in a co-op. They met secretly in the basement and they were constantly vandalized, which is why they had police protection in the 80s. Finally they closed the same year as us and three years later, in 1988, after reaching a deal with the publishers to pay the debt, we reopened it. Ana and I had six children in total, so my mother joined us so someone could open the library if all of them decided to get chicken pox at the same time.
P. Just to remember the progress women have made in the last thirty years, what did people think of women starting a business and what requirements did you have to meet?
E.L. The lack of freedom was double for us: because of the dictatorship and because we were women. I had to ask for a lease to open the bookshop and my husband had to back me up; I could not have a bank account, there were no books about sexual education or access to birth control methods… I used to go with my three little daughters to the doctor to see if he would take pity on me and prescribe the pill… But they did not. My partner came to El Rastro (flea market) to buy condoms because they were not sold in pharmacies.
But it was also the time when the “The street is ours” movement took place, when we took off our bras, when we vindicated our bodies, the time of the ‘speculum’, which consisted of looking at our vulvas with a mirror… It was a time when lots of women were arrested and tried, but it was also very joyful, very powerful. I compare it to the one now with the women of the 15M movement. So I’m being lucky enough to live through two revolutions: May 1968 and 15M, and without a war in between, which my mother did go through, which is a huge privilege.
And going back to the beginning, the bookshop became an information center for all these subjects: where to buy the pill or condoms, places where they could abort… But that was until the mid 80s! On Saturday mornings a lot of mothers from other regions came with their pregnant teenage daughters to know where they could take them to have an abortion.
Lola Pérez normally greets everyone from the Mujeres Bookshop counter. Her passionate book recommendations, her sense of humor when, playfully, she asks about the color of the gift wrap –red, yellow, purple or the three of them? – and the way she turns the bookshop into a home and the client into a citizen, are the trademarks of the place. She is 88 years old, but she is also completely timeless and avant-garde. She is not at the store at the time of the interview, and her daughter tells us jokingly and devotedly how, when a man asks grumpily “So, can men come in here?” she answers “the intelligent ones can”. And they are baffled, not knowing how to answer this sweet old lady. “But she was so angry at the Pope’s visit we feared something might happen to her”.
P. So do a lot of men come into the bookshop?
E.L. They have always been a minority, but also, finally nobody questions the fact that women read more and all kinds of things, not just novels. Obviously, more and more men are coming
in who want to learn about feminism or about new masculinities. But it is still harder for them to break through that “being more than others” they are brought up with. Even today, in a congress with 3 men and 300 women, the men speak first. That is why we created the Entredos Foundation, a place exclusively for women, like so many of the ones who succeeded in Europe but not in Spain. And even though it might seem kind of like apartheid, it’s not, because if not they end up occupying everything. Men were only allowed to come in on Wednesdays, and it was not an easy decision, but we had to make a pedagogic effort, I don’t know if because one is born a woman or if because one becomes a woman (jokes Elena paraphrasing Simone de Beauvoir).
P. After the golden years of feminism came the 90s and there is a step back up to the point that feminism is rejected in many social sectors. What was your experience then?
E.L. Feminism is cyclical, but it can be very depressing at times, like in the 90s. Everything was steered towards consumption: buying books was an act of consumption, not of learning, of finding some content that might change your life… So, it was all about what you can obtain through money: youth and beauty through plastic surgery, fashion… And then feminism leaves the street –for example, we were very few at the March 8th demonstrations- and we focused on the production of thought in the universities, in documentation centers, in the schools of thought… And it was a very productive time in a theoretical level. In fact, many of the 15M women were educated, at a very high level, in feminism during the 90s.
P. Have you been attacked for being a feminist library?
E.L. In 96 we brought almost 300 Republican women from all over Spain and some who were exiled in France for a tribute. It was wonderful, but it had a lot of repercussion in the media and we began to receive threatening calls. The Police had to tap the phone for three years.
Then, in 2004, we began to find the locks full of silicone two or three times a week and, afterwards, threatening writings on the walls. Finally we found out that it was separated fathers associations who blamed us for Parental Alienation Syndrome.
And I would not be surprised if it happened again in the future, because machismo is going to have more backing in the time ahead. But that has happened to all our ancestors. The History of feminism is not exclusive to the last two centuries, but we need to be taking apart the lies that are told about us every 50 years because they make us disappear: that all suffragists were bourgeois, that women have not written theology… We have gone from being ugly, useless tomboys to proving that we know, we write, we study and that we are absolutely necessary for the world to move forward and not just in any way, but in the way of women.
P. During the march against the police brutality that took place after this summer’s Secular March in Spain, some of the women who had been attacked denounced having been insulted by the police using words such as ‘slut’ or ‘whore’. Verbal violence still alludes to women’s sexual liberty to denigrate them. How is it to live with constant steps forward and steps back in the fight for equality after a whole life of compromise?
E.L. Calling us whores has been the way to insult us for centuries. The feminist movement is very complex and, as a movement that fights to transform society, a recent process. That is why we constantly need to be renovating everything. At the same time in which we have a step forward as big as the law on gender violence?, reemerges a very aggressive misogyny which seemed to have disappeared. Feminism joins together pacifism, ecology, the care of the body and health, class… And we have had to learn from black, lesbian, indigenous feminism… And, meanwhile society keeps calling us stupid, whores, tomboys, and we constantly have to be proving them wrong. It takes a lot of energy, and it is not always easy. But I always see progress. Now, at my age, I am recognizing the weight of lesbian theory, of the women in that field who have come before me. I see progress all the time.
P. However, you detect that there has been little investigation about women’s sexuality, for example.
E.L. Yes, it is incredible that it still taboo in the 21st Century. I think May 68 and free love was stunning, but what was being defended was masculine sexuality. And over time we have seen that they are different sexualities. And today, calling us prudes is the same as calling us whores, on the opposite end. Since the time of the ‘speculum’ there have not been theories about our heterosexuality. A lot of books have been written about positions, the G spot, the orgasm of both partners at the same time… All those myths have created a terrible lack of satisfaction, getting to the point that a lot of women tell us that they think they are frigid. At this point!
P. How did you experience the creation of a Ministry of Equality?
E.L. All of a sudden it was too much: we had the Law on violence against women, the Dependency Act… And then the feminist women of the PSOE (Spanish Socialist Party), to which all Spanish women owe a lot, create the Ministry of Equality, but with no budget, because the Institute for Women, which is 25 years old, had it. So we were wary, but hopeful. Now, I do not know which politician, and in exchange for what, eliminated it when it had no economic burden… I don’t know and I don’t care either. The result is that political parties are patriarchal. And the ones who do make a big difference are the feminist women who break their backs in political parties and who dignify politics.
P. Three generations work together in the bookshop: your mother’s, yours and Ana’s, and your daughter’s, who also works in the store. How do you interpret the invisibilization of women after they turn forty, fifty years old? How do you think this is affecting us as a society?
E.L. It is steered to motivate us to buy consumer goods. If you have to be forever young and beautiful, you are going to spend a lot of money trying to achieve it! This year’s diary’s subject is old and free women. That is what growing old means, becoming freer. I don’t have to prove anything to anyone anymore, I wear my beret because it keeps my head warm and I don’t care if anyone looks at me. I had to be a good child, then a good girl, a good wife, a good mother….
And now I don’t have to be any of that. And that is so great! And I walk down the street and I see that many women live it that way.
Also, women are always confronted with loneliness: if you don’t have a partner or children, you are going to be alone. Being alone is one thing, and being lonely is another. Loneliness is very necessary to each of us, to be able to think, to write, to put our ideas in order. Thinking is essential, but we are surrounded by noise.
P. How has the bookshop evolved in these last 30 years?
E.L. At first, besides specializing in feminisms, in narrative written by women and in children’s literature in favor of girls, as booksellers we found it impossible not to have Kafka, for example. So the front of the store was all dedicated to women and the back, to men, with an important part about male homosexuality. So Saturdays were also the days when many gay men from outside of Madrid came to buy the books that interested them.
Later on, El Corte Ingles, Casa del Libro y FNAC (three large department stores) opened up nearby and the economy suffered because these large stores buy from the editors at lower prices and they can offer discounts that are impossible to us. Faced with this situation, we substituted the male part for handicrafts that had to do with our ideology (lamps, boxes, lecterns with the faces of well known feminists…) to deal with a not always fair competition. For example, El Corte Ingles and Casa del Libro asked us to lower the price of our Women’s Planner, the top selling feminist product in Spain, of which we print 20 to 30 thousand copies. We could not, so they took them away from the cash registers and put them in the cooking section.