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WOMEN'S DAY

Ten of the most influential women in Spain’s history 

To mark International Women's Day, we celebrate ten Spanish women who have played pivotal roles in shaping Spain's history, gender rights, science, the arts and more.

Ten of the most influential women in Spain's history 
Clara Campoamor, María Pita, Isabelle of Castile and Penélope Cruz have also shaped Spain in different ways. Photos: various

Clara Campoamor, suffragette 

Born in Madrid in 1888, Campoamor was a politician and feminist best known for ensuring women were guaranteed the same rights as men in Spain’s 1931 Constitution. 

Funnily enough, she was elected to the constituent assembly in the same year even though women didn’t have the right to vote yet. She fled Spain during the Civil War and died in exile in Switzerland in 1972, having refused to give up the names of her allies to Franco.

Clara Campoamor. Photo: Anonymous/Wikipedia

Isabella I of Castile, queen and conqueror

Arguably the most influential Spanish woman of all time.

Here’s a quick summary of her exploits: she and her husband unified Spain after centuries of Moorish occupation, she reorganised the government system, brought the crime rate down, unburdened the kingdom of Castile and Leon of the enormous debt brought on by her brother, ordered the conversion or exile of Jews and Muslims from Spain (exiling those who didn’t) and last but not least financed Columbus’ voyage to the New World in 1492. 

A young Isabel of Castille. Painting: Anonymous

Margarita Salas, scientist

One of Spain’s most respected scientists, Salas has published over 200 scientific articles and is responsible for the most profitable patent in Spanish history. The royalties from her discovery of a protein make up half of all royalty funds going into Spain’s National Research Council.

Appointment of Margarita Salas doctor honoris causa at Spain’s UNED university. Photo: UNED/Wikipedia

María Pita, heroine

María Mayor Fernández de Cámara y Pita (1565–1643), better known as María Pita, is Spain’s version of Joan of Arc. 

A heroine in the defence of the Galician city of A Coruña (Galicia) against the English Armada in 1589, she killed the rival commander – the brother of Admiral Francis Drake – and kept on fighting despite her husband also being killed in battle, demoralising the invading troops and leading them to retreat.  

Pita was honoured by King Philip II, who granted her the pension of a military officer.

Painting of María Pita defeating the English, by artist Arturo Fernández Cersa.

Teresa of Ávila, saint

Born in Ávila in 1515, Teresa was a prominent Spanish mystic, a key Counter Reformation figure and theologian of contemplative life through mental prayer. She was canonised forty years after her death and is a key figure among Catholic believers in Spain. Photo: 

Painting of Saint Teresa by Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens.

Lola Flores, artist

Lola Flores  (1923-1995) is flamenco’s greatest ever star. 

She popularised the artform internationally and – together with Andalusian folklore  – shaped people’s views abroad of what was and is quintessentially Spanish, even though for many this is just a stereotype.

She also gave a voice and recognition to Spain’s native gypsy population, who today number around 650,000 people. 

Flamenco star Lola Flores. Photo: Wikimedia

Penélope Cruz, actor 

There are many great Spanish actresses that are worthy of praise – Carmen Maura, Maribel Verdú, Concha Velasco, Sara Montiel – but none have reached the international celebrity status of Hollywood’s number one Spanish actress Penélope Cruz.

She has been nominated three times for an Oscar including in 2022 for Madres Paralelas (she won best supporting actress for Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona) and is arguably the most famous Spanish woman of modern times. 

Penélope Cruz is quite possibly the most recognisable Spanish woman in modern history. (Photo by Valerie MACON / AFP)

Rosa María Calaf, journalist 

Calaf is widely considered as the most experienced foreign correspondent in Spanish TV history.

For more than thirty years she covered wars and crises in the United States, Russia, Argentina and Asia, overcoming sexism throughout the decades to prove that she could be the best in her profession.  

Rosa María Calaf, Spain’s most seasoned foreign correspondent. Photo: Sandra Besga/Wikimedia

Elena Maseras, pioneer

Maseras was the first Spanish woman who was allowed to enlist as a university student with special dispensation in 1872.

Having been formally admitted to study medicine at the University of Barcelona in 1875, she was finally allowed to graduate in 1882, which set a precedent for other Spanish women to start enrolling at universities across the country. 

Elena Maseras, Spain’s first female university student. Photo: Wikimedia/ARCA

Lita Cabellut, painter

Practically unknown in Spain, Cabellut is the most sought-after female Spanish painter in the international art world, her larger-than-life paintings – often depicting the female form – sell for hundreds of thousands of euros to Hollywood actors and Arab sheiks. 

A tough upbringing (she was abandoned as a baby and grew up in the streets) did not stop the 60 year old from achieving wide success, and she represents the many Spanish female artists who preceded her – Maruja Mallo, Remedios Varo, María Blanchard and more – who never achieved the same recognition as their male counterparts.

Spanish artist Lita Cabellut. (Photo by GEOFF CADDICK / AFP)

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