15. Concepción Arenal was the first woman to graduate from a Spanish university and remains an icon of the country’s modern feminist movement
Concepción Arenal Ponte’s father, a liberal military officer, died in prison in 1829. His daughter was just 8 at the time. She was forced to move to a small town in the northern province of Cantabria, where her mother struggled to provide her with a happy childhood. Nevertheless, Arenal received a good education and she grew into a determined young woman. So determined, in fact, that she took herself to Madrid and enrolled in the main university there. In doing so, she became the first female university student in the country’s history. More than this, she also became a role model for many more Spanish girls and women and established herself as the founder of the country’s feminist movement.
Being a female student in conservative Madrid was no easy life. Arenal was forced to hide her femininity, dressing as a young man to attend lectures. But she was never deterred. In fact, she even attended literary, philosophical and political seminars in the city, completely unheard of for a woman at the time. Upon graduation, she married and started a family. Alongside these duties, she wrote for a notable liberal newspaper, though when her husband died, she was forced to move back to the north of Spain for financial reasons.
Back in the north of the country, Arenal dedicated herself to writing and helping the poor. She set up a feminist group for disadvantaged women. And above all, she wrote prolifically. Most notably, in 1869 she published her main work, The Woman of the Future, in which she argued that women’s perceived inferiority was simply a societal construct and had no basis in biology. Thanks to her intellectual connections in Madrid, the book was widely-read, and she also contributed numerous essays and articles to leading liberal journals and newspapers of the time.
Arenal died in 1893. More than 30 years later, the short-lived Spanish Second Republic attempted to put her feminist ideas into action. These days, she is best remembered as Spain’s ‘first feminist’, and libraries and university buildings across the country are named after her.