- Sex and Society in Early Twentieth-Century Spain: Hildegart Rodríguez and the World League for Sexual Reform
In this book Alison Sinclair examines the development of sexual reform and eugenic movements in early twentieth-century Spain by focusing on the story of Hildegart Rodríguez (1914–33), a key figure in the Spanish branch (or Liga) of the World League for Sexual Reform (WLSR). Rodríguez, who was conceived by her mother as a eugenic child, came to be, during her short lifetime, a prolific writer, an active socialist campaigner, and a sexual and legal reformer. She was murdered by her mother, Aurora, in June 1933, a fact that has tended to overshadow other aspects of her biography. Sinclair’s study goes a long way toward redressing this imbalance by highlighting Rodríguez’s work in the Liga and the key contribution that she made to debates about sexuality and eugenics in Spain during the early 1930s. Moreover, Sinclair’s study is much more than a biography of Rodríguez, as it frames her life story within a broader national and international context and explores a wide range of issues related to the history of eugenic and sexual reform in Spain.
Sinclair divides her study into eight chapters, which are prefaced by an introduction and concluded by two useful appendixes: a biobibliographical guide to figures mentioned in the book and the reproduction of a series of letters that Rodríguez wrote to the British sex reformer and psychologist Henry Havelock Ellis, whose work challenged traditional taboos surrounding sexuality, examining topics such as homosexuality, masturbation, and eugenics. These letters, which are housed in the British Library, are a very important part of Sinclair’s study, discussed in detail in a chapter of the book and used by the author as supporting material throughout her discussion. The letters reveal the important role that Ellis played as mentor to the young Rodríguez and also contain her views on the principles of the WLSR, her record of the Liga’s foundation meeting, and revelations of the power struggles and internal strife within the organization.
The goals of the WLSR, which was established at a sexual reform conference in Copenhagen in 1928, were outlined in a list of ten principles or “planks” that advocated eugenics, sexual equality, the prevention of prostitution, and systematic sexual education. Rodríguez was a key figure in the Spanish Liga, serving as secretary of the organization. Sinclair’s study places [End Page 188] Rodríguez’s activism in this organization within the wider European context, outlining in the first chapters the campaigns for sexual reform and debates on eugenics that took place in Europe, particularly in England, in the early twentieth century. Sinclair also traces the trajectory of Rodríguez’s life and activism in the context of social and political developments in Spain, including the Primo de Rivera years, when state policies were in direct opposition to the views of sex reformers and eugenicists, and the Republican period, which coincided with the flourishing of Rodríguez’s publishing career.
The penultimate chapter of Sinclair’s study discusses the correspondence between Rodríguez and Havelock Ellis in detail, in particular with regard to the insights the twenty letters offer into the complex nature of Rodríguez’s relationship with her mother. Sinclair’s closing chapter focuses, somewhat inevitably, on Hildegart’s death at the hands of her mother, an event that Sinclair notes has resulted in “a notable distortion in the public memory of her life” (149). Sinclair’s discussion here explores possible motivations for Aurora’s actions and draws on and acknowledges earlier work on this subject as well as discussing reaction in the press to Rodríguez’s death. However, the discussion of this episode does not overshadow Sinclair’s preceding discussion; this study foregrounds, above all, Rodríguez’s role as an intellectual, reformer, and activist within a Spanish and European context.
Sinclair’s Sex and Society in Early...