Concepción Arenal was a Spanish feminist writer and activist who founded the feminist movement in Spain.
Arenal was born in 1820 in Ferrol, Galicia. In 1829, she and her family moved to Armaño following the death of her father. Arenal witnesses the social inequalities of the time, including the gender inequality imposed by the patriarchal society that was most pronounced in rural areas. A year later, the family moved to Madrid so that Arenal could attend the school of the Count of Tepa to become a “distinguished and well-mannered” young lady. In 1841, she enrolled at the Faculty of Law of the Central University (now the Complutense University of Madrid), becoming the first woman in Spain to attend University. Arenal was forced to dress as a man to attend her classes and political and literary debates. While at University, she met Fernando Garcia Carrasco. He became her husband in 1848, the same year she graduated.
In 1951, Arenal published her first literary work The Story of a Heart followed by Fables in Verse. Three years later, she and her husband collaborated on the publication of Iberia, a liberal newspaper which ran until Fernando Garcia Carrasco’s death in 1959. Arenal was left penniless,and was forced to return to Armaño where she sold all of her possessions before moving into the house of violinist and composer Jesús de Monasterio in Potes, Cantabria. Arenal founded the feminist group Conference of Saint Vincent de Paul and threw herself into charity work. Two years later, she was awarded a prize for her “beneficence, philanthropy and charity” by the Academy of Moral Sciences and Politics. It was the first time the Academy gave the prize to a woman. In 1868 she was named Inspector of Women’s Correctional Houses and in 1871 began fourteen years of collaboration with the Madrid-based magazine The Voice of Charity.
During the third of the Carlist Wars – a series of civil wars in Spain, Arenal worked with the Red Cross as the director of a field hospital in Miranda de Ebro and between 1871 and 1872 she served as the Secretary General of the Red Cross. In 1872, Arenal founded the Construction Beneficiary in order to build affordable houses for workers. She was also a member of the Board of the Ateneo de Ladies, founded in Madrid by Fernando de Castro.
In addition to her charity work and despite the fact that Spain was a hugely traditional country at the time, Arenal wrote extensively on a range of topics. Some of her works include: a Mujer del Porvenir [The Woman of the Future] (1869), The education of women, The current state of women in Spain, The work of women, The woman of the house (1883) and Domestic service. Her writing cemented her reputation as the founder of the feminist movement in Spain as she often wrote to fight against the prejudice surrounding the supposed physiological, moral and intellectual inferiority of women and explored the consequences of their access to education and work.
Arenal died in 1893 and her gravestone bears her personal motto: To virtue, to life, to science. A statue commemorating Arenal now stands in Madrid and the Library of Law, Political Sciences and Labour Relations of the University of Santiago de Compostela bears her name.