From feminist champion to persona non-grata: What happened to Spain's Equality Minister?

Spain's Minister for Equality, Irene Montero, in Parliament.
Spain's Minister for Equality, Irene Montero, in Parliament. Copyright Euronews
By Laura Llach
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Montero, who was hailed on the cover of Time magazine as the saviour of feminism in Spain now faces a completely uncertain political future. But why?

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Her jaw clenched as she spoke, Spain's former Equality Minister Irene Montero last week wished her successor courage - not luck.

"Today, Pedro Sánchez is kicking me out of this government," Montero said, referring to the newly re-elected Spanish prime minister's cabinet appointments.

Sánchez, who is known for his unexpected cabinet reshuffles, decided not to count on her to continue leading the Equality Ministry and appointed a surprise new minister for feminism, the unknown Ana Redondo.

"I hope they never leave you alone and that you have the courage to make the president's 40- and 50-year-old male friends uncomfortable," Montero said angrily, minutes before handing Redondo the gender equality portfolio.

Her voice, which threatened to break, managed to hold up during the speech.

Hailed on the cover of Time magazine only last February as the saviour of feminism in Spain, Montero now faces a completely uncertain political future.

"Since she became minister in 2020, a nation that not 50 years ago required women to obtain their father's or husband's permission in order to work has consolidated its position among Europe's most feminist countries," said the publication.

But why did the former minister go from front-page news to being removed from office?

Podemos' candidate Irene Montero delivers a speech during their last campaign rally in Madrid on April 26, 2019
Podemos' candidate Irene Montero delivers a speech during their last campaign rally in Madrid on April 26, 2019JAVIER SORIANO/AFP OR LICENSORS

A fall from grace?

The daughter of a removal man and a teacher, Montero - whose only job before entering politics was as a supermarket cashier - rose to the top of Spanish politics with Podemos.

It was in 2015 that the insurgent left-wing party became a dazzling star, putting an end to the two-party system that had been in place in Spain since 1982.

Four years later, Spain's ruling Socialists entered into a coalition agreement with Podemos, and Montero took over the equality ministry.

"There is a lot of polarisation around her, especially from people outside her party. She is a minister who generates resentment and antipathy. She is not the typical candidate who generates transversality. But this is not a yardstick to judge whether she has been a good minister or not," political scientist Lluís Orriols told Euronews.

"There are ministers who seek transversality and consensus and other ministers who want to push an agenda that they know will generate a lot of opposition because it touches on some very entrenched elements in the political culture of a country," he adds.

The minister herself told Time magazine that she had a choice to make: "Are we going to dare to be part of the democratising impulse coming from the feminist movement and civil society, or are we going to maintain a more timid or conservative attitude?"

Although Equality has always been a controversial ministry, Montero's tenure has been particularly turbulent.

Many have criticised her for "hijacking feminism", to the extent that the feminist movement became subservient to the ministry.

"She followed a pattern that sounds like enlightened despotism. The ministry said: 'This is what really protects women. This is what we should really do with transgender people. This is what is authentic, this is what is progressive and this is what we are going to impose," Fernando Vallespín, professor of political science at the Autonomous University of Madrid, told Euronews.

"It wasn't necessary for Irene Montero to be there for feminist advances to be consolidated under a progressive government. It seems to me very questionable that she was so fundamental for women's rights".

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"But what she has really worked for is the inclusion of all LGTBI people, especially transsexuals, as part of feminist rights. A qualitative leap that is not without risk," he adds.

What is clear is that the impact of her policy has not gone unnoticed by the international press.

Spokeswoman in the lower house for the anti-austerity party Podemos, Irene Montero, speaks at the Congress of Deputies in Madrid on June 13, 2017.
Spokeswoman in the lower house for the anti-austerity party Podemos, Irene Montero, speaks at the Congress of Deputies in Madrid on June 13, 2017.CURTO DE LA TORRE/AFP or licensors

The infamous 'only yes is yes' law

Many believe that Montero's resignation is the political price she had to pay after the approval of the new rape law, popularly known as "only yes is yes".

A law whose consequences eventually became unbearable for the government.

The controversial law, which came into force a year ago, was intended to be stricter than the previous code, but instead resulted in reduced sentences for more than 1,000 sex offenders convicted under the previous legislation.

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The reform was a direct response to the infamous 'La Manada' case, in which a young woman was gang raped by five men during the San Fermín celebrations in Pamplona in 2016.

The reform revised the penal code by making sexual consent the key factor in determining assault cases, in an attempt to define all non-consensual sex as rape.

The law abolished the lesser charge of sexual abuse and classified all offences as sexual assault. However, it also reduced the minimum and maximum prison sentences, resulting in offenders having their sentences reduced on appeal.

Spain's Equality Minister Irene Montero, center, attends a demonstration during the International Women's Day in Madrid, Wednesday, March 8, 2023.
Spain's Equality Minister Irene Montero, center, attends a demonstration during the International Women's Day in Madrid, Wednesday, March 8, 2023.CURTO DE LA TORRE/AFP or licensors

Montero ignored warnings from judicial institutions about these consequences before the reform was passed and went ahead with her plan.

"This law was supposed to be the one that would give Podemos political credit, it was supposed to be its star law. Instead, it was very problematic, it wore down the government. What ended up on the public agenda was that many rapists were released from prison," Orriols points out.

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"Instead of becoming the law that would make Irene Montero one of the icons of the feminist struggle, it became a major crisis," he adds.

Probably her biggest mistake, according to experts, was not realising that it was necessary to stop the release of rapists by reforming the newly introduced law.

The ruling Socialist Party had to initiate the new amendment, which was passed with the support of the conservatives and against the will of Podemos.

From that moment on, the minister became the target of everyone's scorn, becoming the worst-rated minister in the government.

Although not everyone feels the same.

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"For the Woke culture, it is possible that she is even seen as a goddess, because she has fought hard in everything else, but for others this is not the case at all. She has become the minister who has made the most noise," says Vallespín.

Time magazine itself asked: Is this crisis a sign of unbridgeable divisions between the progressive, feminist Spain that Montero envisions and a conservative, patriarchal reality that remains entrenched? Or is it a lesson in the perils of applying ideology to society at large?

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