Assassination of the Modern Woman: Hildegart and Aurora Rodríguez

UPDATE: April 7, 2014 – I assigned the film and podcast in my Spanish literature seminar this semester; read about my lesson plans and student responses here.

This week I found an excellent short film on the murder of the 17-year-old Spanish prodigy Hildegart Rodríguez at the hands of her mother, Aurora, in Madrid in 1933. The Red Virgin (dir: Sheila Pye, 2012) is a 17-minute representation of Hildegart’s and Aurora’s complicated relationship. The director and the actresses do excellent jobs of capturing the obsessive nature of Aurora, the youth and intellect of Hildegart, and the tensions that surfaced in this mother-daughter relationship. At only 17 minutes, the film is visually suggestive, and at times a bit eerie. I especially appreciated the parallels between the first and last scenes – monologues by Hildegart and Aurora respectively. My only criticism of the film is that it is in English (with Spanish subtitles), even though both lead actresses are native Spanish speakers. The first and final scenes, for example, might be more powerful if the lines were spoken in Spanish, rather than in a sometimes accented-English.

Given that I recently watched El laberinto del fauno for the fourth time since it is part of my Textual Analysis course, I found the casting of Ivana Baquero (Ofelia) as Hildegart and Maribel Verdú (Mercedes) as her mother, Aurora, to be particularly intriguing. My students had analyzed at length the parallels between Mercedes and Ofelia in the film, as well as the relationship between those two particular female characters, so I couldn’t help but think of the the mother-daughter relationship in terms of power dynamics.

In the Spain of the 1930s, many liberal reforms were welcomed by the Second Republic, thus creating an atmosphere in which intellectuals, and the educated public, became more receptive to liberal ideas regarding women’s positions in public life. Women like Margarita Nelken and Federica Montseny even held positions within the government during the 1930s prior to the onset of the Civil War. Despite her youth and the exceptional circumstances of her life and death, Hildegart voiced strong opinions regarding sexual reform and the women’s movement in Spain at this time, and her writings stand out for what appear to be quite daring, polemic titles for the traditionally conservative Spanish public: La rebeldía sexual de la juventud (1931), Profilaxis Anticoncepcional (1931), and ¿Se equivocó Marx? (1932), to name a few. 

For more information on these fascinating women, I highly recommend listening to this excellent podcast (in Spanish) from the Radio Nacional Española, from where I borrowed the title of this post: Documentos RNE – “Aurora Rodríguez y su hija Hildegarte: el asesinato de la mujer moderna.” The narrative goes beyond that of the life and murder of Hildegart and dedicates considerable time to exploring the life and formation of her mother, Aurora. I found Aurora’s eugenic philosophy towards motherhood and reproduction particularly fascinating given my work on women’s attitudes towards maternity in early 20th century Spain. This underlying eugenic discourse is also evident in anarcho-feminist writings, and I have written about Federica Montseny’s subtle incorporation of these principles in many of her fictional narratives (novellas).

Finally, Alison Sinclair’s recent book, Sex and Society in Early Twentieth-Century Spain. Hildegart Rodriguez and the World League of Sexual Reform (Cardiff: U of Wales P, 2007) examines how certain ideas regarding sex reform and eugenics were adapted in Spain during the 1930s. Rather than merely summarizing these ideas, Sinclair concentrates of their “manner of adaptation” in order to better understand those local conditions and customs that made the Spanish nation more receptive to such interests at this particular historical moment (7). She also points to both pathologies of motherhood and to eugenics in her discussion of Aurora and Hildegart, noting that Aurora’s dominance in “engineering” Hildegart’s life was evident from the child’s conception, to her education, to her death: “In both a material sense and in the psychoanalytic understanding of the term, she was the ‘object’ created by her mother” (136-38). It’s a fascinating read overall, and even includes a few reproductions of public health brochures from the 1920s – one of which is decorating the door to my office:

Salvad vuestros hijos

“We don’t ask that you be chaste/pure… but cautious/careful… for better offspring


I’m excited to incorporate The Red Virgin into my literature course next semester, since so far my students have seemed to enjoy analyzing film alongside literary texts. If you have time to watch it, let me know your thoughts!

About Dr. Rebecca Bender

Spanish professor
This entry was posted in Feminism, First-wave spanish feminism, Science and Medicine, Women and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Assassination of the Modern Woman: Hildegart and Aurora Rodríguez

  1. Pingback: The Red Virgin: Motherhood and Power Dynamics | Rebecca M. Bender, PhD

  2. Pingback: Murderous Mothers and the Discourse of Infanticide | Rebecca M. Bender, PhD

  3. Pingback: Bicycles, typewriters, and sex!?!? Cultures of the Erotic in early 20th Century Spain | Rebecca M. Bender, PhD

  4. Pingback: Discovering “The Soul of Spain”… in Kansas! | Rebecca M. Bender, PhD

  5. Eddie May says:

    ‘ Federica Montseny even held positions within the government during the 1930s prior to the onset of the Civil War’ – this is factually incorrect. Montseny entered the wartime Loyalist Govt along with 3 other anarchists in 1937.
    Furthermore, your post gives a slightly misleading impression of the degree to which liberal ideas were welcomed in Spain – they were very much contested by the Catholic centre & extreme right wing forces. You’d do well to remember that the centre right CEDA were in power from 1933-1936 & did all they could to roll back any progress made between 1931-33.

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