After a short break in which their incredible fiance wrote a fantastic article to cover for them, Laura returns with an article about Luisa Isabel Álvarez de Toledo, 21st Duchess of Medina Sidonia in Spain. While a rebellious aristocrat is not a rare narrative, one who was jailed and exiled for her political efforts, and married her female secretary and partner for twenty years on her deathbed, is less commonplace.
While the phenomenon of a privileged person using their privilege for the good of those who did not share it is not unheard of, Luisa approached it with a fervent strength that is rare.
As the head of the House of Medina Sidonia (the most important ducal house of Spain), Luisa was a powerful woman from a young age. And from that young age, she began actively rebelling against the political ideologies that many wished her to keep alongside her power. By her debut into society at eighteen, she had become vocal about her atheism and overall distaste for religion. That slight against the religious community she grew up in was just the beginning of her stepping outside societal expectations.
As she grew older, she grew into a passionate activist. She spoke out against the dictatorial leader of Spain at the time and joined the Spanish Socialist Party; a party outlawed at the time. She was also found several times at protests. Though there was the initial reaction of respect for her because of her station, it fell away when they realized she was also a part of the resistance.
In a strictly controlled society, it soon became evident to Luisa that she was not as protected by her title as she thought she was. The first example of this was when America accidentally dropped nuclear weapons in a small town in Spain. As much as Luisa was a protester, she was also a researcher, and in this research, she discovered something that people in power didn’t want to be found. Specifically, she found information about an American plane accidentally dropping thermonuclear bombs in a small town and the resulting crop destruction.
Upon finding this information, she went to protest alongside the people of the town, demanding compensation for the damage. She was arrested and jailed for a year because of her actions in defense of that town. It seemed, though, that her jail time did almost nothing to deter her, as she wrote of police brutality even while she was in prison herself. She continued her activism as soon as she was let out.
Because of her maintained political stances and every growing activism, soon after her release, she was exiled to France. She was only allowed back after the death of Franco, the dictator of Spain, and her return was seen as a symbolic shift to the beginning of a democratic government. Soon after her arrival, she has jailed again for “violence against authority,” a conviction many people doubted because of her small build and a lack of evidence against the barely five-foot tall woman.
Her personal life was just as fraught with tension and conflict as her political. Marrying José Leoncio González de Gregorio y Martí, she had three children with him before they divorced. It was after the divorce, when things with her children grew heated, that the troubles began. As a rich person who was also an activist, it is not surprising to find that Luisa gave much to charity. What is surprising is her family’s reaction.
Luisa decided to sell off one of the many estates she had inherited from her father when he died and used the money to benefit the poorer people in Spain. Her family was not happy with this.
Her children accused her of trying to cheat them out of their inheritance, and none of them seemed to care much for where the money was going, just that it wasn’t going to them. They pursued legal action to stop her from doing this and won, so she could not sell her property. This conflict forever tainted the relationship between her and her children.
Outside of her relationship with her children, we find her queer life, which was both personal and political. She was a part of many lesbian groups and was in a relationship with a woman for twenty years before she died on March 7, 2008. Her final act was to marry this woman, who was also her secretary and leave her everything, writing her children out of her will. We will not name this woman because she has spent the time after her wife’s death avoiding being too into the public sphere and we will respect that.
This choice caused a massive amount of controversy - as most choices Luisa made did - but since she was dead, she could not defend it, and again her children took legal action. Luisa gave her wife more than money. Both Luisa and every accountant worth their salt knew her children would be fine and didn't need an inheritance, they all had more than enough to live on, and they were aristocracy, so they weren’t going to starve. What Luisa gave her wife was a legacy.
Her entire life, Luisa worked with the documents her parents had left her and accumulated more for the family library. Through this work, she had made many discoveries. Among those was proof that Columbus was not the first to discover America. She published this information in a book called It Wasn’t Us, and her research was important to her and became her focus later in her life.
So when she was dying, she realized it was unlikely that her children would honour of her wishes for the family library, and would most likely try to sell it. Because of this, she left it to her partner of twenty years and married her in the process.
And when she died, she was proven right.
Her children were furious that she left them out of her will, and they took legal action against their mother’s wife. Again, with their enormous privilege and wealth, they won. While Luisa’s wife was left some things, including a title, the children took a large portion of the estate against their mother’s will. Unfortunately for them, the history they tried to steal was not sellable, as it was legally impossible to split the collection up because of its historical significance.
Luisa’s choices were never respected by her family in life, and after her death, that didn’t change. Her children viewed her relationship with her wife as something she did to spite them, rather than a part of her identity. This shows such a deep and intense level of self-involvement that their further actions are hardly surprising. When Luisa’s wife put her hand in the coffin of Luisa, one of Luisa’s sons accused the woman of trying to block them from their mother, instead of recognizing it was just a woman mourning her dead wife.
Even after her death, they dismissed her queer relationship as just another act of rebellion in her political career, rather than realizing it was part of her identity. We find this often in the queer community; people, often family, seeing queerness as a form of rebellion against society instead of a part of someone. Instead of giving many examples of queer people who are not politically rebellious (we could even point out that queer Republicans exist) we want to explain why this thought exists.
When people are born different from what the surrounding society portrays as “normal,” it affects how they see the world. Being different themselves, they often become more empathetic to people who struggle with similar problems, and it becomes a part of who they are.
Queer people know what it is like to be marginalized, and that is a fact that makes many of us more receptive and open to hearing and learning about other marginalized communities. Something beautiful that stems from that empathy are action.
Queer people know what it’s like to lack privilege, and from that, they often take steps to make sure that isn’t something the next generation of queer people have to deal with and sometimes extend that to outside of the queer community. It is easy to find queer activists who are also active in other political movements because it is the obvious next step to many of us. If we are disadvantaged, surely others are too? Surely there are other communities that, like ours, have been placed in vulnerable positions by a society that fears anyone who isn’t exactly what they think of as normal.
The journey to becoming aware of our queerness often requires a level of introspection that lends itself to a deeper thought that can reveal other truths. In a hetero-cisnormative society, to discover you do not fit into the gender binary they set for you, or aren’t attracted to the people society expects you to be, requires intense self-reflection. You are forced to push against preconceived notions of gender and sexuality, so many people often end up pushing other boundaries as well. Luisa is an amazing example of this, and we don't want to deny that her queerness was probably an active part of her development into an activist.
Although this was just a part of who she was as a person, the society she lived in forced her to choose. She could either hate herself, try her best to ignore and hide away that part of her, and follow what people expected of her, or step outside the lines. She decided to accept and be proud of that aspect of herself, and by choosing that path, she pushed against the grain and never stopped doing that.
She always pushed against what other aristocrats wanted from her and instead worked to give underprivileged people what they needed. Her life is a true inspiration, with levels upon levels of intersectionality we should all strive towards. While most of us who are out of the closet and many of us who aren’t are already political, it is important to expand our activism beyond things that benefit our community. To move forward and help other marginalized communities where we can, even if our focus lies in the queer community. Our existence is an act of rebellion, so why not take that next step?
[Disclaimer: some of the sources may contain triggering material]
The Independent. The Duchess of Medina Sidonia: Aristocrat whose radicalism earned her the
title 'Red Duchess'. Retrieved August 1 2016 from http://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/the-duchess-of-medina-sidonia-aristocrat-whose-radicalism-earned-her-the-title-red-duchess-796812.html
Keeley, G. (2008, March 16.) The New York Times. Red Dutchess wed lesbian lover to snub
children. Retrieved August 1 2016 from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/1581862/Red-Duchess-wed-lesbian-lover-to-snub-children.html
Badcock, J. (2015, October 12.) The Telegraph. Children of 'Red Duchess’ who married lesbian
lover on deathbed in battle over legacy. Retrieved August 1 2016 from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/spain/11927573/Children-of-Red-Duchess-who-married-lesbian-lover-on-deathbed-in-battle-over-legacy.html
Badcock, J. (2015, December 18.) The Telegraph. Spain's 'Red Duchess' children win €33m
inheritance. Retrieved August 1 2016 from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/spain/12058729/Spains-Red-Duchess-children-win-33m-inheritance.html
Revolvy. Luisa Isabel Álvarez de Toledo, 21st Duchess of Medina Sidonia.