Author note: This is one of my favorite bits of lesbian history in Spain. Learning about this group of amazing women felt like opening a door into a secret society from a special time in Spain, a time of hope before the dark days of the dictatorship. This is a brief history of the group. Another part will include a biography of some of the group’s alleged members. A last part will include places in the city associated with members of the group that can be visited.
Círculo Sáfico de Madrid came into existence around 1916, existed during the 1920s and came to an end around the start of the Spanish Civil War in 1936. Victorina Durán was the primary organizer and leader of the group. The founding of the group may have been inspired by similar ones that were already in existence in London and Paris. While the word lesbiana had entered the Spanish language by 1870 and was interchangeable with “sáfica” y “sadismo”, it was not a word that lesbians in this period in Madrid could safely use in Madrid society to describe themselves. Hence, the word Sapphic was used instead; it gave credibility because it drew on the historical works of a well-known Greek writer.
The group came out of feminist circles in the city, specifically Residencia de Señoritas and Lyceum Club Femenino. The name of the group was chosen by its founder, Victorina Durán, to denote it as a network of intellectual women. It played an important social and cultural role for members of a minority group. Despite the group having a name, members did not have any nickname for themselves, nor did they view themselves as part of a dissident culture. Instead, members viewed themselves as intellectuals and women who just happened to be united by their interest in women. Their network enabled them to navigate the complexities of living in a modern city.
Members of the group lived in Madrid. Active members of the Círculo Sáfico de Madrid included Victorina Durán, Elena Fortún, Rosa Chacel, Victoria Kent, Matilde Calvo, Margarita Ruiz de Lihory y Resino, Margarita Xirgu, Marisa Roësset Velasco, Lucía Sánchez Saornil, Carmen Conde, Irene Polo, Carmen de Burgos, Consuelo Berges, Gabriela Mistral, María de Maeztu, Marisa Roesset Velasco and Matilde Ras.
Many members held or would later hold high level positions in Spanish society. Victoria Kent would be one of the first of three women in the Congreso de Diputados and be appointed the director general of prisons in the Second Republic, Matilde Calvo was a teacher at the Escuela del Hogar de Mujeres, and Victorina Durán was the cátedra of indumentaria at the Real Conservatorio de Música y Declamación de Madrid. Most of the members were heavily closeted, with their relationships only being known after they went into exile following the end of the Spanish Civil War or following their deaths. Victoria Kent said and wrote little on the topic. Founder Victorina Duran being so publicly out was a rarity for its time. Relationships existed between members, who either met through the group, similar feminist groups or through publishing. One such relationship was between Matilde Ras and Elena Fortún.
The group took some efforts to hide their existence because of society at the time, and self-censorship. Later, their stories were ignored because of the general erasure of lesbians in later periods and because of likely destruction of primary source materials by the women at the end their lives or by family members following their death. Three works by members of the group detail its existence firsthand during its latter stages, namely Así es by Victorina Durán written between 1970 and 1980, Acrópolis by Rosa Chacel published in 1984 and Oculto sendero by Elena Fortún which circulated underground for many years before being published in 2016.
Self-censoring and a desire to be silent because of internalized misogyny meaning women viewed themselves as less valuable play a role in lack of larger amounts of documentary evidence about the group. This is something that both Durán and Chacel lamented in their own writing, even as they sometimes engaged in it themselves. Durán said of this in Así es, “Los hombres, no muchos, han dado ya la cara ante el mundo respecto a su problema. La mujer nada ha dicho aún” which translates as, “Men, not many, have already faced the world regarding their problems. The woman has said nothing yet.”. El pensionado de Santa Casilda and Oculto sendero by Elena Fortún were both almost burned twice at the request of the author before her death.
Spanish society was aware of lesbians in their society in the period between the Rif War and the Civil War. The marriage between Elisa and Marcela had been widely read across the peninsula, and because of the medicalization and pathologizing of homosexuality thanks to the works of doctors like Gregorio Marañon. Still, lesbian remained a dirty word.
The end of the Rif War also brought a bit more of a bohemian environment in middle- and upper-class circles in Madrid, with some greater tolerance of homosexuality as a result of cabaret artists, and the diversity of sexuality appearing in Spanish literature of the era. This included in Spanish dicos, cuplets and novels. Zezé by Angeles Vicente García, released in 1909, was the first lesbian coming-of-age novel to be published in Spain. Lesbian themed works that would be important to exposing wider society to lesbianism in this period included La Coquito by Joaquín Belda in 1915, Ellas y ellos y ellos y ellas by Carmen de Burgos in 1917, El veneno del arte by Carmen de Burgos in 1910 and Un sueño de la razón by Rivas Cherif in 1928. They were also important works read by members of the Círculo Sáfico.
Círculo Sáfico de Madrid held regular meetings. The hidden nature of the meetings and the group allowed for inner transformation of its members, and a safe place where they could explore these feelings. For some members, this also meant their ideologies, identities and inclinations also changed.
Since a meeting of lesbians was viewed as taboo, actual meetings of the group worked through an open secret of when and where they met. By operating in this way, they were able to gain support from both men and women in Madrid society. For this reason, the group did not have a permanent location. Instead, they met at various places in Madrid and in Paris. One meeting place was the Bar Dublin; another was Café Roma; a third was the salon of the Teatro Español. Others included the El Ateneo and the Café Granja El Henar. Because meetings were often at cafes, part of other social gatherings or in private homes, it put many of the members into literary environments and events exploring new artistic movements. This sometimes put them at conflict with men who did not appreciate these women encroaching on their intellectual spaces. Only El Ateneo and Café Granja El Henar explicitly allowed women into these intellectual circles; the rest barred women so they had to sneak in. It also meant that a lot of meetings in Madrid were required to be at private houses. Gabriela Mistral hosted a meeting in 1935. Unlike men, they did hold formal tertulias as their network was more informal. Women in the group found freedom for their activities behind closed doors. Meetings often took place twice a week, with Thursday evenings being a fixed date but where the location would often change.
Setting up and inviting people to a meeting is discussed in Acropolis. Women were invited to join after others established an intimate bond with them to such a degree that it was safe for them to inquire about their sexual identity. Some were identified for potential membership because of their bad reputation, which often could be code for being a lesbian.
Members of the group sometimes met in Paris, gathering at Rue Monsieur Le Prince in the city and visiting places like the Casino de Paris and Folies Bergère. Paris was an ideal location as many were keen to travel, to get out of what they saw was a culturally backward country. France, and Paris specifically, allowed them to escape the oppressive conservative environment that was Madrid. Members attending Paris meetings included Margarita Ruiz de Lihory y Resino and Victorina Durán. One meeting took place in 1924. It was in Paris that Spanish lesbians would also come into contact with other lesbians and feminists like Djuna Barnes, Natalie Clifford Barney, Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Janet Flanner and Sylvia Beach; they would bring these ideas back to Madrid and other organizations they belonged to in the city. They were often held on an annual basis.
The Salamanca district of Madrid was another important meeting place for members. The district felt safe and comfortable, and was home to a number of stately homes and artist studios. Among those living in the district was Victorina Durán, who resided at calle de Ventura de la Vega, 1. Another place where members gathered and socialized was Rastro.
Lyceum Club Femenino was a place connected to many members of the circle. It was a refuge from sexism in Madrid during the 1920s and 1930s, offering a place for these women to be intellectuals and to gather with other like-minded women. It was also a place where members of the circle would meet friends and lovers, and to have flirtations. Elena Fortún, a member of the circle, was one of the founding members of the Lyceum Club Femenino.
Lesbians though were not always welcome by club members with Federica Montseny explicitly denouncing their participation and Carmen Baroja rejecting it. Members of the Circle were viewed by some members of the Lyceum as being too masculine.
Latin American women were welcomed into the group when they visited the city, resulting in a number of friendships and collaborations. Visitors included Chilean Gabriela Mistral who visited in 1928 and was close to Victoria Kent and María de Maeztu, and Cuban anthropologist Lydia Cabrera and Venezuelan writer María Teresa de la Parra who were lovers. Mistral gave a recital, and Cabrera and de la Parra both gave talks.
The lesbian themed movie Muchachas de uniforme was released in 1931, and enjoyed by members of the Círculo Sáfico by 1934. The German film also introduced lesbianism to the masses in Spain as it was likely the first lesbian themed movie in the world. Victorina Durán, a regular movie goer, saw the movie and noted it in her writings.
The car was an important symbol to members of the group as it allowed them freedom to visit friends, lovers and flirtations away from the city and its prying eyes.
While members were often known for or suspected of being lesbians, they tried to be circumspect and behave in socially appropriate ways to avoid public consternation. Members often used coded language to aide in their subterfuge. One phrase for identifying other lesbians as así es. It is for that reason that Victorina Durán used the phrase as the title of her autobiography detailing her homosexual experiences. The phrase is also used by Rosa Chacel in Acropolis and Elena Fortún in Oculto sendero.
In 1928, the need to avoid any public display that could be read as inappropriate and causing public scandal became even more important to members ; it was at this time that causing a public was written into law with capítulo VI del número 257 de Gaceta de Madrid published on 13 September 1928 as being illegal. Section 613 contained three articles that explicitly detailed how lesbians should be prosecuted under this law.
The group likely continued to function, even in exile as late as 1945 with Victorina Durán, Elena Fortún, and Rosa Chacel among those participating in meetings taking place on Saturdays in Buenos Aires. Matilde Ras had gone to Lisbon, and was not part of the group though she kept up with members via letters.
During the Franco period, the state tried to erase the memory of many of the members of the group, including Victorina Durán. For members and a new generation of lesbians who remained in Spain during the dictatorship, the state nominally and unintentionally gave them a new space to congregate and form lesbian circles; they did so within Seccion Feminina, with single and unmarried women who lived alone or with other women rising to power within the organization, holding these positions on the margins of power.