Was she a dangerous woman?

Dr María Alonso AlonsoMaría Alonso Alonso holds a PhD in Literature from the Universidade de Vigo. She is currently a Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Edinburgh. Her research interests centre upon both Diaspora and Gender Studies. She is the author of Diasporic Marvellous Realism: History, Identity and Memory (Brill, 2015) and of the forthcoming Transmigrantes: fillas da precariedade (Axóuxere, in press). Apart from her work within academia, she is also an award-winning fiction author in the Galician language.

To answer the titular question: yes, of course she was; and she remains so.

Born in 1837 in Santiago de Compostela, the capital city of Galicia, Rosalía de Castro was one of the first female authors in Spain who published her texts under her real name, rather than under a pseudonym. That fact, which could be considered significant in itself, was just a sign of Castro’s rebellious spirit against the conventions of the time. She was also one of the leading figures of the ‘Rexurdimento’ (Galician Revival), a literary movement that bloomed during the second half of the 19th century that aimed to liberate Galicia from its cultural and political ostracism.

Assumed to be inhabited by Celts before the Roman Conquest, Galicia is located on the northwest of the Iberian Peninsula. Rosalía de Castro is considered to be the author who took Galician literature from its dark ages, a period which had lasted for centuries after the fall of the celebrated medieval Galician-Portuguese literary tradition. As Geoffrion-Vinci highlights, Castro was marginalised during her lifetime, alongside her historically repressed region, as the culture of the time was to ridicule Galicia, its language and its peoples. In order to understand the importance of Castro in this process of cultural empowerment, it is therefore necessary to consider the contexts of her time and place.

Davies reminds us that Castro’s writing career coincides with a highly convulsive period in Spanish history that led to a number of revolutions in progressive and liberal nature that gave way to the First Spanish Republic and its aftermath. Thanks to the influence of European Romanticism and the rise of provincial awareness, the 19th century witnessed what is now considered to be the renaissance of Galician political and cultural movements.

Despite Castro’s prolific literary production, which includes poetry and fiction, she was ignored by her peers, as well as by academia, for some time. Mayoral or Fernández de la Vega, amongst other scholars, comment on the fact that Rosalía de Castro’s works did not appear in many of the literary anthologies of her time. They also mention the lack of critical studies around Castro’s oeuvre until the second half of the 20th century. As a matter of fact, it was the so-called ‘Generación del 98’ that started to pay attention to Castro as a costumbrist and folkloric literary figure, a controversially patronising view which was also held by the first academic studies devoted to her work. Until recently, Spanish scholars considered Castro to be a sentimental, emotive and liminal author. But whilst Franco’s regime undervalued Castro’s literary significance, her figure as an outstanding poet bloomed beyond the Spanish borders, especially on the American continent.

Pociña and López consider that Castro herself was completely aware of her dangerous potential, yet she needed to avoid the censorship of the time. This awareness was probably the reason for her to use captatio benevolentiae in most of her works – a rhetorical technique aimed at gaining the readers’ favour. She also utilised other literary devices to disguise her political activism under the seemingly inoffensive folkloric tradition.

Despite all the difficulties she endured during her career, she was the precursor of new themes and topics in Iberian literature that deviated from the norm. Readers can find amongst Castro’s interests, and as Courteau points out, “her concern for the condition of the Galician peasant, the state of Galician language and culture, and the condition of women as a person and as an artist” (iv). Furthermore, she struggled during her entire life with a series of financial problems that threatened to jeopardise her career and felt completely unheralded as an author by her coevals.

Rosalía de Castro was indeed a dangerous woman, an exceptional writer and a pivotal figure for Galician nationalism. Through a three-fold structure around the topics of ‘gender’, ‘language’ and ‘nation’, I shall now explain why I believe Castro’s significance should be endorsed by the Dangerous Women Project. She was a dangerous woman who rebelled against not only her enemies, but also against those who were supposed to be her allies when they brushed her aside. She was a pioneering author who promoted women’s rights and other revolutionary topics through her works.

The lack of female independence, the working conditions of harvest workers, emigration, and the prejudices of the emerging conservative bourgeoisie are among Castro’s main concerns. Since a melancholic mood inhabits much of her poetry and fiction on the female condition, some early academic studies considered Castro to be a female subject in crisis, in the Kristevan sense of the term.

Albert Robatto questions these early interpretations of Castro’s feminine tenderness and urges the need to reconsider straightforward readings around the portrayal of Galician women in her texts. As a matter of fact, Castro uses folklore and popular songs to criticise the difficulties of women being independent without the assistance of male figures around them (due to the social and religious constrains of the time). Some scholars, Pociña and López included, ponder whether Castro could be considered to be a feminist author before feminism was even postulated. Acknowledging this paradox, the truth is that a close examination of her work suggests that she embodied some of what are now commonly known as feminist ideals.

“Cantares Gallegos”, Castro’s poetry collection published in 1863, was the first literary text written entirely in the Galician language. She used her mother tongue without having a specific audience to target or a literary tradition that could be used as a reference due to the fact that the cultural language of the time was Spanish. Language in certain contexts can be highly political and for that reason Castro used both Spanish and Galician. As Rábade Villar points out, writing in these two languages in the 19th century was a subversive act. With this, Castro exemplified the dangers of the Spanish linguistic colonisation of the Galician nation, which was putting at risk the survival of her native language.

As previously mentioned, Castro was criticised for using the Galician language by the traditional literary Spanish mainstream; however, she was also criticised for using the Spanish language by some of the leaders of the Galician nationalist movement. This is just an example of the scrutiny that her identity as an emerging female author was subject to, and might also explain why she manifested her intention of not using the Galician language later in her career. As she explained in some of her texts, she felt that she was being treated as a foreigner in her own country.

But Rosalía de Castro did not just write in the Galician language; she also talked about her home country and celebrated the Galician nation in her texts. She wrote some of her most important works from the diaspora since she lived outside Galicia for a long time as she accompanied her husband, the well-known Galician historian Manuel Murguía. It was this geographical distance which fed her activism as she realised how Galicia was unfairly treated beyond its own borders.

This commitment towards her home country fascinates the contemporary reader to the point that Castro’s figure has been surrounded by a number of stereotypes. She now embodies the soul of the Galician nation as well as its Celtic tradition. She has been proclaimed as the voice of her people. She has become a legend. Rosalía de Castro is Galicia, and Galicia is Rosalía de Castro.

This exaggerated praise is obviously controversial. It is true that Castro is an intriguing author and that she embodied the Galician nationalistic ideals. As Davies puts it, the universal dimension of her works, her social ideals, her political awareness continue to endure in our society and that helps to explain our interest in the author. However, this woman-nation correspondence might be downplaying her dangerous nature. According to this simile, Rosalía de Castro belongs both to the public and to academia. It is because of this that most people address her by her first name, even within research articles. She is ‘Rosalía’, ‘our Rosalía’. Is it possible to imagine a scholar writing about Shakespeare, Cervantes or even some of Castro’s coetaneous writers such as Pondal or Pardo Bazán by simply referring to their first names?

This inferred familiarity departs from what Miguélez-Carballeira defines as the genesis of the Galician sentimental discourse for political purposes. Through the stereotypes that surround Castro as a legendary female figure that embodies the Galician nation and whose poetry stems from her personal suffering, her revolutionary potential as a dangerous woman is neutralised. For Miguélez-Carballeira, it is due to the ‘sentimentality’ that blooms from the allegories like the one mentioned above that Galician people are considered in popular culture as “nostalgic people, living in harmonious communion with their landscape or yearning for its beauty if away from it”. Miguélez-Carballeira provides the keys to understanding the danger of mystification. In Castro’s case, the woman-nation correspondence results from a patriarchal discourse that has fostered a series of metaphors that inevitably affect women. The personification of the Galician nation through Rosalía de Castro turns her into a stereotypical character. This might promote preconceived approaches and prevent scholars from articulating critical considerations around her figure and her works.

It seems obvious that there is an urgent need for a new approach to both Rosalía de Castro’s persona and her writings, above all one that considers her as an independent author that revolted against being classified within any kind of paradigm. This suggests that future readings of her works will need to take Castro into consideration as a dangerous woman who did not belong to anyone but to herself.


Albert Robatto, Matilde. 1981. Rosalía de Castro y la condición femenina. Madrid: Partenón.

Courteau, Joanna. 1995. The poetics of Rosalía de Castro’s Negra Sombra. Lewiston: Edwin Mellen.

Davies, Catherine. 1986. “A ideoloxía político-social de Rosalía: raíz do seu pesimismo existencial”. Actas do Congreso internacional de estudos sobre Rosalía de Castro e o seu tempo. Santiago de Compostela: Consello da Cultura Galega, pp. 299-306.

Davies, Catherine. 1987. Rosalía de Castro no seu tempo. Vigo: Galaxia.

Fernández de la Vega, Celestino. 1952. “Campanas de Bastabales. Meditación sobre Rosalía”. 7 ensaios sobre Rosalía. Vigo: Galaxia, pp. 49-74.

Geoffrion-Vinci, Michelle C. 2002. Between the maternal aegis and the abyss: woman as a symbol in the poetry of Rosalía de Castro. Madison and London: Associated University Presses.

Mayoral, Marina. 1974. La poesía de Rosalía de Castro. Madrid: Gredos.

Miguélez-Carballeira, Helena. 2013. Galicia, a sentimental nation: Gender, Culture and Politics. Cardiff: University of Wales Press.

Pociña, Andrés and Aurora López. 2004. Rosalía de Castro: estudios sobre su vida y su obra. Santiago de Compostela: Laiovento.

Rábade Villar, María do Cebreiro. 2012. “Rosalía de Castro y el mito del progreso. Elementos para una nueva política del tiempo”. Canon y subversión: la obra narrativa de Rosalía de Castro. Barcelona: Icaria, pp. 79-98.


The author wishes to thank Manuel Forcadela for sharing his invaluable knowledge on Rosalía de Castro and for his kind support during the writing of this piece.

With thanks also to ReiZentolo for permission to use their iconic image of Rosalía de Castro.