Small-Town Spanish Life in 1943: 'No Decent Woman Is Ever Seen on a Bicycle'

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The 12 rules a local church leader prescribed for his community
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In Spain, traveling through a cork forest near the Portuguese border, James Michener once stumbled upon a small town in a clearing, where he found posted to the oak door of the church a list of twelve rules. They'd been promulgated years before by a local bishop intent on shaping local life. And they capture something about Spanish life in the days of Franco and Catholic dominance.

Dated July 11, 1943, the poster read as follows:

1. Women shall not appear on the streets of this village with dresses that are too tight in those places which provoke the evil passions of men.

2. They must never wear dresses that are too short.

3. They must be particularly careful not to wear dresses that are low-cut in front.

4. It is shameful for women to walk in the streets with short sleeves.

5. Every woman who appears in the streets must wear stockings.

6. Women must not wear transparent or network cloth over those parts which decency requires to be covered.

7. At the age of twelve girls must begin to wear dresses that reach to the knee, and stockings at all times.

8. Little boys must not appear in the streets with their upper legs bare.

9. Girls must never walk in out-of-the-way places because to do so is both immoral and dangerous.

10. No decent woman or girl is ever seen on a bicycle.

11. No decent woman is ever seen wearing trousers.

12. What they call in the cities 'modern dancing' is strictly forbidden.

That's the translation provided in Michener's singular nonfiction book, Iberia, and every time I read it I can't help but marvel at how singularly focused the rule-makers were on female sexuality - and that all this happened in the lifetime of the older woman who owned the apartment where I boarded while I studied in Seville. The Spain I know may be less liberal about nudity than the Germans and Swedes, but it is a country where young couples kiss in the streets, nude beaches are easily found, and topless sunbathing is common from San Sebastian to Cadiz. 

Today clothes-related controversy more often turns on whether Muslim women are wearing too much of it. Seven decades hence, one wonders if the hijab will seem as unfathomable as the church door rules of yesteryear, or if those who would outlaw it will be remembered as small tyrants.


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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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