The social-democratic road to maternity leave: revisiting the role of social groups in the development of Spanish family policies, 1900-36

May 17, 2022 | Blog
Home > The social-democratic road to maternity leave: revisiting the role of social groups in the development of Spanish family policies, 1900-36

by Guillem Verd Llabrés (University of Barcelona)

New Researcher’s paper presented at the Economic History Society’s  annual conference, 2022, session: NRIIA


The development of welfare states between 1880 and 1945, was a significant institutional innovation in the modern era.  Although there is a consensus about the role of democratisation and economic growth in rising social spending, determining the importance of specific factors which explain differences in the scale and timing of this expenditure are not yet resolved.  Many authors stress the role of the social-democratic working class in driving the process, while others argue that employers, Catholics, Doctors, or middle-class women, were equally important.

This paper addresses the debate by studying Spanish compulsory maternity leave.  Implemented in 1931, it guaranteed most women workers  paid compulsory leave for  six weeks following childbirth,  and up to 6 weeks after that.  It was funded by employers’ and workers’ contributions, and subsidised by the State.  Moreover, it was the first step towards comprehensive social insurance, covering health, invalidity, and maternity. Throughout its development, Spain experienced substantial regime changes—a competitive oligarchy during the Restauration regime, the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera (1923-1931), and the quasi-democratic regime of the Second Republic (1931-1936).

This study relies on the National Welfare Institute, the leading Spanish  social policy institution founded in 1908.  In a report published in 1927, (información pública sobre el anteproyecto de Seguro obligatorio de maternidad/em), the Institute tested  public opinion on the Draft Bill that they were developing.  The document contained the revealed preferences of the most relevant competing groups—employers, workers, medical staff, and women—and their ideologies—Catholics, socialists, or liberals—on the scheme.  This source permits comparison of participants’ views regarding coverage, benefits, and funding, and the analysis of the opinions of competing organisations.

Stylised results suggest that the different groups advocated different types of scheme implementation.  First, women and employers generally agreed with the Draft Bill, which, with few differences, would be enacted in 1929, and implemented in 1931.  Simultaneously,  the remaining participants also endorsed the proposed scheme.  However, workers, and Catholics advocated family-extended maternity leave that included the wives of the insured workers, while medical staff preferred a more professional scheme that covered all women workers.  In this regard, Catholic workers were willing to defend the most ambitious scheme that would include all female workers and male workers’ wives.

However, qualitative analysis reveals some important exceptions to these general views.  Some socialist respondents were more prone to accept the workers’ contribution and defend the inclusion of all female workers. Its coverage was also crucial for women like the leading Spanish Suffragette Clara Campoamor.  Conversely, the sample’s two most relevant employer’s organisations, based in  Barcelona and Madrid, were reluctant to fund the scheme.

When comparing these features within their broader, historical context, one can discuss the different attitudes toward social policies that were expressed by the competing groups, and assess their lobbying capacity.  Although social-Catholics were pioneers in claiming maternity leave, and advocated a more generous scheme, they never enforced this model when they enjoyed prominent positions—either during the Restoration Regime, or under the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera.  Therefore, compulsory maternity leave was enforced and developed in a health insurance project that covered all female workers workers, by a socialist-republican coalition government after 1931.


Moreover, socialists influenced the changing attitudes of the working class towards social insurance in this period.  Despite beginning to support these policies after World War I, they refused to pay their contributions until 1931, even if they had to sacrifice coverage and benefits. Only when they reached office after the Second Republics’ proclamation they did defend the need for workers’ to fund the scheme.


In conclusion, this research  supports those views which argue that social democracy was the main driver of the welfare state.  This research also provides an explanation for changing attitudes toward social insurance that are consistent with the literature.



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