Margarita Nelken lived an intense life during troubled times. She was born in Madrid to parents who were descended from German Jews although her mother was French and her father was Spanish. Her maternal grandfather had been the palace clock-maker and had a watchmaker and jewellers shop in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol. Her foreign origins were often used as a criticism against her by political opponents throughout her life.
Margarita received an exacting and thorough education and started her professional life as a journalist and art critic. Her first printed article was a critique of Goya written at the age of 15 and published in the prestigious London art magazine “The Studio”. She spoke fluent French and German and was the first translator of Kafka into Spanish.
Whilst still very young she changed direction and started to defend feminist causes the complex world of Spanish politics. In 1919 she published her first book “The Social Condition of Women in Spain”. In 1931 at the start of the Second Republic she stood for election as a PSOE candidate representing the region of Extremadura. During this period she married the Dutch ambassador Martin de Paul and also founded Spain’s first day-care centre for women in Las Ventas district.
When the issue of woman’s suffrage was proposed in parliament by Clara Campoamor in 1931, Nelken opposed it on the grounds that women were not sufficiently mature, claiming that a large number of them consulted their confessor before voting. In the elections on 1933 in which women voted for the first time there was a dramatic right-wing victory. During the course of the second republic Margarita was extremely active in defending the interests of the landless peasants of Extremadura and in 1934 judicial proceedings were opened against her for her role in a prolonged peasants’ strike. She immediately fled to France, returning to Spain for the elections of 1936. During the civil war she was active in the defense of Madrid and at the fall of the Republic worked to help republican refugees in the concentration camps of southern France.
Margarita finally went into exile in Mexico where she was an active leader of the Spanish Communist party. She lost her son in 1944 fighting in the Soviet army and her daughter in 1956 to cancer. In later life she returned to her earlier activities as an art critic and journalist whilst also working to help Spanish exiles in Mexico and other countries. She did in Mexico in 1968.