Spain's Irene Montero: from anti-austerity agitator to minister

Marie GIFFARD
·3-min read
Irene Montero is known for a confrontational, unabashedly feminist style of politics

A protester-turned-politician, Spain's Equality Minister Irene Montero is an outspoken feminist and young mover-and-shaker in the leftwing government.

A huge rainbow flag graces the front of her ministry, trailing the draft law on transgender rights that Montero -- the partner of the leader of the radical leftwing Podemos -- will present this spring.

Her plan to let people register a gender change on their identity documents without a medical report faces stern opposition from the Socialists, who run Spain's coalition government in which Podemos is the junior partner.

Born in Madrid to a father in the removals business and a teacher mother, Montero went to a liberal Montessori-style school then as a teen joined a Communist youth organisation.

In politics, she has embraced a confrontational style hallmarked by an assertive defence of feminism.

While she can both divide and annoy, in 2017 the strategy saw her flagged by Forbes magazine as one of the most influential European politicians under 30.

Her persona is pure Podemos, slotting into the party led by her partner Pablo Iglesias which emerged out of the anti-austerity "Indignados" movement that occupied squares across Spain in 2011 at the height of the economic crisis.

With a PhD in psychology, Montero has been at the forefront of Iglesias' leadership team since the party was formed in 2014, and a year later was elected as an MP when Podemos surged into Spanish parliament for the first time.

- Two at the top -

At 33, her style is casual, with a jacket thrown over a T-shirt.

And she's well versed in "speaking the language of the people, in a simple, unsophisticated way that is 'less highbrow' than her Podemos colleagues, almost all of whom are political scientists or university professors", says political analyst Euprepio Padula.

Just 29 when she became the leader of Podemos' parliamentary group, Montero made her mark in 2017 when she took to the podium to argue for an ultimately unsuccessful motion of censure against then rightwing premier Mariano Rajoy.

"It was the first time that a woman had stood up to defend a censure motion," Montero told AFP in an interview, saying she felt "a great sense of responsibility".

As she has gained visibility, the spotlight has also turned on her relationship with Iglesias.

When Podemos entered government in January 2020, Montero was named equality minister and Iglesias became one of Spain's four deputy prime ministers.

Her portfolio was a solid win for a party that until then had made few inroads among female voters and was looking to compete with the Socialists, who "for years have attracted most female voters," noted Jose Rama, a political scientist at Madrid's Autonomous University.

- 'Difficult being in politics' -

As a leadership duo, Iglesias and Montero wield "a huge amount of power because not only do they both hold ministerial portfolios... but they also control the party's internal institutions," he said.

But it has also earned them criticism from within their own party, with the pair under fire for buying a villa with a swimming pool outside Madrid in 2018.

Montero does not take kindly to public questions about her private life, lashing out when an MP from the rightwing opposition Popular Party dared raise the issue of her partner in October.

"I'll have whoever I like in my bed," she snapped in an exchange in parliament.

Describing herself as "psychologist, mother and feminist", Montero has no qualms about attending a TV debate with a baby in a carrier, breastfeeding in an interview or shedding a tear during a speech on gender violence.

On prostitution, gender self-determination and other issues, her opinions have often laid her bare to rightwing and centrist accusations of being a "radical feminist" who has even sown divisions among feminists themselves.

"It's difficult for a young woman to be in politics," mother-of-three Montero admits.

"Regardless of how competent you are, how much experience you have or how politically successful you are, there will always be a political argument that undermines you, whether it's your partner, your friends or your youth."

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