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WOMEN AND POWER : Case Studies: Workplace : Women Fight Stereotypes--and Knuckle Under : 'You always have to prove yourself,' says a female bullfighter.


TOLEDO, Spain — As Spain's only woman bullfighter, Cristina Sanchez has to slay as many stereotypes as bulls. So when an angry beast knocked her flat in the bullring here, she couldn't afford to flinch.

"You always have to prove yourself, or people will say it's because you're a woman that you failed," the 21-year-old Sanchez said later, after fans had carried her from the bloodstained ring in triumph.

"You can't back down, no matter how many tries it takes."

That Friday afternoon she got back up and killed two bulls, leaping over their horns to thrust her sword deep between their shoulder blades.

Fighting bulls--even the 750-pound, 3-year-olds she tackles as a novice--is a dangerous business and for the most part a male domain.

Although some half-dozen Spanish women have preceded her in the ring this century, Sanchez is still a pioneer.

Speaking of those other women, Juan Manuel Moreno Menor, secretary general of the Spanish bullfight promoters association, commented: "There are others who have been a parody, and they've cheapened bullfighting. This young lady fights rather well for her level."

Sanchez's success in breaching one of Spain's last bastions of machismo both underscores the gains of women in Spanish society and highlights lingering discrimination against them.

"In theory we have equal rights. In reality it's not 100%," said Maria Pilar Marmol, secretary general of the Federation of Progressive Women, a Spanish feminist group. "The fact that a woman is being accepted into a world so closed (as bullfighting) is a reflection of the changes in society in general."

Breaking down the legal and cultural barriers that only 15 years ago kept most of them in the home, Spanish women during the 1980s entered virtually every professional field, though not in great numbers.

The traditional roles of mother and housekeeper still predominate, but figures from the government-run Women's Institute indicate that a quarter of Spain's 16 million adult women now work outside the home--up 20% since dictator Francisco Franco's 1975 death.

It appears this trend will continue as more women graduate from universities and European unification generates a new class of upwardly mobile professional women.

However, Spanish women are still underrepresented at the highest levels of commerce and government, Marmol said. Two of 16 Cabinet posts are held by women, top business executives are overwhelmingly male and the Spanish military counts only 137 women among its 250,000 soldiers.

About a third of the major-party candidates in the June 6 general elections were women, but issues such as abortion and sexual harassment receive scant, if any, attention on the campaign trail.

Despite a growing awareness of women's rights, the concept is still novel here and old attitudes die hard. The Spanish press covered the controversy over Anita Hill and Judge Clarence Thomas at the U.S. Senate hearings on Thomas' Supreme Court nomination with a certain bewilderment.

Those old attitudes are particularly obvious at the bullring.

"There will always be some people opposed to a woman bullfighting," Sanchez said. "People will say what they want."

And they do, sometimes shouting catcalls from the stands to rattle her resolve. In the small bullrings where she fights, like the one in Toledo, it's hard to tune out hecklers entirely.

Within the proud and highly competitive bullfighting fraternity, most of her fellow toreros prefer to let their capes do the talking, trying their damnedest not to be outdone in the ring by a woman.

"In bullfighting there's a lot of machismo, " said William Lyon, an American authority on bullfighting and a longtime bullfight columnist for Spanish newspapers. "She gets less support from other toreros, but they know it's politically correct to say everybody should have an equal chance."

Women bullfighters first gained attention in Spain at the turn of the century. A few mediocre male toreros even disguised themselves as women in attempts to advance their careers, Lyon said. (A bullfighter's pay depends heavily on the size of the crowds he or she attracts.)

Women bullfighters again came into vogue during the late 1970s when laws limiting them to fighting the animals from horseback were lifted following Franco's death.

Of the few who entered the ring, however, most were treated as curiosities rather than as serious professionals. Bullfight aficionados regard la corrida-- the bullfight--as a spiritual rite that demands as much artistry as bravery.

Although many people come from miles around to see the lithe, pigtailed Sanchez fight precisely because she's a woman, her promising technique and flashy bravery are winning over even skeptical critics.

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