Article by Christian Vega, University of Mary Washington, April 2011
Gasper Melchor de Jovellanos, one of the most influential figures during the Spanish Enlightment period, voiced his support of women’s abilities and potential contributions to Spanish society in his article “Discurso sobre si se debían o no admitir las señoras en la Sociedad Económica de Madrid,” published in the journal Memorial literario in April of 1786. Jovellanos was one of several intellectuals (including Pedro Rodríguez de Campomanes, Francisco de Cabarrús, and Josefa Amar y Borbón) who debated publicly the benefits and dangers of women’s admission as members of the Royal Economic Society of Madrid, an important institution of political, economic and social reform in the late Enlightenment period in Spain.
Jovellanos was born to an artistrocatic family in Gijion in Asturias, Spain in 1744. At 13 he received a scholarship to study law at the Universidad de Alcalá where he also began his poetic career. He wrote numerous poems including satires which reflected his colorful personality. In 1788 he gained a judicial post in Madrid where he wrote many influential works for Sociedad Patriotia, La Academia de Historia among others. Exiled from Madrid to Gijón (Asturias) from 1790 to 1797, he founded the Instituto Asturiano, an institution to promote reform in Asturias and also completed his Diario, which was his biographical account. Because of his political views and opposition of the Catholic Church and the Inquisition he was imprisoned (1801-1808). When released the Peninsular War was taking place and France invaded Spain, which saw Joseph Bonaparte take the Spanish throne in Madrid. Jovellanos turned down positions in the French government and instead joined the Junta Central (patriotic party) and contributed to reorganizing the Cortes Generales (Legislature). But when it fell under suspicion he was driven out by the French and he returned to a celebrated welcome in Gijón. Upon his arrival he was driven out by the French and took refuge in a port of Vega, where he died in November 1811.
Known as a man of letters Jovellanos was a wide-range writer and while he is known to have written some of the finest poetry of his century, his rise to literary fame is attributed to his published works in the fields of politics, economics, education and other prevalent issues. During a time when many thought Spain was falling behind intellectually in Europe (England, France, Germany), Jovellanos remained a passionate patriot devoted to the betterment of his country. He constantly provided concern on how to reform existing intuitions by proposing new ideas on how to improve socially, economically and educationally.
He was also an active member of La Sociedad Economica de los Amigos del Pais during his tenure in Madrid. The society was created when many Spaniards recognized that Spain was falling behind other European countries economically and socially. It was composed of many brilliant intellectuals, statesmen, and economists that included, Pedro Rodríguez de Campomanes. Here they discussed important issues and collaborated to try and stimulate development in Spain.
Some of his most known works from his vast collection include the Informe sobre la Ley Agraria (Report on the Agrarian Law, 1794), where he emphasizes the importance of education. He proposes the creation of ‘useful sciences’ be taught by instructors, because these interests derive from human need to attain knowledge and reason. Essentially saying that “knowledge is power” and if ascertained widely it will enhance Spanish prosperity. These methods were met with criticism because they were by no means trivial matters,and involved changing the educational system. Other works by Jovellanos that focussed on education were his Memoria sobre la educación pública, Tratado teórico-práctico de enseñanza (Report on Public Education, Theoretical and practical treatise on education 1802 ), his Bases para un Plan General de Instrucción Pública (Foundations for a general system of public instruction 1809) and Reglamento para el establecimiento de escuelas gratuitas (Regulations for the establishment of non-fee-paying schools), where he extended his broad reach to include the topic of women and education.
Jovellanos was one of the leaders of the movement that helped see women gain admission into “Sociedad Economica de los Amigos del Pais”. In his work “Discurso sobre si se debian o no admitir las senoras en la Sociedad Economica de Madrid” (1786) he makes his stance on the issue clear: women should be allowed admission with the same formalities and with the same powers as the other members, without making another separate institution.” History shows that his proposition didn’t go exactly as planned and though at first women were initially admitted to the Sociedad, a separate class was soon created for them called Junta de Damas. La Junta de Damas, which was the first civic organization for women, saw increasingly positive strides, where upper class women focused on charity and humanitarian work. This kind of work was seen as an acceptable form of contribution to the Spanish Enlightment reform. The Junta de Damas deserves praise because it was one of the first steps forward for social equality. In 2011, two centuries after Jovellanos’ death, one can see the historic results of these early efforts, when for the first time a European country (Spain) has a government where more women than men held positions in power under Prime Minister Jose Rodriguez Zapatero.
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