Article by Lucia Morey, University of Mary Washington, April, 2011
In “Oda a la beneficencia” (Ode to Beneficence), Spanish playwright and poet María Rosa Gálvez praises the charitable efforts of the womens’ organization the Junta de Damas (Board of Ladies), in particular their work with the Inclusa, an orphanage in Madrid. The poem elegizes a speech given by María Josefa Gálvez, the author’s cousin and Condesa (Countess) de Castroterreño.
María Rosa Gálvez was born in Málaga in 1768. Her family had ties with the court of the Bourbon king Carlos III. The reign of Carlos III was characterized by reform—economic, social and political changes that brought Spain more into line with the political atmosphere of the rest of Europe at the time. Among the reforms was a shift in the way women were viewed. The secondary role in society to which they had been relegated was increasingly reevaluated and the century saw more and more women receiving an education. They contributed to movements in the arts, literature and music and formed groups (tertulias) to showcase their own works and provide a forum for discussion of contemporary culture. They also created charitable societies such as the Junta de Damas, which was the female answer to the male dominated economic reform group the Real Sociedad Economica de Madrid (Royal Economic Society of Madrid).
In short, Gálvez’s alliance with the liberal royal court was important in getting her plays distributed. Over the course of her career, Gálvez wrote 16 plays, 14 of which were published and seven performed. “Obras poeticas” (Poetic Works), a series of three volumes, was published in 1804 at the Court’s expense. The first volume of Obras poeticas contains 18 lyrical poems, one of them being Oda a la Beneficencia. As mentioned previously, the poem is dedicated to the author’s cousin, María Josefa Gálvez, a member of the Junta de Damas.
The Junta de Damas was the first official non-religious women’s group in Spain, formed in 1787 as an auxiliary organization to the Real Sociedad Economica de Madrid, which excluded women. The Junta occasionally undertook projects in conjunction with the Real Sociedad, but was better known for its efforts with local charities. For example, one project focused on reforming women’s prisons, while other time and money went into working with orphanages in Madrid. One such children’s home was called the Inclusa.
Founded in 1572, the Inclusa was a place for Madrid’s abandoned or illegitimate children (called niños desgraciados or “wretched children” in Oda a la Beneficencia). It was a “shelter where an unwanted infant could be brought, baptized and sent out to nurse” (Sherwood 4). Conditions in the Inclusa were less-than-ideal. In 1740, the nursery contained two large straw mattresses which held up to 40 babies at a time (Sherwood 11). The death toll was enormous over the course of the 18th century: according to Sherwood, an average of 58% of infants abandoned to the Inclusa died in the beginning of the 1700s; by the time the Junta de Damas took over the running of the orphanage in 1799, that figure approached 87% (Sherwood 125). One of the first things that the Junta did was to replace the straw mattresses with woolen ones that could be washed more easily (Sherwood 11). They also stationed two nurses at each bed, and instead of having 30 or 40 babies per mattress, they kept infants two to a bed. They doubled the number of staff working at the Inclusa, including hiring another doctor and a surgeon. Rooms were disinfected regularly and windows kept open to let in fresh air (Sherwood 196). Before the Junta de Damas took control, the Inclusa was run as though it were a “domestic industry where infants were sent out to be processed” (Sherwood 193); one of the main problems was that the wet nurses were inattentive (Oda a la Beneficencia refers to them as “vile”) and neglectful of their charges. Under the direction of the doctor hired by the Junta de Damas, the wet nurses were kept on a much more regulated schedule. The doctor, Santiago García, even succeeded in starting a program of “artificial feeding” (wheat paste and bread dipped in milk) (Sherwood 202).
However, despite the reforms enacted by the Junta de Damas, infant mortality rates in the Inclusa continued to rise until in 1804 the death rate hit 100% (Sherwood xiv). As much as the Junta had done for the Inclusa, the changes put in place were no substitute for the medical advances that came late in the 19th century. Oda a la Beneficencia is an ode to the “’noble and pious heart” of María Josefa Gálvez, who worked personally on the Inclusa project. To a larger extent, the poem is a letter of gratitude to the Junta as a whole for their efforts to “aliviar a los mortales” (relieve the deaths /fatalities) and improve conditions for the children.
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