Women and Charity in Spain 1786-1939

Still very much in its development stages, the project explores how Spanish women understood and represented their charitable work from the late-Enlightenment period through the end of the Spanish Civil War and the early part of the Franco dictatorship.

Although eighteenth-century notions of charity in Spain were heavily influenced by its deep Catholic tradition, in which charity, or caritas, was held up as one of the tenets of religious faith, nonetheless, the topic of charity and its related subjects during the Enlightenment period in Spain began to take on social and political significance, at the same time that it became more associated with virtue and sentiment and less with spiritual duty. During this shift from a more religious-based notion of charity to the more secular and civic-minded idea of beneficence, women asserted themselves as important actors in the social and economic reforms that were the object of Enlightenment-style caridad. Their very political actions and writings at the end of the Enlightenment period in Spain firmly claimed charity as a means of social action for women, which would continue to be a hallmark of women’s important role in Spanish society for a century, and exalted by both conservatives and liberals.

Our study begins in 1786, when the Royal Economic Society of Madrid began debating the possible admission of women into their membership. The polemic was very heated on both sides, and men (and, notably, one woman) argued over women’s supposed sentimental nature and their inherent charitableness, questioning whether their work should remain within traditional feminine spaces in the home or convent, or if Spain should take advantage of women’s potential contributions to public endeavors. The controversy was solved when King Charles III created the first women’s civic organization in Spain, the Junta de Damas, an auxiliary group to the all-male Economic Society that immediately undertook several charitable projects fundamental to Spain’s economic and political stability. These women lay the groundwork for a century and a half of women’s charitable work and writings about the social and political importance of female charity in Spanish society, which was evident in their literature, from the sentimental poetry of 18th century María Rosa Gálvez, to the sentimental novels of nineteenth century María Pilar Sinués; in their journalistic and political writings, from annual reports delivered to the Royal Economic Society by the women of the Junta de Damas in the late eighteenth century, to Concepción Arenal’s journalistic writings in her journal Voz de la Caridad nineteenth century, as well as to Margarita Nelkin’s feminist call to arms and the reactionary writings of Pilar Primo de Rivera in the early twentieth century; and finally in their actions, from the work of the Junta de Damas in the foundling hospitals and women’s prisons of the late Enlightenment Spain, to Concepción Arenal’s and Victoria Kent’s reform of women’s prisons in the middle nineteenth and early twentieth, and even to the fascist Sección Femenina de la Falange’s charitable activities with orphans and wounded nationalist soldiers under the Franco dictatorship. Both progressive and conservative women, from 1786 onwards, evoked charity and feminine charitableness as they sought active political and social roles for themselves and their sex in their visions of the betterment of Spanish society.

It seems only natural to approach this project the way eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth-century women themselves approached it—that is, in a way that is multifaceted, multivalent, and uses multiple media. Women’s production about charity was creative (in their poems, novels, and short stories), it was informative (in their organizational reports, and in their journalistic writings) and it was political (in their requests for support, and in their feminist or even anti-feminist treatises), and perhaps most importantly it was almost always a group effort. Using new media tools to gather, interpret, and share information, I explore with the help of an undergraduate research team of students, the ways women thought about, wrote about, and practiced charity from the late Enlightenment period to the early twentieth century.


Kinds of collaborators
Individual/small group
Undergraduate students
IT staff
Help description
I'm hoping to define more fully the help I need with this workshop, but I can definitely foresee a need for outside eyes to help me see design flaws, and for proofreading and peer review.
Contact person
Help needed


Source material
Biblioteca Nacional Hemeroteca Digital