Francesca Bonnemaison’s Conservative Feminism
Accused of having eaten an apple. Stigmatised for men’s sin. Controlled by confessors. Purified through redemptive fire. Attacked by misogyny. The history of women paints a bleak picture, given that they have had to abide by a reality imposed by the male gender. We begin a journey through history with the first of six articles, by Oriol Garcia i Farré, 11Onze agent and historian, on the struggle of contemporary women to achieve full equality.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Catalonia made the definitive leap toward modernity. The generation of 1900 worked hard to modernise Catalan society to the point of transforming all areas of daily life. Everything from culture to politics was redefined and, even today, those profound changes are still very much alive in our collective memory.
Modernity longed to change the previous patterns through culture, science and education, and it was in this last area that it came up against the Church, which for centuries had held a monopoly on education. The debate then focused on whether, in order to be modern, it was absolutely necessary to move towards a fully secular society, or whether there was another option.
Conservative Catalan society at the time expected the wife of one of the most important figures on the political scene at the time – the lawyer and founding member of the Regionalist League, Narcís Verdaguer i Callís – to remain on the fringes of all the social and cultural effervescence of the country.
The social model of the time understood that women – with sufficient economic resources – had to limit their activity to being a housewife and social activities, including charitable work in the parish. Therefore, the whiter her skin was, the more important her social status was.
The reality was different when Francesca Bonnemaison y Farriols (1872-1949) – of deep religious convictions, passed down through her mother’s line – embarked on a revolutionary project that would change everything. Without realising it, she would shake the most conservative foundations of the Catalan society.
Democratising access to education
Gathered around the parish church of Santa Anna in Barcelona, the so-called ‘cooperating ladies’ met in a vicarage, on a Friday in May 1909. Long gone were the heated discussions as to which was the most suitable option for setting up the new organisation within the parish: either to create a social work for wealthy young women or to found a literary circle exclusively for women from high society. But neither of these things happened.
With the support of Father Gatell, the option suggested by Mrs. Bonnemaison prevailed. On that Friday 28 May 1909, the first public library for women in Barcelona was set up. Yes, for all the women of the city and open to both well-to-do and working women.
In this way, the renaissance ideology defended by Francesca Bonnemaison was put into practice, which believed it was essential to bring culture closer to women, social regeneration, and the economic development of the country. A year later, the Institut de Cultura de la Dona was founded, thus laying the foundations for training women from all social strata to move towards their personal liberation, the recognition of some of their basic rights, and equal employment opportunities.
The ideology of the new institution – so revolutionary in its time – was based on three essential pillars: The first was based on the promotion of reading and the sensible practice of Christian doctrine. The second understood that the intellectual learning acquired by women – through education – was necessary to help men and not to compete with them. And the third hinged on the understanding that women had to be good domestic managers who could collaborate in the economic support of the family and in the transmission of knowledge to their children.
The setting up of the Institut de Cultura and the Biblioteca Popular de la Dona was an unprecedented success, as can be seen from the registers of women readers who met every Sunday after mass and the sharp increase in demand for teachers. They soon had to leave the parish to move first to Elisabets’ street and then to what is now Sant Pere Més Baix street in Barcelona. It is documented that until July 1936, the library had a collection of more than 23,000 volumes and the Institute taught some 6,200 pupils.
Forced exile and change of political paradigm
Francesca Bonnemaison believed that history offered her a second chance to amplify her women ideals, and began to campaign after the proclamation of the Second Republic. On the advice of Francesc Cambó, she set up the women’s section of the conservative Regionalist League. From then on, she worked tirelessly to spread her model of womanhood, based on religion, knowledge, and family.
But everything changed in July 1936. After the failed coup d’état and the subsequent outbreak of the Civil War, everything became polarised. Members of the Regionalist League – let’s remember, a conservative Catalanist party – would become collaborators of fascism through internal espionage and press offices abroad – such as the one in Paris – which would devote themselves to producing content to explain Franco’s new narrative to the world.
The “proletarianisation” carried out by the anarchist insurrection at the beginning of the conflict at the Institut de la Cultura and Biblioteca Popular de la Dona made Bonnemaison realise that her life was in danger. That insecurity took her to Paris, where she became the personal secretary of Francesc Cambó, whose godmother she was. Abroad, she worked tirelessly to spread the ideals of the insurrectionists, as she was confident that they would once again guarantee order and social stability, with which her ideal of a woman fitted in perfectly.
When she returned to Barcelona in 1941, she realised that the Franco dictatorship had organised society around the family and along Catholic lines, but that most women had been forced to give up their jobs to devote themselves exclusively to domestic and family tasks. In this way, women were considered inferior to men and had no autonomy whatsoever.
Discovering that the victors practised this ideological sectarianism, together with an unprecedented aggressiveness towards anything Catalan, plunged her into a deep depression from which she never recovered. Even more so when the Institut de la Cultura and the Biblioteca Popular de la Dona were controlled by the Falange and the latter devoted itself to completely distorting the founding spirit of that Friday in 1909.
Although it is true that Francesca Bonnemaison’s ideal of woman was of conservative and paternalistic inspiration, we must never forget that she gave wings to thousands of Barcelona women with the creation of her institutions, long before the mythical ‘Fawcett Library’ in London or the ‘Biblioteque Marguerite Durand’ in Paris. Francesca Bonnemaison was a pioneer in her time, creating the necessary elements to empower women, an essential step towards social equality.
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