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Faculty Research Spotlight

Catherine Jaffe, Department of World Languages and Literatures

The Junta de Damas Pioneers Women’s Rights


“Our book addresses the basic question of the significance of the Junta to the history of the Enlightenment and of feminism.”

Biblioteca Nacional Española (Madrid)
Biblioteca Nacional Española (Madrid)

We are sometimes complacent in the 21st century about women’s right to study and work outside the home, forgetting that two hundred years ago it was daring and subversive to claim such rights. The history of these debates sheds light on why we still argue today about women’s “natural” role in society.

During the 18th century, women drew on Enlightenment ideals of equality, social utility, and the pursuit of happiness to assert women’s right to an education and to contribute to society beyond their domestic role. The Junta de Damas de Honor y Mérito, the Women’s Council of the Royal Madrid Economic Society, was founded in 1787 by elite women despite vehement opposition from some of the Society’s male members. The Junta promoted Enlightened reform in Spain for poor women and children. The work of the Junta de Damas and the history of gender are often overlooked in the wider field of Spanish Enlightenment studies, while the Hispanic world has often been neglected in transnational Enlightenment studies.

Emblem and motto of the Royal Madrid Economic Society: "Help by teaching"
Emblem and motto of the Royal Madrid
Economic Society: "Help by teaching"

In response to these gaps, I have been working collaboratively with U.S. and Spanish historians and literary scholars to tell this important story. Our book, which I am co-editing with the Spanish historian Dr. Elisa Martín-Valdepeñas, will be published by University of Nebraska Press. It will comprehensively chronicle the history of the Junta and the lives of its most significant members during the first crucial decades of its existence, spanning the turn of the 18th century, the Napoleonic invasion of the Iberian Peninsula, the popular uprising against the French-imposed king José Bonaparte, and the reestablishment of the Bourbon monarchy.

Our book addresses the basic question of the significance of the Junta to the history of the Enlightenment and of feminism. We argue that because of its secular, enlightened reforms of institutions, such as the Madrid foundling hospital, trade schools for poor women, and the women’s prison, the Junta de Damas is a pioneer in the history of women’s networks of sociability and philanthropy. We use the category of gender to analyze the views of the Junta de Damas regarding the changing theories of charity that were debated in late 18th-century Europe, when the Christian ideal of caritas was transformed by utilitarian principles of social control and the psychology of welfare and work. We argue that the Junta de Damas is unique for its elite membership, its secular and non-political character, and its exclusive focus on improving institutions that served women and children by testing and applying scientific and social innovations. The women of the Junta studied the economics of training poor women to spin or to sew; they debated the unintended effects of direct charity; they experimented with new infant feeding methods and improving the quality of air inside women’s prisons.

Presentation of book on the Marquesa de Fuerte-Híjar at the Real Sociedad Económica Matritense (Madrid)
Presentation of book on the Marquesa de Fuerte-Híjar at the
Real Sociedad Económica Matritense (Madrid)

This project is funded by the Department of World Languages and Literatures and the International Studies Program at Texas State, the Hispanex Program of Spain’s Ministerio de Educación y Cultura, a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Stipend, and the Madrid Institute for Advanced Study. Soliciting feedback from colleagues from different disciplines both in the United States and in Spain was crucial to developing our proposals, and Jessica Schneider, Research Coordinator, Pre-Award, in the College of Liberal Arts, provided especially helpful submission support.

I am a professor of Spanish literature and also teach Spanish literature and interdisciplinary Humanities courses in the Honors College. With faculty from several departments, we founded the Spain Research Network at Texas State to promote and support interdisciplinary faculty research on Spain or research carried out in Spain.

This project is funded by the International Studies Program at Texas State, the Hispanex Program of Spain’s Ministerio de Educación y Cultura, a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Stipend, and the Madrid Institute for Advanced Study. Soliciting feedback from colleagues from different disciplines both in the United States and in Spain was crucial to developing my proposals, and Jessica Schneider, Research Coordinator, Pre-Award, in the College of Liberal Arts, provided especially helpful submission support.I am a professor of Spanish literature and also teach Spanish literature and interdisciplinary Humanities courses in the Honors College. With faculty from several departments, we founded the Spain Research Network at Texas State to promote and support interdisciplinary faculty research on Spain or research carried out in Spain.