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The Americas 62.2 (2005) 209-243

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Religion, Gender Ideology, and the Training of Female Public Elementary School Teachers in Nineteenth Century Chile

Tulane University
New Orleans, Louisiana
After only five days she felt like a different person, so much unpicked and resown and made over to a different pattern. . . . Catholicism isn't a religion, it's a nationality. In her four years at [school], it [religion] had grown into every fiber of her nature; she could not eat or sleep or read or play without relating every action to her secret life as a Christian and a Catholic. She rejoiced in it and rebelled against it. She tried to imagine what life would be like without it; how she would feel if she were a savage blessedly ignorant of the very existence of god. But it was as impossible as imagining death or madness or blindness. Wherever she looked, it loomed in the background . . . the fortress of God, the house on the rock.1

Education became a responsibility of the state in Chile soon after independence. Scholarship has usually linked the expansion of public primary education to the broader liberal agenda of the secularization of society through the introduction of modern thinking, while the common curriculum became a tool of national integration.2 It suggests too that the rate of secularization [End Page 209] differed from country to country.3 This essay hopes to demonstrate that gender also altered the pace. The above quote better reflected the content of female public elementary schooling in Chile and also Peru, for the Peruvian government adopted the Chilean model for training women teachers for the public primary schools in 1876. Public primary education for girls remained under the tutelage of the Roman Catholic Church for much longer than did public elementary education for boys.4

This study examines the juncture where religion, gender and public education met in nineteenth century Chile and argues that Catholic female gender training, often referred to marianismo and characterized as an ideology female submissiveness internalized by most Latin American women, was not simply a legacy from the colonial past, but was systematically taught to girls in the public elementary schools.5 It focuses on the Escuela Normal de Preceptoras [hereafter ENPa], the female normal school established by the Chilean government in 1853 as part of its effort to create national civic culture and its graduates, the female normalistas. Female public elementary school teachers received training that differed from their male counterparts, although the female normal school neither altered the mandated texts nor the curriculum. The instruction of male normal school students emphasized reason and science, while education in the female normal school focused on religion and moral training.

The Religious of the Sacred Heart of Jesus [hereafter RSCJ], selected by the governments of Chile and Peru to train women teachers for the public elementary [End Page 210] schools, crafted a message of republican motherhood heavily laced with Catholic/Christian virtues. With government approval the RSCJ annexed the normal schools to their cloisters. The charge they received from the state was to form teachers whose values harmonized with society. All parties understood that the Catholic/Christian woman in her role as wife and mother guaranteed the social order. Her education required solid grounding in religion, a love of the fatherland, respect for law and order. Equipped with a well-developed and tested female pedagogy the content and tone of their message was a Catholic version of the cult of domesticity that modernized inherited Marian values. The RSCJ equated teacher preparation with training apostles.6 They attuned their official charge, preparing teachers, to their religious charisma, to preserve the faith. Every home in the land would be transformed into a domestic church headed by a strong Catholic woman.7 The home would not only nourish the faith; it would serve as a barricade in the war against modernity. In Chile the experiment lasted thirty years, from 1853 to 1883.

Religion and Gender Ideology

Nineteenth-century Chilean statesmen envisioned the nation...


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