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Eighteenth-Century Studies 36.4 (2003) 577-579

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The Politics of Gender in Spain's Ilustración

Elizabeth Lewis,
Mary Washington College

Mónica Bolufer. Mujeres e ilustración: la construcción de la feminidad en la España del siglo XVIII (Valencia: Diputació de Valencia, 1998). Pp. 427. E14.20.
Rebecca Haidt. Embodying Enlightenment: Knowing the Body in Eighteenth-Century Spanish Literature and Culture (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998). Pp. xi + 279. $45.00.

Spain, like its counterparts throughout Europe, experienced many societal changes during its brief, but nonetheless important, Enlightenment period. Perhaps nothing altered Spanish society and culture more than the evolving concepts of gender—of both femininity and masculinity—and their right place in Spanish social politics. Carmen Martín Gaite was the first to recognize the importance of gender politics to the Hispanic Enlightenment, in her book Usos Amorosos del dieciocho en España (1972, later translated as Love Customs in Eighteenth-Century Spain, trans. Maria G. Tomsich [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991]). Since Martín Gaite's important book there have been several studies on gender in Spain's eighteenth century, most notably, Paloma Fernandez-Quintanilla, La mujer ilustrada (Madrid: Ministerio de Cultura, 1981), and Sally-Ann Kitts, The Debate on the Nature, Role and Influence of Woman in Eighteenth-Century Spain (Lewiston, NY: The Edward Mellen Press, 1995). However, the two recent monographs under review here stand out for their originality and timeliness, placing the importance of gender to Spain's ilustración at the forefront of eighteenth-century Hispanism. Although very different studies—Bolufer focusing on the development of Spanish femininity and Haidt the construction of masculinity through representations of the body—both books concur in their emphasis on the importance of gender to the cultural and social environment of eighteenth-century [End Page 577] Spain. Both men and women during this period were concerned, perhaps even obsessed, with gender, interrogating themselves and their colleagues about the physical, emotional, and intellectual differences between men and women, the culturally acceptable roles for each, and what it meant to be a man or a woman. Both Bolufer and Haidt insightfully explore the underlying anxieties articulated in these queries, and both come to similar conclusions about the over-arching importance of gender to the Spanish Enlightenment.

Monica Bolufer calls Spain's eighteenth century a "crossroads" between traditionalist views of the physical, intellectual, and emotional inferiority of women, and a new way of understanding femininity. She finds the question of woman (la querella de las mujeres)—as expressed by both men and women, conservatives and liberals, in a variety of literary, political, medical, pedagogic and journalistic texts—to be a central point of conflict of what she calls the "cultural debate" of the eighteenth century. Beginning in the first part of her book with the early intellectual debates—notably the famous essay by Benito Feijoo, Defensa de las mujeres (Defense of Women, 1727) and the controversy surrounding it—Bolufer shows how the querella de las mujeres dispelled ideas of women's supposed inferiority. However, even after Feijoo, support for women's rights was still based more in male self-interest than in a belief in real gender parity. Later in the century, when the sensibility cult entered the gender debate, Rousseauian idealized domestic femininity overshadowed previous notions of women as potential intellectual or even political equals to their male counterparts, proscribing them to certain ways of feeling, thinking, and behaving. In the second part of her book, Bolufer examines contemporary pedagogical and medical texts about women. She shows how by the end of the century, women's education was seen as valuable to male ilustrados insofar as it would benefit society by fitting them for motherhood. The fashion-obsessed petimetra was criticized by these writers and countered by the positive image of the buena madre (the good mother). Although male writers about female education saw only societal benefits for educating women, female writers viewed their gender's education differently, seeing it as personal: "un instrumento por el cual las mujeres podían satisfacer su ambición" (an instrument through which women could satisfy their ambition...


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