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Women's stories

Women, often overlooked, have had an essential role in the history of Catalan culture

March 8, International Women's Day

In 1977 the United Nations declared 8 March International Women's day. The date itself, however, is associated with workers' movements at the beginning of the 20th century, when a number of different episodes marked the beginning of protests in favour of women's labour rights. The strike of American women textile workers in 1857 and the fires at the Cotton and Triangle Shirtwaist Company factories in New York are examples of such incidents. The fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory happened in 1911 and caused the deaths of 140 women workers who, the year previously, had been on strike to demand fairer working conditionFrom the exhibition, Dones: ficcions i realitats (Women: fiction and reality) at the MHC

Women in Catalan culture

On the occasion of International Women's Day 'patrimoni.gencat' would like to draw attention to those who, often forgotten, have marked the course of Catalan cultural history. Francesca Bonnemaison, the founder of the first public library for women in the whole of Europe; Lluïsa Vidal, the only recognised woman painter of the Catalan Modernista movement; Rosa Sensat, who contributed to the development of the Catalan public school during the first three decades of the 20th century, and Clotilde Cerdà (or Esmeralda Cervantes), who went from being a prodigious harpist to a revolutionary. Image of the "Primera Jornada de la Dona Catalana", 1976 (Photograph: Pilar Aymerich - From the exhibition, Dones: ficcions i realitats (Women: fiction and reality) at the MHC

Lluïsa Vidal: the Catalan Modernista movement's only female painter

Lluïsa Vidal was born to a well-to-do, cultured and liberal family. Her father, the cabinetmaker and decorator, Francesc Vidal, encouraged Lluïsa and her sisters to devote themselves to the arts so that they would become professionally independent, but it was the only Lluïsa's talents that flourished. At the age of only 25 Lluïsa went to study in Paris for a year, something that was most unusual at the time. She started her studies at the Académie Julian, but did not take to the style of teaching there, and after a journey to London she decided to continue her studies at the academy run by the painter, Georges Humbert, director of women's studies at the École des Beaux Arts, which suited her better. Upon her return to Barcelona she had a prolific career, receiving commissions from well-to-do families, as well as commissions for the illustration of magazines and, in 1911, she founded her own academy. She died at the age of 42 as a consequence of the Spanish flu pandemic. She is the only recognised female painter of the Catalan Modernista movement.


Lluïsa Vidal, self-portrait, charcoal on paper (Wikimedia Commons)

Francesca Bonnemaison: the founder of the first women's library

Francesca Bonnemaison was born in Barcelona in 1872. Her parents were members of the Catalan bourgeoisie. By marrying the pro-Catalan politician and lawyer Narcís Verdaguer she came into contact with the city's political and intellectual circles. A strong and enterprising woman, she proposed the establishment of a library for working women in 1909. It was the first public library for women in Europe. Such was the success of the library that a year later she founded the Institut de la Cultura de Dones (Women's Culture Institute), a pioneering centre for its time that held conferences and gave classes on subjects as diverse as feminism, stenography, sewing, technical drawing and physical education. The classes were comparable to those given at university, from which women were still excluded, and included scientific and technical subjects which, until then, had not been available to women.

Clotilde Cerdà, or Esmeralda Cervantes: the prodigious harpist

Clotilde Cerdà, the illegitimate daughter of Ildefons Cerdà, also known as Esmeralda Cervantes, was a prodigious child. At the age of just 12 she played the harp in Richard Strauss' orchestra in Vienna and at the age of 14 she was appointed honorary teacher at the Liceu Conservatory. During her teens she performed all over Europe, also visiting Japan, South America, the United States­–where she performed for the president himself–and Constantinople, where she gave harp classes to the harem of Sultan Abdul Hamid Khan II. During her youth she was admired and esteemed by the bourgeoisie and nobility, but in her adulthood this changed. Clotilde became ever closer to causes with which the bourgeoisie had no sympathy, progressing from being a child prodigy to a revolutionary woman fighting for social rights. In 1885 she founded the Women's Academy of Science, Arts and Crafts in Barcelona's Rambla de Canaletes, but this was forced to close two years later.

Portrait of Esmeralda Cervantes (or Clotilde Cerdà) (Wikimedia Commons)

Rosa Sensat: the promoter of Catalonia's public schools

Rosa Sensat was born in 1873 in El Masnou. She trained as a teacher in Barcelona and Madrid. Upon completion of her teaching studies she took a job first at an infants' school in Masnou, and later at one in Girona. She was, however, determined to discover new teaching techniques at close hand, and this led her to visit schools throughout Europe. Years later, as a result of her determined work to increase awareness about new ideas in the field of education, and due to her great organisational skills, she was appointed the first director of the children’s section of the Escola del Bosc, the first open-air school in Catalonia. It was at that time that she designed the curriculum for the Women's Culture Institute and Library, founded by Francesca Bonnemaison.