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No time for the enchanted prince

Refined schooling of D. Pedro II's daughters was pioneering for a time when women did not study

Successful professionals, who do not spare any effort or time for ongoing education, with language courses, specializations, postgraduate studies, MBAs. The female emancipation of the 21st century is a direct reflection of the presence of women in formal education during the 20th century, when, in Brazil, a predominance of women was to be seen in the classes that finished college – in 2002, they accounted for 63% of those graduating, according to the Higher Education Census.

This is a reality that, in little more than a century, has laid to rest an education aimed exclusively at the upbringing of mothers of families, with an emphasis on skills for dressmaking and embroidery, nourishing a society focused on domination by males, and it was these who were encouraged to learn more than reading, writing, and arithmetic. Until 1879, women were prohibited by law from attending higher education courses and, in elementary education, their knowledge was restricted to household economy, besides limiting the learning of arithmetic to the four basic operations, excluding even notions of geometry.

One exception appeared in the heart of the Empire, with the preparation of Princess Isabel Cristina Leopoldina de Bragança (1846-1921) and her sister, Leopoldina Teresa (1847-1871), daughters of D. Pedro II. They were given a strict formal education, considered, for the standards of the day, masculine. From seven in the morning to half past nine at night, the lessons, given on the imperial premises, included scientific knowledge, of chemistry in particular. These are the findings of researcher Carlos Filgueiras, a chemist from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). Based on documentation belonging to the Brazilian imperial family, kept in the Grão Pará Archives, in Petrópolis (RJ), his study was published recently in the Química Nova [New Chemistry] magazine, vol. 27, No. 2.

Filgueiras shows that the concern with the princesses’ scientific education was the fruit of the emperor’s interest for science in general and for chemistry in particular. Besides corresponding with famous chemists, like Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) and Marcelin Pierre Eugène Berthelot (1827-1907), D. Pedro II used to carry out experiments in his laboratory in Quinta da Boa Vista and participated in the Paris Academy of Sciences.

The emperor was also keen on photography and development processes, as was shown by the exhibition Back to the light, presented in São Paulo from June to October 2003. “There is a debate that says that the emperor aspired to being a scientist. I regard the discussion as being a false one, since I believe that he thought that a ruler ought to take an interest in many subjects and accompany the progress of the sciences and of their applications, which would facilitate the decision taking process”, Filgueiras explains.

Providing a rigid formal education for his daughters meant, for the emperor, guaranteeing that they were ready to rule in future. Of the four children he had with Empress Tereza Cristina, the two male heirs died prematurely, leaving Isabel, at the age of 14, with the responsibility of being her father’s successor. Accordingly, in 1860, after an oath of allegiance to the Constitution of the Empire before the Imperial Senate, D. Pedro II’s elder daughter received the title of Imperial Princess.

Four years before, though, the emperor was already concerned with the education of his heiresses. He hired the Countess of Barral, D. Luísa Margarida Portugal de Barros, to be the princesses’ tutor. It was her mission to ensure the girls an education that was not differentiated from the one given to men from the elite, but that was combined with the one given to women. Barral also supervised the teaching of about 20 branches of knowledge, and could even, when necessary, inflict punishment.

Countless high caliber professionals, some with a specialization in Europe, would divide themselves in the teaching of languages (Latin, Greek, Portuguese, French, English, German, and Italian), of the arts (literature, piano, drawing and painting), philosophy, history, algebra, chemistry, physics, zoology, botany, mineralogy, geology, geography, geometry, and cosmography. “The emperor himself would often take the place of the teachers, as he liked being present at his daughters’ education very much”, Filgueiras explains. There was also strictness at the time for assessment, carried out by means of exams and a detailed report, written in French. It was from this report that Filgueiras found out that Isabel was the more diligent of the two girls, standing out in chemistry, a discipline in which she also took an interest outside the classroom, because of photography, like her father.

Outside the imperial premises, there was another reality, although, in the course of the 19th century, several voices of society cried out for improvement and access to education for women. “At the beginning of the Empire, what girls were offered was domestic schooling limited to the three Rs, manual skills, notions of music and dancing, embroidery, and homemade tidbits. Nothing more, but then nothing less than the society of the day needed”, explains Eliane Marta Teixeira Lopes, a professor at the Faculty of Education of the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG).

“However incredible it may appear, literacy was an impediment for parents to enroll their daughters in schools. Reading was seen as less dangerous – since it was possible to control the circulation of books –, but writing, as a form of expression, was seen as a danger to which girls could not be exposed”, the professor points out. In the course of the century, the number of private establishments intended for the schooling of girls grew. “The schools, or simply the lessons, would work in the houses of their founders, and they would take in a limited number of girl pupils, to whom they would offer scant knowledge”, Eliane says. Also at religious schools, the daughters of the elite would learn reading, writing, basic notions of mathematics, and, to round off, piano and French.

“Skill with the needle, embroideries, laces, culinary skills, as well as the skills of authority over the maids and servants, were also part of a girl’s education”, explains Guacira Lopes Louro, a professor at the Education Department of the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul. Besides being good company for their husbands, these girls need to be prepared to represent them socially.

The social and political transformations of the Empire and, later on, the proclamation of the Republic, led naturally to changes in the way how women had access to education in the 19th century. In the last few decades of the century, there was a concern with the modernization of society, the hygienization of the family, the construction of the citizenship of the young. Some voices, like that of Benjamin Constant, intended to put schooling at the service of the positivist mentality and of scientific studies.

The concern for keeping away from the concept of work the whole load of degradation that was associated with it because of slavery and for linking it to order and progress brought those were leading society to regiment women from the popular classes”, Guacira explains. “They should be diligent, honest, orderly, clean; it would be up to them to control their men and form the new male and female workers of the country”, she goes on. In spite of this, the ample democratization of schooling for women took place only in the 20th century.

Even though it made room for emancipation, the new vision of female education at the end of the 19th century did not mean a total break for the need for educating for the home. For many, Christian schooling was essential, and, for others, the study of the science would contribute towards the end of superstitions, which would result in women much better prepared for maternity.

It was thus, between the vision of a woman with the maternal purity of Mary, in the Christian principles, and that of a woman qualified by scientific knowledge, that the teaching profession arose as the first field of work for Brazilian woman. “This phenomenon is not just a Brazilian one. In France as well, teaching was an important field of work for women in the 19th century”, says Guacira Lopes. “Teaching was seen as an extension of motherhood, woman’s primordial destiny.” Accordingly, giving lessons would not subvert the fundamental female function, on the contrary, it could broaden it or exalt it. And the female teachers would serve as a model for their girl pupils, exercising a strict control over their language, postures, behaviors, and attitudes.

The schooling standards for training these teachers on the “normal” courses, though, continued to be very similar to those of the days when education was aimed only at the home. Household economy, for example, remained, now no longer a simple transposition of the knowledge acquired at home, but as a more complex discipline, based on scientific concepts, adopting a scholastic and didactic guise.

Although it was the first step towards including women in the labor market, teaching did not yet interrupt the way that society was run by men. By occupying the classrooms, women relieved them of the role of teachers, releasing them for more profitable activities – for example, running the schools in which they, the women, were the teachers. At the same time, daughters from less privileged families found there a good alternative for their upkeep, often the only one.

The total breakthrough only came later, in the 20th century, with the growing proliferation of women in different positions in the labor market, public posts, and administrative and political acts. Before that, however, the effectiveness of Princess Isabel’s education was proven. She ruled the Empire three times and, in the absence of the emperor, replaced the ruler in the cabinets of Rio Branco (1871 to 1872), Caxias (1876 to 1877), Cotegipe and João Alfredo (1877 to 1888). She sanctioned the Law of the Free Womb, in 1871, and the Golden Law, which abolished slavery in the country, in 1888.