Journey to Madrid Offers Window into Spanish History

A group of University of Mary Washington students camped out in a Madrid library, scrolling through decades-old microfilm to learn more about Spanish women’s social and civic activities during the early 20th-century.

University of Mary Washington students in front of the Biblioteca Nacional in Madrid, Spain

“We got a better sense of the breadth and depth of what charity meant at that time,” said Betsy Lewis, professor of Modern Foreign Languages, who led the nine-day trip to Spain this summer.

Sophomores Sarah Abbott, Madeline Albrittain, Katie Lebling and Lara Pugh, read and cataloged women’s publications from the period of Spain’s civil war through the early Franco dictatorship. The magazines, a window into trends and culture of the time, are not digitized or readily available outside of Spain, making the journey from UMW a necessary one.

The trip was the capstone of the research team’s semester-long project, “Women and Charity in Spain,” one of 15 undergraduate research projects for spring 2012 and one of dozens of projects to receive an undergraduate research grant for the spring or summer.

Part of a larger project on the evolution of women’s charity from the late 18th- through the early 20th-centuries, this year’s research team examined several Spanish women’s magazines published by the Sección Femenina de la Falange, the fascist women’s organization supported by dictator Francisco Franco.  The group from Mary Washington explored how women’s civic activity and charitable work through the Sección Femenina was presented in the weekly and bi-monthly magazines, which also included  features typical of women’s publications such as fashion, home decorating, recipes, love advice, child-rearing tips and crossword puzzles.   Placing the work of the conservative Sección Femenina in the context of women’s civic work and social action, searching for the points of contact and divergence with their more progressive predecessors sets this research apart from other current work, Lewis said.

(From left to right): Sarah Abbott, Lara Pugh, Madeline Albrittain and Katie Lebling visit the Roman Bridge in Salamanca, Spain

In the semester prior to the trip to Madrid, Lewis and the students did preliminary research, worked on data collection techniques and explored background reading on the time period.

“This was an amazing experience for me because it gave me so much experience with Spanish and gave me time to work one-on-one with a professor,” said Albrittain, a Spanish major.

This is the second year Lewis has taken a group of students to Spain as a part of her larger research project, though each trip has taken a different focus.

During this year’s trip, the students spent four to five hours each morning at the Biblioteca Nacional de España, the National Library of Spain, poring over documents, then used the afternoon to visit museums, exhibits and historic sites.

“The students had all these opportunities, mostly unplanned, to see history still alive,” Lewis said, noting an exhibit on women’s history that the students stumbled upon during the trip.

For Lebling, the semester of research and the trip to Spain provided a new perspective on her academic work.

“It was a great experience to be able to take all my knowledge I have been learning in Spanish classes and be able to apply it in real life,” she said.

Because of UMW’s undergraduate research grant, the students were able to take the trip without cost as a factor, Lebling explained.

“The whole experience has made me feel I definitely belong at Mary Washington,” she said.

Lewis and the four students will continue the project this fall to expand their work with the information and data they collected over the summer.

“The most rewarding thing is being able to include students in my research,” Lewis said. “I can cover a lot more ground in a short period of time with their help.”

About Brynn Boyer

Brynn Boyer is assistant director of media and public relations and a 2010 graduate of UMW.