Concepción Arenal’s La Voz de la Caridad (1870-1884) Through the Lens of a Database?

This is the paper I recently delivered to the Asociación Internacional de Literatura y Cultura Femenina Hispánica XXIII Congreso Annual, held at The Claremont Colleges, October 10, 2013 (by the way, a lovely setting and very wonderful conference!!) It details some of the work I’ve done with my undergraduate research teams on a database of a nineteenth-century publication on charity. We hope to make the database (along with the entire website it lives on) live by the end of this year, but for now, here’s a «sneak peak» into our work!

Arenal Slide 1

I know it is cliché to begin a conference paper with “this paper is a work in progress”. Of course it is, you might be saying, that’s what conference presentations often are!  But perhaps I am justified in making this statement not as a disclaimer, but rather as a focus of the talk itself. Today I will detail the ongoing progress that I and three undergraduate research teams have made on a Digital Humanities project on the subject of women’s charity in Spain. In particular I will be highlighting our work on a database cataloging Concepción Arenal’s La Voz de la Caridad. I’ll finish with some preliminary findings that I think will begin to reveal a fuller picture of Arenal’s work as a journalist and social activist.

Arenal Slide 2

In Fall 2010 I decided that I wanted to involve undergraduates in my research on women and charity in Spain. Undergraduate research has been a big topic at my university—a small public liberal arts institution in Fredericksburg, Virginia—as indeed it has become a trend across the country.  We had recently added experiential learning as a general education requirement, and created a topics course number URES 197, which was intended to involve first or second-year students in the research of a professor.  Of course it was mostly students from the natural and social sciences who enrolled in this course at the beginning. But a few of my colleagues in the humanities had begun to work with research students and I was inspired to take the plunge and involve students in my own work on women and charity in Spain. In spring 2011 I gathered my first group of 4 sophomore students. We worked as a group during the semester to prepare us for a 10-day trip to Madrid in May, to collect data in the Biblioteca Nacional. That group continued its work the next fall beginning the database in question today.  The next year I continued work on the project with another group of two freshman and two sophomores from spring 2012 through fall 2013, with another trip to Madrid in between.   I am now leading what I think will be my last team, which is editing and putting the finishing touches on our work.

Arenal Slide 3

Women and Charity in Spain 1787-1941, is a Digital Humanities project that traces the evolution of the concept of Spanish women’s charity to reveal the ways that women, beginning with the late Enlightenment period and extending through the post-civil war era, utilized the idea of feminine charity in their actions and words to assert themselves politically, economically and socially.  Our thesis is that beginning with the Enlightenment, both conservative and progressive women saw charity (and the related issues of benevolence, beneficence, philanthropy and social action) as an area where women could contribute meaningfully to society, the economy, and the political direction of Spain. It is a Digital Humanities project (DH), which is more than a website, although that is part of it. Digital Humanities, which began as “Humanities Computing” until the NEH settled on Digital Humanities as the name for its office supporting such projects, is a branch of the humanities that uses digital tools to advance humanistic study in new ways. This includes collecting and archiving images and texts of cultural and historical significance, as well as creating and mining data sets related to humanistic study.[1] Our project is primarily an exhibition of digitized objects and organized in a way so as to show the connections, divergences, and evolution of ideas in various expressions of women’s charity—from the 18th century’s Junta de Damas of the Royal Economic Society of Madrid who emphasized education and economic development, to the 19th-century’s Concepción Arenal for whom charity was synonymous with social justice, and ending with the Sección Femenina de la Falange, whose conception of charity advanced Franco’s nationalistic agenda.  Among these objects are several periodical publications that had not been previously digitized, but whose complete digitization would have been too large an undertaking for our small team and my practically non-existent budget.  We decided, however, that since there was also not a detailed table of contents available for these journals, we would try to catalog the issues, in an attempt to see what was there, and to provide that information for others.

Arenal Slide 4

We began with Concepción Arenal’s La Voz de la Caridad published in Madrid from 1870-1884. Arenal is well known among US scholars as an early Spanish feminist. Her books La mujer del porvenir (1869) and La mujer en su casa (1883) set out her ideas about women’s education and women’s ability to work. Roberta Johnson called Arenal’s Mujer del porvenir a book with “a sustained resonance in the growth of consciousness about women’s condition in Spain” (18).and Lou Charnon Deustch finds that her lasting influence is in “ her general call for women to demand a better education and assume a greater role in solving social problems “(214). In Spain she is especially remembered for her work as a social activist. María Telo Nuñez says of Arenal “Iluminó los más oscuros rincones donde solapadamente se escondían la injusticia, la pobreza, la violencia, la tiranía, la discriminación, los privilegios de clase y de género, denunciando muy especialmente la inhumana situación de los presos” («Illuminated the darkest corners where poverty, violence, tyranny, discrimination, and the priviledges of class and gender were insidiously hidden, especially denouncing the inhumane situation of prisoners» 12), These were qualities especially admired by feminist leaders of the Spain’s progressive Segunda República such as Victoria Kent[2]. Arenal’s life’s work was dedicated to speaking out in print and in action against injustices she saw on the streets, in the poor houses, in the classroom, in prisons, and on the battlefield. She famously dressed as a man in attempt to gain a university education, and later married a like-minded journalist, Fernando García Carrasco, who died in 1857. Her first publication was a long treatise “La Beneficencia, la filantropia y la caridad.” It had been submitted to the Academia de Ciencias Morales y Políticas under her young son’s name in 1860, and was awarded the prize for best essay and subsequently published under her own name in 1861. She held various government and organizational positions, including visitadora and inspectora of women’s prisons (1865, 1868), and Secretary General of the Spanish Red Cross (1871) [3]. So when she began her collaboration with La Voz de la Caridad in 1870, her career as an author and activist was well established.

Arenal Slide 5

La Voz de la Caridad  began with its first issue on March 15, 1870. It was published bi-monthly and continuously through February 1884. The only copies of the journal catalogued in World Cat are held by the Universitat de Barcelona, the Biblioteca de Catalunya, the Universidad de Salamanca, the Universidad de Deusto in Bilbao, and the Biblioteca Nacional in Madrid. The latter has the most complete set, with all issues from its first through the June 15, 1883 issue.  Knowing this, our group set out for 10 days in Madrid, supported in part with funds from our dean, to see how much of it we could cover.

Arenal Slide 6

We started very low tech with pen and paper. We were able to be seated together in the large reader’s room in the Sala de Prensas y Revistas. A bound paper copy was available for consultation and so each of the four students and I checked out a volume of issues at a time, and began copying everything down—title, author, page numbers, issue, date, and some keywords identifying the topic and nature of the items. Our work was interesting and we learned so much about the issues and influential events and people of the times. We even found some things we were not expecting—which is what makes research so exciting! In the first volume we consulted, we found our own town–Fredericksburg, Virginia–mentioned by Concepción Arenal in an article on “Caridad en la Guerra,” («Charity in War») in which she advocates for the Red Cross and better care of the wounded in the Franco-Prussian war, reporting on the success of efforts in the US Civil War seven years earlier (making us wonder if the story had been reported accurately or if things were even worse on European battlefields, knowing the rough conditions for the wounded in the battle of Fredericksburg!). In a week of hard work, we were able to get through all the volumes of issues held by the Biblioteca Nacional except the last, and returned to Fredericksburg in the fall to figure out what to do with all this information. We started by entering in all our hand written notes into a Google Docs spreadsheet.

Arenal Slide 7

Our technology specialists Tim Owens and Martha Burtis at UMW’s Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies were able to download the data from our spreadsheet into WordPress and create what was essentially a post for all the 1300 + entries, linking them together so that they could be searchable by the title, the genre (poem, essay, etc), the database tags we assigned to each item, or the author. I was able to finish collecting information on the last volume of issues held at the BNE the next year during the team’s second trip to Madrid.

 Arenal Slide 8

In all we collected 1372 entries, which represented the work of 143 separate authors, in ten different genres (e.g. letters, poems, essays, news articles), and identified by 281 keywords or tags.  Concepción Arenal’s contribution to this journal certainly looms large in any assessment of it. She was one of its founders, and its editor and director for part of its existence. She was its single largest contributor throughout the 14 years of publication, and she was also one of many, collaborating in a journalistic endeavor that sought to bring news, information, opinion, and creative pieces together, united by the topic of charity and benevolence.  In the remaining few slides I’d like share a few things we’ve learned from the data we collected about Arenal and her contributions to La Voz de la Caridad.

Arenal Slide 9

A look at the numbers of contributions by author shows that Concepción Arenal is by far the most frequent contributor, followed by her co-editor in the early years of the magazine, Antonio Guerola. “No author”—a designation given to such items as announcements, subscription and donation lists , and news reported from other sources—is third.. An author referred to as Fausto was the fourth largest contributor, publishing various essays in the early 1880s.

Arenal Slide 10

Still, viewed in the larger context of all contributions, Arenal’s was about 20% of all the contents of the journal’s 14 year history.

Arenal Slide 11

Another interesting view of the journal is the number of women who contributed their voices. Again, Concepción Arenal, with her 277 entries, far outpaced the rest, with only 36 items designated to other women authors. Together they made up about 23% of all contributions—far from an equal representation, but hardly token participants either.

Arenal Slide 12

Arenal’s contributions represented 77% of women’s participation. The second most published woman was Emilia Mijares, a poet from Oviedo who published her work in La Voz de la Caridad, as well as in Revista de Asturias, and La Ilustración Gallega y Asturiana (Enciclopedia de Oviedo). She was followed by Micaela de Silva y Collás, another Asturian writer who contributed various essays, many religious in nature. Among the more famous women contributors were Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, who wrote a letter to the editors in 1871, and Fernán Caballero (pen name for Cecilia Bohl de Faber), who contributed a piece in 1875 called “Los tres amigos” («Three Friends»).

Arenal Slide 13

The last graph traces Concepción Arenal’s participation over the 13 years for which I have data. Her highest number of contributions were in the early years, peaking in 1873 with 51 contributions, while she did not contribute at all in 1877 and only once in 1879. These low points coincided with illness, and with periods that she was living in Gijón in the northern province of Asturias. However, although editorial duties passed on to others, she continued to be a regular contributor throughout the journal’s existence.

While there is much left to learn about La Voz de la Caridad and Concepción Arenal’s participation in it, a brief look at the contents in our database reveals a new perspective on Arenal as a journalist, collaborator, and leader in a periodical that sought to enrich and inform its readers about charity in all its social and humanitarian implications. La Voz de la Caridad is yet further proof of Concepción Arenal as exceptional thinker and leader of her time, and is one of the many reasons she has been remembered and honored by the generations that followed.


[1] The collection of essays Debates in the Digital Humanities (Ed. Matthew Gold) detail the history of DH and current issues around its practice.

[2] See Telo Nuñez on Arenal’s influence in Kent.

[3] See María Campo Alange’s chronology of Arenal’s life and works, pp375-393.


Campos Alange, María. Concepción Arenal (1820-1893). Estudio biográfico documental. Madrid: Revista de Occidente, 1973.

Charnon-Deutsch, Lou. “Concepción Arenal and the Nineteenth-Century Debates about Women’s Sphere and Education.” Recovering Spain’s Feminist Tradition. Ed. Lisa Vollendorf. New York: Modern Language Association, 2001. 198-216.

Johnson, Roberta. Gender and Nation in the Spanish Realist Novel. Nashville: Vanderbilt UP, 2003.

Enciclopedia de Oviedo “Emilia Mijares del Real. http://el.tesorodeoviedo.es . Consulted Oct 9. 2013.

Gold, Matthew K, Ed. Debates in the Digital Humanities. Minneapolis: U Minnesota P, 2012.

Mujeres asturianas destacadas, Base de datos. “ Micaela de Silva y Collás.” Oviedo: Instituto Asturiano de la Mujer.  Consulted Oct 9, 2013.

Telo Nuñez, María. Concepción Arenal y Victoria Kent: Las Prisiones: Vida y Obra. Madrid: Instituto de la Mujer, 1995.

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