OUTSTANDING WOMEN SERIES - I
Updated: Mar 9
Maria de Maeztu and Susan Huntington pioneers of women´s education in Spain.
Since the mid-1980s March has traditionally been recognized as Women´s History Month in the US, but the early celebrations of women´s rights began at the turn of the 20th Century. Starting in 1909 the US, UK, Germany, Denmark, Austria among other countries started celebrating the March 8th as Women´s Day. It was also on March 8th, 1910 that the Spanish government passed a legislative order that allowed women to register in the university without their father´s permission. That same year March 8th was officially declared as International Women´s Day although the UN did not recognize it until 1975.
This day is important, among other things, because it allows us to celebrate women´s achievements through history and society and give them the voice and visibility that they have historically lacked. It is not that women did not achieve great things in history, it is that they have not received the proper credit nor visibility. By now it is no secret that women have always been present and active participants in society, but their actions, rights, and achievements have been seldom recognized. It is in this note that every week during this month of March Infinite Spur will celebrate the lives and works of Spanish women throughout history. This is our small tribute to those women who participated in the building of a better society in Spain.
This first post will be dedicated to two remarkable pedagogues whose vision, work and close collaboration marked a new horizon for Spanish women´s education in the earlier 20th Century. Maria de Maeztu and Susan Huntington, two passionate educators than came from different parts of the world and different systems but whose close collaboration and determination gave way to one of the most important women´s education projects in our history.
María de Maeztu Whitney is one of the most important Spanish female educators in the early 1900´s. Born in Bilbao, from a family with strong ties with the intellectual elite of the time including Miguel de Unamuno or José Ortega y Gasset, her career as a teacher begins at a very early age helping her mother in the Anglo-French Academy for Girls in Bilbao. She soon moved to Madrid to continue her studies but instead had the opportunity to participate in one of the most important goals of the Ministry of Public Instruction at the time: improving the obsolete Spanish education system. It was then that she had the opportunity to travel to England first, to learn about the new models and methods in early childhood education. Then she traveled throughout Europe visiting and working with Decroly in Belgium or Maria Montessori in Italy. Every year she will come back to Spain to apply all she learned abroad with two main goals; implementing a primary education system across the country and train teachers in all new and modern methodologies.
In 1910 she was invited to teach Spanish at the International Institute for and it is then, that meet Susan Huntington the Director of the school. This friendship was the beginning of a very intense and fruitful collaboration between the two women. It was by the hand of Ms. Huntington that Maeztu got to learn about the US educational system, traveled extensively through the country, took courses in some of the most prestigious institutions and received an Honorary Degree in Law (LLD) from Smith College. Back in Spain, she will later adapt many of the US organizational structures and teaching methodologies to the projects she was responsible for.
It is in 1915 Maeztu was appointed as the Director of the newly created Residencia de Señoritas in Madrid and it is in this venture that her collaboration with Susan Huntington will be essential since the school was to be designed following the educational principles of the historical Women Colleges in the US. Maeztu supported freedom of thought and responsibility for the education of women and fostered an environment of constant learning not only through classes but with concerts, conferences, literary discussions, scientific, musical or fine arts exhibitions, that were taught by intellectuals and personalities. La Residencia de Señoritas turned into a very successful project that grew rapidly over time and from 15 students in 1915 it went to over 1.000 in 1931.
Susan Huntington came from the other side of the Atlantic and was born in the small town of Norwich (Connecticut) on November 25, 1869, she began her university studies in 1890 at Wellesley College, a well-known women's college in the north of the United States. A few years into college she had to take some time off school for health reasons and decided to travel to Spain to work as a volunteer as an English teacher at the International Institute for Girls an innovative educational project that Alice Gordon Gulick, her former teacher, had developed in San Sebastian. The new school for girls had become very popular because of the modern pedagogical methodologies very much aligned with those of the Junta de Ampliación de Estudios in Madrid. This experience teaching and living in Spain allowed young Susan to learn the language well and to become familiar with our Spanish culture.
In 1898 she returned to the United States to finally graduate from Wellesley two years later in 1900, right after that she moved to Puerto Rico as a professor of pedagogy at the university. She adapted quickly to the life of the island, her knowledge of the language, her flexibility and talents helped her to rapidly integrate into the academic community. Her career took off immediately, and she went from being a professor of the school of education to be appointed as the Director of the Normal School and then Dean of the Women's College of the University of Rio Piedras. After this skyrocket career, she decided to take a break and go back to Columbia University to pursue a Master´s degree. She will never return to Puerto Rico, instead, she went back to Spain.
After completing the master’s degree in New York, she was appointed director of the International Institute in Madrid, the continuation of Ms. Gulick´s International School for Girls project that had been moved to Madrid. It was then that she met Maria de Maeztu in 1910 and they were able to share, complement and build up in each other´s educational experiences.
The International Institute for Girls was designed a school for women, and it offered all different type of courses in different fields including literature, economics, biology, chemistry or painting, music, and sport were offered, it was just the model that Maeztu was looking for to adapt to Spain. The International Institute was a center of innovation where students and teachers from different parts of the world lived and learned together. Teachers from the US brought new pedagogical methodologies focused on providing a well-rounded education, the teaching of discipline and responsibility together with all the academic disciplines, arts, language, and sports. All the same, principles that Maria de Maeztu adapted in the Residencia de Señoritas.
The collaboration of Maria de Maeztu and Susan Huntington gave way to the development of the earlier mobility programs and together they started exchange programs with different US universities that facilitated than more than 50 Spanish female students had the opportunity to study in top colleges of the US.
This example of international female collaboration was key to the development of women´s education in Spain. Together, these two visionary leaders that transform the lives of many young women both in Spain and the Unites States. The Spanish Civil War terminated these unique projects, but it did not erase them from our history.
They will only be erased if we forget about them. This is the reason why I want to celebrate these unique women, pay tribute to them and to all the women students that had the privilege to study with them. Thank you both, doña Maria and doña Susana, for opening new opportunities for intercultural understanding in education and for being an example for the young women in the early 20´s and now.