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Ursulines and the Education of Youth
Initiatives and gender's models in use between 1800 and 1900

Liviana Gazzetta



This contribution does not seek to reconstruct the initiatives of the Order to foster the instruction and formation of the youth in the indicated period, but rather to survey its gender’s models that some /the protagonists/ those during the restoration of the Order, and some other Merician institutions, manifest in their educational activity: a survey necessarily still underway, given the mountain of documentation and the wealth and the expressions of Merician experiences, even just in the Italian area.
This study, using both primary and secondary sources, examines some experiences and educational texts related to the Ursulines of the Immaculate Virgin Mary of Gandino, of the Sacred Heart of Mary of Breganze, of St. Charles of Milan, of the Roman Union of the Order of St. Ursula, of the Daughters of Mary Immaculate of Verona; and furthermore of the Company of the Daughters of St. Angela of Brescia, of the Company of Siena, of the Company of Treviso and of the Company and the College of St. Ursula of Ferrara – merging in the area of the Ursulines of the Daughters of Mary Immaculate of Verona.
The period of the Merician families’ reflourishing coincides with a process of long duration that can be defined as a “discovery” of the centrality of women’s education for society, an education based on the assumption that the difference between the sexes is a primary ontological given, to which corresponds a structural difference ordered to masculine and feminine purposes and roles. The thesis of the centrality of the maternal and educative role of women, however, is accompanied by an implicit conviction of the inadequacy of women for work (on account of which women themselves, obviously from infancy, must be made the object of specific formation) and by a whole series of suspicions and doubts about the possible consequences of the very process of women’s education and instruction from an ethical-social point of view.
The Catholic world, in particular, developed in this sense its own very rich body of precepts addressed to young people and to women, centered precisely on the theme of the ambivalence of the feminine nature, made of structural weakness and delicacy that require specific educative activities, and at the same time capable of a particular strength (modeled on the valiant woman of biblical heritage) on the religious and moral plane, if firmly linked to the values of Catholic tradition.
Considering the variety of experiences and testimonials too, one could say that the Merician initiatives from the late 1800s to the early 1900s do not differ in substance from the gender’s models prevalent at the time. The underlying idea of this instructive paper seems to be the thesis that in view of the modern modes of women’s exposure outside the domestic sphere, in school, in work outside the home, and in social relations, young women must be taught, protected, and corrected as weak and morally at risk. From the 1860s until the pre-WWI era, there prevailed this very ideological model, in contrast to the so-called “revolution” whose demands and processes of women’s emancipation are considered emblematic signs, such as the public schools, nursery schools, coeducation between the sexes...

19 febbraio 2013

link Link: version in Italian, with notes