Ladies of Honor and Merit

Gender, Useful Knowledge, and Politics in Enlightened Spain

Ladies of Honor and Merit is a book of many commendable qualities, which will speak to historians of science as well as scholars working on the Enlightenment from other perspectives. Last but not least, its rich historiography (which includes works in Spanish, English, French, and Italian), combined with its enjoyable writing style, makes it highly recommendable reading for both specialists and first-time students of these topics.

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In the late eighteenth century, enlightened politicians and upper-class women in Spain debated the right of women to join one of the country’s most prominent scientific institutions: the Madrid Economic Society of Friends of the Country. Societies such as these, as Elena Serrano describes in her book, were founded on the idea that laypeople could contribute to the advancement of their country by providing “useful knowledge,” and their fellows often referred to themselves as improvers, or friends of the country. After intense debates, the duchess of Benavente, along with nine distinguished ladies, claimed, won, and exercised the right of women to participate in shaping the future of their nation by inaugurating the Junta de Damas de Honor y Mérito, or the Committee of Ladies of Honor and Merit. Ten years later, the Junta established a network of over sixty correspondents extending from Tenerife to Asturias and Austria to Cuba. With this book, Serrano tells the unknown story of how the duchess and her peers—who succeeded in creating the only known female branch among some five hundred patriotic societies in the eighteenth century—shaped Spanish scientific culture. Her study reveals how the Junta, by stressing the value of their feminine nature in their efforts to reform education, rural economy, and the poor, produced and circulated useful knowledge and ultimately crystallized the European improvement movement in Spain within an otherwise all-male context.

about the author

Elena Serrano

Elena Serrano is a research member of the Project Cirgen at the Universitat de València. She trained in the former Centre for the History of Science in the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona and in the History of Science and Philosophy Department in Cambridge University before taking postdoctoral fellowships at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, the Science History Institute in Philadelphia, and Sydney University.

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Elena Serrano