Honor among Orphans: Girlhood, Virtue, and Nation at Rio De Janeiro's Recolhimento

By Windier, Erica | Journal of Social History, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

Honor among Orphans: Girlhood, Virtue, and Nation at Rio De Janeiro's Recolhimento


Windier, Erica, Journal of Social History


In 1837, the Brazilian Minister of State Alves Branco wrote to the director of Rio de Janeiro's most powerful charity organization, the Santa Casa de Misericordia, regarding the growing problem of orphaned and abandoned children in the capital. (1) He indicated that boys were being sent to the Army and Navy arsenals where they could learn a trade and become useful to themselves and their society. Girls, however, represented a special concern due to the "vulnerability of their sex" and the importance of their future role as mothers and educators of the nation's young. The Minister asked that the Santa Casa assist him in their protection by accepting those he sent to the Recolhimento, a girls' orphanage run by the organization. Alves Branco expressed concerns that were common among statesmen of his time. During the 1800s, urban centers throughout the Americas responded to a perceived rise in numbers of needy and neglected children by expanding programs and institutions that would care for them. What is significant about Alves Branco's letter is his attention to the gendered specifics of this problem. His correspondence with the Santa Casa regarding the Recolhimento reflected the converging concerns over child welfare and female virtue.

Founded in 1739, Rio de Janeiro's Recolhimento was created as a place for the deposit of women and girls, where reputations could be protected or restored. In the 1800s, the Recolhimento became a girls' orphanage, a statement of emerging liberal values that privileged the education and socialization of youth. Despite its reforms, the Recolhimento continued to be a symbol of female virtue. Its prominence, longevity, and ties to the state make it a privileged location for examining transformations in the politics of honor in the nation building process. (2) This essay will explore the implications of state interests in girlhood, honor, and female citizenship through an examination of the nineteenth-century evolution of the Recolhimento.

Recolhimentos were a type of institution common throughout the Portuguese Empire. Along with convents, they represented longstanding Iberian traditions of female seclusion. Within a context of colonialism, such institutions served a decidedly political function despite their seemingly private nature. Facilities that cloistered respectable women and girls helped to ensure the sexual and hierarchical integrity of colonial rule.

The principal cities of Spanish America all had numerous convents. (3) The Portuguese Crown, however, discouraged the foundation of female religious orders, believing that the institutions would hinder desired population growth in its territories. Instead, the Portuguese supported the creation of recolhimentos, where women and girls could be deposited and protected until marriage. (4) Historians have given considerable attention to role of convents and, to a lesser extent, recolhimentos in colonial Latin America. Their studies, along with recent scholarship on issues including illegitimacy and marriage, have greatly contributed to our understanding of how sentiment informed Iberian rule in the Americas. (5) However, the majority of this literature focuses on the years prior to independence, leaving us to question how state approaches to intimacy were maintained or transformed in post-colonial times.

Historian Rebecca Earle has noted the surprising nature of this void, given the vast literature on gender norms in the seemingly comparable contexts of the French and American Revolutions. (6) Earle's research focuses on the shifting image of female patriotism in independence-era Colombia. She argues that while revolutionary leaders invoked active, even Amazonean representations of women's valor during times of battle, the newly formed government emphasized passive ideals of female comportment in order to underscore its paternalistic authority and dominance. The cloistered woman of colonial times was ultimately transformed into an equally submissive image of the subservient and loyal republican mother. …

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