Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

Deaf Lives: Nineteenth-Century Spanish Deaf Girls and Women

Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

Deaf Lives: Nineteenth-Century Spanish Deaf Girls and Women

Article excerpt

THIS ARTICLE IS ABOUT the lives of nineteenth-century Spanish deaf girls and women.1 The research I present here is contained in a larger work, a book tided Portraits from the Spanish National Deaf-mute School, to be published by Gallaudet University Press.

These "portraits" are in fact biographical essays on nineteenth-century deaf people and their educators, all of them connected in one way or another to the Spanish National Deaf School in Madrid. The subjects include one deaf male teacher, two hearing men, two deaf boys, and one deaf-blind boy.

There is also a chapter on nineteenth-century deaf girls and their women teachers (all of these teachers were hearing). But significantly, there is not a single chapter on an individual nineteenth-century deaf girl or woman. The reason for this is simple: There is a dearth of information in this area. Because deaf people were not considered important, little information was preserved about them in general. Moreover, information on Spanish deaf students is particularly hard to come by: They were usually children from the lower classes, and the particulars of their lives were not deemed worthy of recording.

Yet it is important to seek such information because it gives voice to ordinary deaf people, a voice that is too often absent from the historical record. And despite the scarcity of sources, some do exist. In the case of the National School, one of the most interesting sources is the archival records of investigations at the school. These investigations were most often conducted when problems arose (discipline problems, for instance). Archival records sometimes include transcripts of students' testimony, accounts of their experiences as told in their own words-their own signs.

Despite the existence of these sources, it is still difficult to learn much about the lives of deaf girls. Deaf girls, like deaf boys, were not looked upon as important. In fact, because of their gender, society considered them of even less consequence than deaf boys, so few facts about them were recorded or preserved. Deaf girls were also less prone to getting into trouble at school than were deaf boys. So when discipline problems arose, girls were less likely to be involved; consequently, they were less likely to be interviewed. As a result, even less information about them remains. The trail goes cold with their admissions files, and we are left with only names, dates and places of birth, dates of arrival and departure from the school, and a few facts about family background.

Nevertheless, it is possible to reconstruct aspects of nineteenth-century deaf girls and women's collective lives, and that is what I have done in this article. In the account that follows I have made use of various sources, including both published works and archival documents, to examine these deaf female lives from a variety of perspectives. As we will see, a woman teacher provides one particularly interesting perspective.

To begin, we should note that, during the 1800s, the education of Spanish girls lagged consistently behind that of Spanish boys, which was true of deaf and hearing children alike. Fewer hearing girls than hearing boys attended school, and there were fewer schools for them. At the National Deaf School, girls were always outnumbered by boys.2 The National School opened in 1805, but it was thirty years before deaf girls were admitted as day students; it was almost fifty years before they were admitted as boarders.3

During the nineteenth century it was generally accepted that women's purpose in life was to marry and raise a family. Thus the principal objective of their education was to prepare them to be wives and mothers and to teach them to run a household. Home-making and moral formation took precedence over the three Rs, and the same ideology that informed the curriculum for hearing girls at public schools also shaped the course of study for deaf girls at the National School. …

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