Silvia Hurtado González
Silvia Hurtado González is a professor of Spanish Language within the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters and the University of Valladolid.
Translated by Saskia Russell.
This May 12th marks the centenary of the death of Emilia Pardo Bazán (A Coruña, 1852 - Madrid, 1921), a writer who was remarkable not only for her literary achievements, but for her continuous struggle for the emancipation of women. One of the fronts of this battle, called the "academic question" at the time, was her determination to be part of the Royal Spanish Academy (RAE). She tried three times, but with no success.
If she had succeeded, she would have been the first female member of the institution, but she was unable to make history. In fact, it was not until 1978 that another woman, the writer Carmen Conde, became a member of the Docta Casa, although the number of women in this institution is still low.
In 1886, the name Emilia Pardo Bazán began to be mentioned as a possible candidate to enter the Royal Spanish Academy and then the rumour grew stronger: the writer wanted to be a member of the Academy.
The example of 'La Avellaneda'
In 1889 the newspaper El Correo published, under the title "Women in the Academy", four unpublished letters by Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda (Camagüey, 1814 - Madrid, 1873). Dated in 1853, its content revolves around the efforts made by this Cuban-born poet and playwright with the dream of joining the Royal Spanish Academy.
To this end, on the basis of her literary achievements, she sent a request for admission to the director of the institution. It’s worth bearing in mind that until 1858 it was still possible to apply as a candidate without having to be presented by three academics. However, despite having some support, Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda had her request denied.
No rule prevented the entry of women, but after an intense debate in 1853, they reached an agreement to prohibit it. As Alonso Zamora Vicente recounts in his "History of the Royal Spanish Academy", the assembled academics voted against allowing women to enter. The result was not unanimous: fourteen academics voted against the entry of women, and six in favour (another three votes in favour were not counted because they came from academics who could not attend in person, such as Manuel José Quintana, Eugenio de Tapia and Nicomedes Pastor Díaz). This agreement would inevitably be honoured for years to come, despite the fact that it was never written down and never formed part of the statutes of the Royal Spanish Academy.
In response to these letters, Emilia Pardo Bazán wrote two more, entitled “The academic question. To Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda (in the Campos Elíseos)”, which appeared in La España Moderna. In them, the ‘Coruñesa’ addressed the writer, then deceased, expressing her solidarity with the rejection that she had suffered in her day from the Royal Spanish Academy, denouncing injustices towards women:
"You would smile, Tula [Gómez de Avellaneda], if I told you a piece of gossip that reached me: it is whispered that some academic considers me excluded from the corporation because I lack electoral rights. (...) Sex not only deprives one of profit, but also of honours".
Emilia Pardo Bazán defends her right to enter the Academy, "not to be excluded from a literary honour as a woman (not as an author, since without any false modesty I can tell you that I am the severest and harshest critic of my own works)".
And she concludes by expressing her willingness to work tirelessly to "improve my service record as a snubbed academic."
However, this time she did not submit her candidacy.
In 1891, "once again rumours link Doña Emilia with the Royal Academy of Language, and she redefines her position", writes Eva Acosta (2007), one of her biographers. This is a second attempt, different from the previous one, as she now has the support of politicians, journalists and writers.
The climax of this new assault on the RAE is the publication of Pardo Bazán's piece entitled “The Academic Question. To Mr. Rafael Altamira, Secretary of the Pedagogical Museum ", included in the Nuevo Teatro Crítico in March 1891. It was a response to" The Academic Question. To Mrs. Emilia Pardo Bazán”, published a month earlier in La España Moderna, by Altamira himself. In this first letter, Altamira, who was not an academic but a lawyer, affirmed the following:
"The path to claim the right of females to be academics, as they are heads of state [he refers to Isabella II], is open."
These are years of energetic feminist demand and Emilia Pardo Bazán, of course, thanks him for the gesture. But this time there was not a formal proposal either, it was more of a covert candidacy, so the rejection was not explicit.
After reviving the "academic question", in 1912, the third attempt took place. A campaign in support of Emilia Pardo Bazán then began, putting the RAE on the ropes. There was no doubting her literary merits - in the sales lists she was only behind Galdós and Pereda - so the academics opted to resort to their agreement of 1853, with which they had prevented the entry of Gómez de Avellaneda, to reject to Pardo Bazán.
In addition, they argued that since 1858, any candidate had to be presented by three full academic members and that this protocol had not been followed. What Pardo Bazán had done was to send a letter requesting admission, along with a memorial and an extensive CV to the director of the Academy.
Insults and offenses
As if this double rejection was not enough, the writer also had to put up with some impertinence. One such instance is recounted by Sebastián Moreno in his book La Academia se divierte [the Academy has fun](2012). It seems that Juan Valera, the author of Pepita Jiménez, suggested that the writer be invited to visit the Academy and that they introduce her to the chairs, warning her that they could not be changed. That way she would realise that she couldn't sit on any of them, since her backside was too big. Menéndez Pelayo's description of her is also mentioned in this book: "Literata fea con peligro de volverse librepensadora" (An ugly woman of letters in danger of becoming a freethinker).
At this point, we can ask ourselves a few questions. Why was Emilia Pardo Bazán so insistent? Why did she feel the need to expose herself to this so much? What was her true aspiration? She made it clear herself in an interview published in El Día (7th February, 1917).
Defending an indisputable right
Five years after her frustrated third attempt to access the Language Academy, Emilia Pardo Bazán gave an interview, with the title "What Pardo Bazán says of the Royal Spanish Academy", which is published, along with an impressive photo of the writer (signed by Gonzáles), on the cover of El Día. The following extract is worth highlighting:
“For me, this is an issue that has only interested me because of an ideal concept, because of the feminist aspect. I have not fought for the vanity of occupying a seat in the Academy, but to defend an indisputable right that, in my opinion, women have. I was not admitted to the Academy, not because of my literary personality, as everyone who could vote for me has said, but because I am a woman. (…) And let it be known that it is a matter that I have only become interested in out of idealism, out of conviction, because everyone has their own aims, and I have the aim of separating obstacles from those that hinder women. I never expect to enter the Academy; but in this special case, the fight is worth more than the victory”.
Original source: theconversation.com/academicos-traseros-y-feminismo-por-que-la-rae-rechazo-hasta-tres-veces-a-emilia-pardo-bazan-159552?fbclid=IwAR2xslfuqKpoyhMbSDbAsN34AtONIX7mONJAcighQ8sMd4Y8yxmjdYq39Iw