Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Mary Jones and the Great Library War of Los Angeles

Mary Letitia Jones (born 29 June 1865)


Born on 29 June 1865, Mary Letitia Jones was the daughter of a minister, William R. Jones, and his wife, Jane, both of whom had immigrated to the United States from Wales. In the 1870 U. S. Census, four-year-old Mary is living with her family in Wisconsin; by the time of the 1880 Census, the family has moved to Nebraska. 

Mary Letitia Jones,
from the collection of the Los Angeles Public Library
Mary Letitia Jones graduated from the University of Nebraska in 1885 and then attended New York State Library School, founded by Melvil Dewey (of Dewey Decimal fame), where she graduated in 1892. 

After finishing her education and carrying with her a recommendation from Dewey himself, she returned to Nebraska, recruited by James H. Canfield, chancellor of the University of Nebraska. She was hired not only to head the library but to help in the planning of a new library building. By 1895, she was head of a staff of 10 and had doubled the size of the library's holdings. (She also converted the library to the Dewey Decimal system.)

After leaving the University of Nebraska, Jones worked at the University of Illinois and the State Library of Iowa, moving to the Los Angeles area by 1899 to join her family--her father had retired to Pasadena. 

She was soon hired by the Los Angeles Public Library, as an assistant librarian, working with city librarian Harriet Child Wadleigh. When Wadleigh retired, Mary Jones became the city's head librarian. As Nicholas Beyelia notes, Jones was "the first Los Angeles City Librarian working for the Los Angeles Public Library who was both a college graduate and a graduate of library school."

Despite Jones's qualifications and career accomplishments, all did not go well--just five years later, she was asked to resign so that the city of Los Angeles could replace her with a man. Jones refused, noting her reasons in a letter delivered to the library's board of directors:
At first it was my inclination immediately to yield to the request relayed upon me by the president. But, upon reflection, I have concluded that it would not be fitting for me to tender my resignation as the head of a department where only women are employed. When such a resignation is tendered solely on the grounds that the best interests of the department demand that its affairs no longer be administered by a woman. Ever since the adoption of the present city charter, the library has been presided over by a woman with a staff of assistants composed exclusively of women.
Since Jones refused to resign, she was fired. Her firing set off the "the Great Library War." (I love this statement that Jones made to the Los Angeles Times, when she was asked about why she had been replaced by a man: “Those directors seem as crazy after a man as though they were a board of old maids.”

This "war" certainly demonstrates sexism and misogyny--but there is a healthy bit of nepotism and favoritism as well, and of course the usual chicanery, harassment, espionage, and bureaucratic finagling. It engulfed the city, but the war went beyond the city's limits, eventually bringing Susan B. Anthony to town!

Susan B. Anthony, "laying down the law,"
Los Angeles Herald, 13 June 1895

After she was fired, Jones left Los Angeles, at least temporarily. She went next to Berkeley, where she taught at the university for two years, then headed to Bryn Mawr, where she was head of  the library for six years. In 1920, she returned to Los Angeles, where she helped to set up the Los Angeles County Library system. During the first world war, she helped to create a library on a local military base, Camp Kearney. Jones remained in Los Angeles after retiring and died, age 80, in 1946. 

I could write much more here--I always tend to write more than I plan to write! But, truth be told, I would be taking information from the incredibly readable, detailed blog of Nicholas Beyelia, who has posted a four-part series. That's where you need to go to read much more of this incredible story! For the first part of Beyelia's account of the Great Library War ("Have You Met Miss Jones?"), click here.

You may also be interested in Susan Orlean's The Library Book (2018), a book about the 1986 fire in the Los Angeles Public Library that destroyed 400,000 books (and damaged 700,000 more). Orlean writes about the library's history, including the story of Mary Letitia Jones. 


Monday, June 24, 2019

Urraca Alfonso, Queen of Navarre and Regent of Asturias

Urraca Alfonso, queen of Navarre and regent of Asturias (married 24 June 1144)


Urraca Alfonso was the daughter of Alfonso VII of León (the son of a woman whom we have met before, Queen Urraca of Castile and León) and Gontrodo Pérez, member of a noble Asturian family, which accounts for the name by which her daughter is also know, La Asturiana.

Gontrodo was the wife of a feudal lord (tenente), Gutierre Sebastiániz, at the time of her relationship with King Alfonso, whom she seems to have met when he was in Asturias to quell a rebellion.* 

Urraca Alfonsa's tomb in the cathedral of Palencia
(with a questionable date of death)
At the time of Urraca Alfonso's birth, Alfonso VII's queen and wife was Berengaria of Barcelona, to whom he had been married in 1128, when she was just twelve years old--the first of their seven children would be born in 1134.

(After the death of Queen Berengaria in 1149, King Alfonso would go on to marry Richeza of Poland in 1152, with whom he would have two more legitimate children, one of whom was Sancha of Castile, queen of Aragon.) 

A contemporary life of King Alfonso, the Chronica Adefonsi Imperatoris, notes that Gontrodo was "extremely beautiful and of the highest nobility." But historical judgments differ. About this relationship, the nineteenth-century historian of Spanish queens, Anita George, concludes that, while the king "loved [Gontrodo] with the most ardent passion," she was a "worthless" rival.

Worthless or not, Gontrodo gave birth to Urraca in 1133, making her the king's first-born child. According to a seventeenth-century Jesuit historian of Asturia, Alfonso treated this daughter as he did his legitimate children, in particular his sons--he awarded her land and titles and arranged for her to be educated, along with his other children, by his sister, Sancha Raimúndez of León. 

The king also secured a significant marriage for Urraca Alfonso—to García Ramírez, king of Navarre, on 24 June 1144. The twelfth-century chronicle of Alfonso contains a lengthy account of this politically expedient decision and of the lavish marriage ceremonies that celebrated the match. (Urraca Alfonso's half-sister, Sancha of Castile--one of Alfonso VII's daughters with Berengaria--would marry King García Ramírez's son in 1153. Another interesting example of "traditional marriage"--half sisters marrying a father and a son. And yes—Alfonso VII has two daughters named Sancha of Castile, one born to each of his two wives. No wonder this gets confusing!)

After the death of the king of Navarre in 1150, Urraca, now dowager queen, was sent to Asturias by her father. There she took up residence in Ovieda, where King Alfonso allowed his daughter to retain her title of "queen" and entrusted her with the administration of the province. 

In 1153, she confirmed the charter of the Monastery of Santa María de la Vega, her mother's foundation. After the death of King Alfonso VII in 1157, Urraca's half-brother, Fernando II, continued to allow her to administer Asturias, although he himself returned to Oviedo and ruled as king of "Galicia and León"--Asturias was a province of Galicia.

Urraca Alfonso, dowager queen of Navarre, remarried in 1163. A charter from that year indicates that the Urraca and her second husband, Álvaro Rodríguez de Castro, were now managing Asturias together: "Alvaro Rodríguez with his wife Urraca governing Asturias" (Alvaro Roderici cum uxore sua regina Urraca Asturias imperante).

At some point in early 1164, the two were involved in an uprising in Asturias, a rebellion that was crushed by her half-brother, now king of León. 

Urraca Alfonso gave birth to two children. Her daughter Sancha was born in 1148, while Urraca Alfonso was queen of Navarre. During her second marriage, she gave birth to a son, Sancho Álvarez de Castro, in 1164. Like his mother, he would eventually control Asturias, a chronicle noting, "Sancho Álvarez [was] governing Asturias" and describing him as "the son of Queen Urraca" (Dominante Asturias Sancius Alvari filius regina Urrace).

There is some dispute about the year of Urraca Alfonso's death--the Oviedo Enciclopedia cites her date of death as 1164. This date is also accepted by the online biographical dictionary of the Real Academia de la Historia, which notes that Urraca Alfonso's second husband, Álvaro Rodríguez de Castro, was free to remarry in that year, since Urraca had died. Finally, the notes to the twelfth-century chronicle of Alfonso VII indicate that Urraca Alfonso died "after" 1164. 

However, a document from the Monastery of Villaverde de Sandoval records a gift made by "La infanta Urraca, hija de Alfonso VII" of significant property in 1178. The donation is made for for songs to be sung for her soul and that of her father (Hace la donación para que en el cabildo del monasterio, en el que desea ser enterrada, se cante un aniversario por su alma y la de su padre el día de San Juan Bautista). This date may be confused, however--in his edition of the chronicle of Alfonso, Glenn Edward Lipskey notes "References to dates will follow the original manuscripts of the chronicle which utilize the calendar of the Spanish Era. Thirty-eight years must be subtracted in order to arrive at the corresponding year within the Christian calendar." Could the 1178 year in the original document be in the old-style calendar? 

Finally, to further confuse matters, Urraca Alfonso's tomb in the chapel of Santa María Magdalena in the Cathedral of Palencia, though constructed later, gives her year of death as 1189. (Urraca was buried in the Romanesque cathedral at the time of her death, but it was rebuilt in the fourteenth century in the Gothic style.)

So this breathtaking gap--Urraca Alfonso may have died in 1164 or as late as 1189--is just another indication of the failure of documentation for many historical women's lives. 


*There are variant spellings for Gontrodo's name, and some discussion about exactly how noble her family. Born about the year 1105 or 1106, she had three children with her husband. After 1137, the name of her husband, Gutierre Sebastiániz, disappears from the records. Gontrodo's name appears only sporadically in the records, and the evidence suggests that she retired to a convent after her liaison with Alfonso VII--she donates an inheritance to the Monastery of San Vicente in 1141, and several years later, property that had been given to her by Alfonso VII. But the twelfth-century Chronica Adefonsi Imperatoris claims that, after her daughter's marriage, Guntrodo became a nun:
Now Guntroda, King García's mother-in-law, recognized the enormous honor paid to her daughter who bad become a queen. . . . Even though she possessed many worldly desires, Guntroda looked eagerly to spiritual matters as much as she could. She consecrated herself to God and remained in his service. Accordingly, she became a nun in Oviedo. There she joined a religious community in the church of Saint Mary. She felt that with help from the Mother of God she certainly would be able to discover some joy in life. She would appease God by praising him continually through the Divine Office. She would then await the glorious end of her life persevering in this devout practice. Praying constantly in a true spirit of sincerity, she would repent for all of her sins. 
In 1153, Gontrodo founded the Monastery of Santa María de la Vega in Oviedo, where she became a nun, dying there on 26 June 1186. Online information is available online at the Oviedo Enciclopedia.

Alfonso VII would also have a daughter with a another woman named Urraca, Urraca Fernández de Castro, widow of a Leonese nobleman, Rodrigo Fernández. The date of Stephanie Alfonso's birth isn't clear, but her mother seems to have begun her relationship with the king in 1139, after her husband's death. Between that date and 1148, the king awarded property and privileges to Urraca Fernández and Stephanie Alfonso.

A twelfth-century manuscript drawing of
Urraca Fernández (right) and her husband, Rodrigo Martínez

After Alfonso VII's death in 1157, his son, Fernando II, now king, arranged for the marriage between his half-sister and the head of his household, Fernando Rodríguez de Castro. In 1180, Stephanie's husband murdered her--he stabbed her to death. He suspected his wife was unfaithful to him . . .  But, oops, maybe not. Whatever the case (and there is a dramatic, romanticized story that he realized he was wrong and was sorry afterwards), King Fernando forgave him for having murdered his half-sister . . . Which is why Stephanie is also known as Stephanie the Unfortunate (Estefanía la Desdichada).

Stephanie was buried near her grandmother, Queen Urraca of Castile and León. Her epitaph makes no mention of the circumstances of her "unfortunate" death: 
Here lies the Infanta Doña Estefanía, daughter of Emperor Alfonso, wife of the powerful Fernán Ruiz, mother of Pedro Fernández Castellano, who died on July 1, 1180. 
(The Latin inscription reads: HR INFANTISSA DOMINA STEPHANIA, FILIA IMPERATORIS ADEFONSI, CONJUX FERDINANDI RODERICI POTENTISSIMI BARONIS, MATER PETRI FERDINANDI CASTELLANI, QUAE OBIIT WAS MCCXVIII. KAL. JULII.)