This article is written by Tony Traficante for ISDA.
Because The Pope Said She Could!
One-day “una raggazza Italiana”, this young Italian woman, stood at the doorway of her future, a medical school. As she prepared to enter, a group of male students and professors staring shouted, “che vergogna”- – shame! What a put-down for this intelligent young lady. However, she would not be intimidated. She was Maria Montessori, the future founder of the internationally recognized Montessori Schools!
Maria was born August 31, 1870, in the town of Chiaravalle, Le Marche, Italia, to parents Alessandro and Renilde Stoppani-Montessori. It was a time when fathers and the Catholic Church decided on the educational needs of the Italian female. However, strong willed, Maria was not about to accept the educational limitations imposed on Italian women… especially by men!
Showing her fortitude, Maria, at the age of 13, insisted on enrolling in a technical school, which happened to be an all-boys school. She wanted to be an engineer, but later would change her career option to be a doctor. Upon completing her high school education level, Maria applied to the University of Rome Medical School. She failed the entrance exams on the first attempt, but later passed on the second attempt and enrolled. Reports are that the Pope at the time, most likely Pope Leo XIII, pressured to get Maria accepted into medical school.
Maria’s problems with the male students continued; they refused to work beside her, while dissecting naked cadavers! Maria solved the problem by doing her lab work – – dissections – – after normal class hours. Dr. Montessori was one of Italy’s first female physicians to graduate in 1896. She is credited for opening the way for Italian women to pursue medical careers and to enter institutions of higher education.
Maria’s early medical practice focused on psychiatry, mostly with special needs children. She was appalled by the learning difficulties suffered by these children, but mostly by the lack of adequate schools to help these children. And so, Maria set out to help these children on January 6, 1907, by establishing the first of her Montessori schools in a ghetto of Rome. It was called “La Casa dei Bambini”, the Children’s Home, becoming the foundation of her famed Montessori educational system. She became so involved with the over-all educational system that Dr. Montessori gave up her medical practice.
As Maria’s Montessori educational method grew in popularity, it attracted the attention of Benito Mussolini. So enthused with the Montessori system, Mussolini agreed to serve as Honorary President of the Montessori Society of Italy. Maria then, with the approval of Mussolini, opened a teacher’s training college and a wide range of Montessori institutions throughout Italy.
Dr. Montessori’s ideological viewpoints, unfortunately, clashed with the Mussolini administration and the relationship began to sour. The situation became particularly acute in 1931when Maria refused to order her teachers to take the fascist loyalty oath. Infuriated at the rebuff, Mussolini ordered the closing of all Montessori schools in Italy, forcing Maria, fearing for her well-being, to escape to India.
Maria was teaching in India in 1940, when Italy and Great Britain became adversaries and embroiled in war. Britain ordered the internment of all Italian nationals in the United Kingdom and its colonies. Although Maria was not confined, she was restricted to the Theosophical Society compound where she continued to teach. She lived in exile, in India, for the remainder of the war.
Dr. Montessori was an extraordinary person… a physician, humanitarian, a highly respected educator and an activist for women’s rights and peace. She also is the only Italian woman with the honor to appear on an Italian banknote. She died May 6,1952, at the age of 81.
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