I NO LONGER REMEMBER how I found Janaína Damaceno Gomes’s thesis, “The Secrets of Virgínia: A Study of Racial Attitudes in São Paulo (1945-1955).” Janaína is a professor at the Baixada Fluminense Teacher’s College in Rio de Janeiro, with a Ph.D. in social anthropology from the University of São Paulo and a master’s in education and bachelor’s in philosophy from Unicamp. Virgínia was a teacher, a health educator, a psychiatric attendant, a psychologist, a sociologist, and a psychoanalyst. She challenged not only the place of women in the first half of last century — especially black women — but also the prevailing thought on subjects like education and race relations.
Virgínia’s work was almost kept a secret, as Janaína tells us, “due to the looting of archives and mold literally growing on the author’s thesis, because of unpublished interviews, references that were not made, and texts that were left out of compendiums, [and] because of the choice of a bibliographic cannon that is perpetuated and rarely reviewed.” Any similarity to some current situations is no mere coincidence.
Virgínia Leone Bicudo was born in São Paulo in 1910, the daughter of Giovanna Leona, an Italian immigrant, and Theofilo Júlio Bicudo. Giovanna worked as a maid in the home of Col. Bento Bicudo, in Campinas, where she met the young Theofilo, born of the “free womb” of the slave Virgínia Julio. Taken under the colonel’s wing, Theofilo was very ambitious for a young black man. His dream was to study medicine at the Medical University of São Paulo, however he was denied entry by a professor who believed that the university was not a place for black people. The couple had six children and decided to invest in their education.
Virgínia liked to study and followed her parent’s advice to work very hard “to avoid being hurt and defeated by the expectation of rejection … due to skin color.” “Look, my father’s view was that a person’s value is derived from their education, their preparation, their studies. That was my father. So he put all of us in school,” she said in an interview with Marcos Maio in 1995. But soon she would see that this was not true, as she was chased by schoolmates yelling “blacky, blacky, blacky.”
In 1930, Virgínia Leone graduated from the Normal School, and in 1932, after completing a course in public health education, she started to work as a health educator and then as a psychiatric attendant, rising to the level of supervisor in the Infant Oriented Clinic in São Paulo. During this time, she often traveled around the city, learning about the lives of children who were treated as “problematic” by the “hygienization” campaigns and the eugenic ideas that dominated Brazilian public school policy at that time. Maybe she saw herself in them.
In 1936, she was the only woman to register for the political and social sciences track at the newly founded Free School of Sociology and Politics, which she graduated from in 1938. “I chose the school of sociology because I was suffering, I had pain and I wanted to know what was causing me so much suffering. And I understood that they were external conditions. So I thought that sociology would bring clarity to the causes of my suffering.”
During the program, Virgínia discovered new ideas that would take her career on a new course: “For the first time in my life, I heard about Freud, about sublimation and internal factors. So I said, well, it is not sociology that I need to study, what I need to study is psychoanalysis and Freud.” [MORE]