Renaissance and Reformation Women Writers of the Iberian Empire
Sarah Owens
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 September 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 September 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0368


During the Early Modern period from 1500 to 1800, the currents of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans led Spanish and Portuguese Indies’ fleets to every corner of the Iberian Empires. A myriad of passengers traveled on the military and cargo ships of these two empires. There were soldiers, missionaries, dignitaries, colonists, indentured workers, and slaves. In the early years, men made up the vast number of travelers, but with time, women joined their husbands, and some religious women, albeit a small number, journeyed to distant cities to establish convents for their religious orders. Both religious and secular women shine as the writers of the Iberian Empires. Through family members, personal tutors, and novice mistresses, these women received access to different types of education. Many of these women had some knowledge of the growing empires, whether it was by reading chronicles of the Indies such as tomes by José de Acosta, or listening to friars who had recently returned with firsthand accounts of evangelization and missions in Mexico, Peru, Brazil, Manila, Japan, and Goa. Religious women yearned to participate as missionaries and even to die as martyrs, but due to strict enclosure regulations of their convents enacted by the Council of Trent (1545–1563), they did not have permission to preach or even leave their convents without special authorization. The small number of nuns who did leave their cloistered communities to found new ones often wrote about their experiences by documenting them in convent chronicles and letters. Others wrote about the Iberian Empires without ever leaving their home convent. Secular women also wrote about empire, at times demanding compensation from the Crown for their participation in conquest and colonization. Women’s participation in networks of exchange, fostered by the written word, sheds light on their important role in the building of the Spanish and Portuguese Empires. This article covers the time period from 1500 to 1800, since it has been argued by scholars such as Hilaire Kallendorf that the Renaissance—often referred to as the golden age—happened later in Spain than in the rest of Europe. Women of Spanish descent are the focal point of this article, but because Spain and Portugal shared the same Habsburg monarchs between 1580 and 1640, some references to Portuguese writers are also included.

General Overviews

In order to understand women’s writing of the Iberian Empires, it is important to take stock of issues of religion, education, race, class, and gender on both sides of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Unlike other areas of study related to early modern Spain and colonial Latin America, the topic of women’s use of the pen did not gain traction in academic publishing until the 1980s. Arenal and Schlau 2009, a pathbreaking anthology first published in 1989, provides an excellent introduction to religious women writing in the Spanish Empire. Likewise, Jaffary 2007 helps contextualize gender and religion in colonial Latin America. Morant, et al. 2006 provides a useful historical introduction to women of the Spanish Empire; this volume covers many topics related both to religious and secular women. A concise overview of six colonial Latin American women and their works is in Myers 2003. Baranda Leturio and Marín Pina 2014 offers current scholarship on convent literature, especially in early modern Spain. A guide to understanding gendered writing in early modern Spanish texts can be found in Vicente and Corteguera 2003. See also the separate Oxford Bibliographies in Renaissance and Reformation articles “Spain” (by Hilaire Kallendorf), “Women Writing in Early Modern Spain” (by Lisa Vollendorf), and “Portugal” (by Rita Costa-Gomes).

  • Arenal, Electa, and Stacey Schlau, eds. Untold Sisters: Hispanic Nuns in Their Own Works. Rev. ed. Translated by Amanda Powell. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2009.

    Pioneering work on transatlantic Hispanic nuns. Arenal and Schlau provide an excellent introduction, and the bilingual excerpts of nuns’ writings, translated into English by Powell, should be the starting point for anyone interested in female monastic culture and writing. Originally published in 1989.

  • Baranda Leturio, Nieves, and María Carmen Marín Pina, eds. Letras en la celda: Cultura escrita de los conventos femeninos en la España moderna. Tiempo Emulado: Historia de América y España 32. Madrid: Iberoamericana Vervuert, 2014.

    Collection of essays in Spanish, arranged around the theme of women’s writing in Hispanic convents. Twenty-six essays from an array of international scholars from Europe and North America.

  • Jaffary, Norah E., ed. Gender, Race, and Religion in the Colonization of the Americas. Women and Gender in the Early Modern World. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2007.

    Valuable contextualization of gender, race, and religion in the Americas. Essays on colonial Brazil, Mexico, and Peru would be helpful to students new to the field of gender and transatlantic studies.

  • Morant, Isabel, Margarita Ortega, Asunción Lavrin, and Pilar Pérez Cantó, eds. Historia de las mujeres en España y América Latina. Vol. 2, El mundo moderno. 2d ed. Madrid: Cátedra, 2006.

    Sweeping volume of essays covering numerous topics on secular and religious women of Spain and Latin America. Marginalized women such as prostitutes, indigenous servants, and black enslaved women are of particular interest since their voices are often omitted in other volumes.

  • Myers, Kathleen Ann. Neither Saints nor Sinners: Writing the Lives of Women in Spanish America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195157239.001.0001

    An excellent introduction to six notable colonial Latin American women. An appendix includes selected life writings in translation.

  • Vicente, Marta V., and Luis R. Corteguera, eds. Women, Texts, and Authority in the Early Modern Spanish World. Women and Gender in the Early Modern World. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2003.

    The authors of this volume analyze the nuances of gendered writing. Divided into eleven chapters, topics cover women’s writing in early modern Spain and colonial Latin America.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.