In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Gender in the Atlantic World

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals and Online Resources
  • Biographies
  • Women’s History and Gender History
  • Masculinities
  • Colonial Encounters
  • Religion
  • Atlantic Slave Systems
  • Work and Economy
  • Gendered Power

Atlantic History Gender in the Atlantic World
Ellen Hartigan-O'Connor
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0027


Women as well as men were central to the patterns of trade and conquest that made the Atlantic world. Early work in Atlantic history, however, which concentrated on the state and international commerce, often missed the vital participation of women. Early-21st-century attention to their experiences has revealed the ways that international structures had local effects. Native American women, for example, frequently acted as go-betweens or cultural brokers between Indian and European societies, gaining new allies for their families and power for themselves. The methods of women’s history, which include adding the experiences of ordinary and unusual women to traditional narratives and analyzing the ways that women’s experiences contradict, change, or reinforce traditional periodization and interpretations, have revised earlier understandings of what held the Atlantic world together. Research into women’s experiences has also revealed how central ideas about masculinity and femininity were to motivating, justifying, and shaping all manner of colonial efforts. Atlantic history has therefore proven an ideal place for gender history—the investigation of how people used ideas about gender to shore up hierarchies and power structures. Kathleen Brown coined the term “gender frontier” to capture those sites of cultural contact where multiple groups of people tried to make sense of seemingly alien notions of marriage customs, the sexual division of labor, or the meaning of motherhood. Relationships on this “gender frontier” typically led each group to solidify its own identity in contrast to a new other.

General Overviews

Most textbooks and surveys of the Atlantic world include a consideration of women’s lives and the significance of gender as integrated parts of culture, demography, and social structure. To get a sense of the most-important questions in gender history in particular, there are a few brief, stand-alone introductions to major themes in Atlantic women’s history (Aslakson 2008, Pearsall 2009). Another good starting place is with collections of essays, which offer specific details and often, as with Patricia Seed’s epilogue to Jaffary 2007, a useful framework contextualizing those details. Regional surveys (such as Hufton 1998 or Wiesner-Hanks 2008 on women in western Europe or Socolow 2000 on Latin America) can be good sources of information, since they tend to touch on themes of Atlantic-world history, including colonialism and conquest, commerce and consumption, and the formation of racial ideologies. Another option is to look for textbooks on women in world history, such as French and Poska 2007. The mutual development of racial, gendered, and sexual identities and ideologies is a major theme in Atlantic gender history; see the Oxford Bibliographies in Atlantic History article on “Sex and Sexuality.”

  • Aslakson, Ken. “Women in the Atlantic World.” In The Atlantic World, 1450–2000. Edited by Toyin Falola and Kevin David Roberts, 135–150. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008.

    An overview for undergraduates and graduates of the lives of black and white women in Atlantic-world societies, on the basis of a framework of opportunities within overall hierarchies that subordinated blacks to whites and women to men. It synthesizes up-to-date scholarship on the ways that ideas about gender shaped the patterns of migration and subsequent ordering of societies.

  • French, Katherine L., and Allyson M. Poska, eds. Women and Gender in the Western Past. Vol. 2, Since 1500. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007.

    A survey textbook of women and gender in the history of Western civilizations. This text includes edited primary sources and short biographies of women.

  • Hufton, Olwen. The Prospect Before Her: A History of Women in Western Europe. Vol. 1, 1500–1800. New York: Vintage, 1998.

    A sweeping narrative synthesis of women in early modern western Europe, drawing on an impressive, extensive bibliography of then-recent scholarship. The book illuminates connections between changes in women’s and men’s lives and shifting ideas about gender, concluding that continuities were as important as change.

  • Jaffary, Nora E., ed. Gender, Race, and Religion in the Colonization of the Americas. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2007.

    A new collection of essays analyzing the implications of colonialism for a wide range of women’s lives. The volume takes comparative colonialisms and female agency as its central themes by focusing on gendered frontiers, women and missionaries, interracial sexual relationships, and female social networks. The essays cover Spanish American examples in particular breadth, and there is a summary epilogue on “Women in the Atlantic World” by Patricia Seed.

  • Pearsall, Sarah M. S. “Gender.” In The British Atlantic World, 1500–1800. 2d ed. Edited by David Armitage and Michael J. Braddick, 113–132. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

    One of several chapters on “identities” (others are class, civility and authority, race) in this important collection of essays geared toward undergraduates and general interest.

  • Shepherd, Verene, Bridget Brereton, and Barbara Bailey, eds. Engendering History: Caribbean Women in Historical Perspective. New York: St. Martin’s, 1995.

    A collection of theoretically sophisticated essays discussing wide-ranging topics in the history of women in the Caribbean from the 18th to the 20th centuries. The focus is on the impact of slavery and imperialism for women’s social and economic lives.

  • Socolow, Susan Migden. The Women of Colonial Latin America. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511840074

    An overview of the gender ideologies and gendered experiences of women in Latin America. Stresses both the patriarchal underpinning of Old and New World societies and the varied outcomes for women under colonization. Topics covered include slavery, work, marriage, religion, deviance, and the complex variety of opportunities and new restrictions for women and men of different races and classes. The appendix has a selection of primary-source documents.

  • Wiesner-Hanks, Merry E. Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe. 3d ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

    A succinct undergraduate textbook introducing major themes in the history of women and gender, organized into sections on mind, body, and spirit. The book, which includes useful bibliographies and clear summaries of early-21st-century historiography, has material on masculinity and colonialism as well. The textbook has an accompanying website with bibliographies, website links, and primary sources.

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