In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Gender in Iberian America

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Historiographic Overviews
  • Gender in Pre-Columbian America
  • Gender in Medieval and Early Modern Spain
  • Conquest
  • Indigenous Women
  • Afro-descended Women
  • Women and the Law
  • Convent Life
  • Honor
  • Marriage and Family
  • Violence
  • Religious Heresy, Sorcery, and Witchcraft
  • Women and the Economy
  • Sexuality
  • Women Writers

Atlantic History Gender in Iberian America
Nicole von Germeten
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 September 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 September 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0133


Gender studies in Iberian America derived from and continues to connect with a broad range of topics including demography, family and economic history, religion, and race. Ongoing historiography focuses on the tension between gender- and race-based repression versus the existence of clear expressions of individual woman’s agency. This field of inquiry embraces the Atlantic world because one of its fundamental questions is how conquest and contact affected gender roles in the Americas. Earlier approaches first conceived of indigenous women suffering significant losses in their status and standard of living under Spanish rule, in contrast to an understanding of gender parallelism of precolonial civilizations. However, historians have challenged this sweeping negative assessment with more intensive research into indigenous language sources and viceregal legal documents. In the Iberian Atlantic, women would not find equality with men in the sense of more recent feminist goals because the central organizing ideology of this society was a fluid and complex hierarchy based on occupational and family status, race, and gender. Subjects of the Spanish and Portuguese crowns had rights based on their status, including those viewed as the least powerful, that is, women, slaves, and indigenous peoples. Women of African, European, and indigenous ancestry successfully used viceregal legal traditions, especially last wills and testaments, to preserve their ways of life and their family heritage and resources. An Atlantic scope helps contextualize approaches to how gender affects sexuality. A traditional, and still popular, understanding conceives of conquest as an expression of Iberian masculinity and an opportunity for men to achieve status according to the violent and rapacious demands of the honor code. Military conquest and imperialism equate to sexual domination of women and indigenous people. In this view, women only possessed honor based on their sexual reclusion and the effectiveness of their male protectors. Historians have complicated this vision of honor as a destructive drive or a prison for women, and now many view it as a varying and utilitarian tool used by a broad range of colonial subjects in order to negotiate their diverse goals both in daily life and in litigation. Along with the imperialistic, sexual, and legal angles on gender in Iberian America, scholars have maintained a very long tradition of examining women’s intellectual production and spiritual lives, initially inspired by “great women,” most notably the celebrated Mexican poet Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz. The study of these topics has flourished as the writings of more obscure women emerge from the archives.

General Overviews

Historians have provided general perspectives on the history of gender in Iberian America in the form of in-depth studies of a key location (Arrom 1985, Martin 1983), through edited collections that bring together specialists on a variety of regions (Jaffary 2007, Owens and Mangan 2012), or via broad surveys of Latin American women’s history (Sloan 2011, Socolow 2015). These works might span both the viceregal and national eras (Sloan 2011, Wade 2009, Lavrin 1978) or across the Atlantic (Jaffe and Lewis 2009). The classic sources of archival information prompt these authors to focus on family, marriage, the church, and those women who faced judicial sanctions, as well as change over time under colonial rule (Socolow 2015). Arrom 1985, Lavrin 1978, and Boyer 1989 (cited under Marriage and Family) hold their place as foundational general works on gender in Iberian America.

  • Arrom, Silvia Marina. The Women of Mexico City, 1790–1857. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1985.

    A classic work that combines rigorous statistical analysis, based on census records, with engaging archival stories, often drawn from divorce petitions. Perhaps the most fascinating facet of this book is its exploration of women’s work in late-18th- and early-19th-century Mexico City.

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

    Essays discuss Mexico, Lima, Cuzco, and Brazil, as well as Anglo, French, and Dutch America. Takes a transatlantic approach to the gendered dynamics of imperialism, with a focus on women’s experience of frontiers, race mixing, religion, and networks.

  • Jaffe, Catherine M., and Elizabeth Franklin Lewis. Eve’s Enlightenment: Women’s Experience in Spain and Spanish America, 1726–1839. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2009.

    Many of the essays deal with female writers in the Spanish Enlightenment, but others also explore material culture and social and legal change.

  • Lavrin, Asunción, ed. Latin American Women: Historical Perspectives. Westport, CT, and London: Greenwood, 1978.

    Pioneering essay collection that spans four centuries in the history of elite women, nuns, and early feminist movements in Latin American nations, as well as preliminary efforts to explore non-European women’s lives. A call to move away from the “great woman approach,” and also an effort to give a diverse range of women historic agency.

  • Martin, Luis. Daughters of the Conquistadores: Women in the Viceroyalty of Peru. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1983.

    Accepts broad stereotypes of Spanish gender roles, including donjuanismo and marianismo, and emphasizes certain heroines of the conquest and colonial era. Also uses the standard legal, notarial, and marriage archives used in gender studies to provide an overview, with an emphasis on religious experience.

  • Owens, Sarah, and Jane Mangan, eds. Women of the Iberian Atlantic. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2012.

    The mobility and networks of women as healers and spiritual leaders predominate the essays in this collection, which also looks more closely at African and Portuguese women in the Atlantic world, as well as providing a solid background in Iberian gender roles.

  • Sloan, Kathryn A. Women’s Roles in Latin America and the Caribbean. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood, 2011.

    A textbook for a women’s history class that extends into recent decades, but very well grounded in medieval and early colonial scholarship. Organized by themes, including family, law, religion, work, culture, and politics.

  • Socolow, Susan Migden. The Women of Colonial Latin America. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139031189

    Broad overview delving into women’s experiences in the Americas, Africa, and Iberia before and after the conquest era. Rather than emphasizing victimized/empowered status according to our values, Socolow situates women within their historic context, emphasizing gender as the most important influence on their status and lives.

  • Wade, Peter. Race and Sex in Latin America. London and New York: Pluto, 2009.

    An anthropological overview spanning the centuries since Iberian conquest, theorizing that power informs how race and sex intersect. Chapter on the colonial era sums up a wide range of historical scholarship on this topic.

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