In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Women in Modern Latin American History

  • Introduction
  • Foundational Works
  • General Overviews and Bibliographies
  • Multicountry Edited Collections
  • Historiography

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Latin American Studies Women in Modern Latin American History
Elizabeth Quay Hutchison
  • LAST REVIEWED: 05 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0045


Sources for the study of the history of women in Latin America’s national period grew exponentially in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, both in the English-speaking world and, to a lesser extent, in Latin America itself. Fueled by women’s movements and the growing presence of female scholars in the humanities and social sciences in the 1960s, early research on Latin American women focused on women, religion, and the family in colonial period—partly in a search for the “origins” of gender inequalities evident in the present day. Studies of women in the national period, by contrast, emphasized women’s participation in family, economy, and politics, documenting women’s contributions to social change in Latin America and the Caribbean, particularly in the arenas of female employment, education, and suffrage. At the height of the cold war, scholarly attention focused predictably on women’s (and feminists’) extraordinary presence in antiauthoritarian struggles and the promise of socialist revolutions for greater gender equality, generating considerable interest in questions of gender identity and state–society relations in the process of state formation and national development. Finally, a wave of North American scholarship inspired by the questions and methods linked to gender analysis in the 1990s made the study of women and gender an intrinsic part of broader historiographical concerns with Latin American economic, political, and cultural development in the national period. One result of this development is that works not centrally concerned with “women’s history” regularly incorporate women as historical subjects and consider the importance of gender relations to the broader topic under examination, often in research ranging from US–Latin American relations and the history of medicine to agricultural production and historical memory. Women’s history has, in this respect, become ubiquitous, particularly in the English-language scholarship on modern Latin America. This North–South imbalance, as well as the greater distribution of English-language compared to Latin American publications, is certainly reflected in this bibliography, which privileges research by US scholars. This selection also documents the relatively lesser attention scholars have granted to the relationship between gender and racial/ethnic hierarchies as well as female religious identity and participation in the modern period. This bibliography nevertheless builds on this rapid and diverse historiographical development to offer a selection of significant historical works for the study of Latin American women after independence.

Foundational Works

Though much of the earliest scholarship in English began to appear in edited collections published in the 1970s, a handful of historical monographs and journal articles established this new field, analyzing women’s historical experience in relation to legal systems, labor relations, women’s political rights, and the family. Lavrin 1978 introduced some of the earliest research on women available in English and included a sampling of historical as well as social science approaches to women’s experience. Kuznesof 1980, a study of women’s economic activity and female-headed households in Brazil’s early 19th century, established the importance of Latin America’s distinctive relationship to the world economy and helped define the emerging field of Latin American family and women’s history. Several monographs published in the 1980s began to sketch the greater contributions of women’s studies to the study of family, ethnicity, labor, and sexuality in the 19th century: Arrom 1985 presents a comprehensive study of women in education, labor, and family in late colonial and early national Mexico City, while Martínez-Alier 1989 offers a nuanced reading of interracial marriage and concubinage practices in late colonial Cuba. Two single-author collections, Molyneux 2001 and Guy 2000, republish articles that established enduring research orientations for women’s history in the 1980s, including Molyneux’s formulation of women’s practical and strategic gender interest, as well as Guy’s seminal work on women’s labor and vagrancy laws in late-19th-century Argentina. Women’s labor also provides a privileged vantage point for Graham 1992, a study of female servants in Rio de Janeiro in the decades before and after the abolition of slavery. The tendency in 1990s scholarship to merge women’s and gender history was anticipated in Deutsch 1991, a widely read essay that inaugurated the explicit use of gender as a category of analysis, insightfully analyzing political regimes that had dramatically impacted women and gender relations in Mexico, Cuba, Argentina, and Chile. Drawing, in most cases, on extensive archival research, these foundational studies established vital empirical foundations and inaugurated questions about the historical construction of gender inequality, origins that sustain the abundant scholarship that flowed from them.

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

    Through her work with Mexican census, notarial, and church archives, Arrom provides a detailed account of women’s authority as structured by social relations, legal status, family relations, and labor markets. Anticipating later arguments for women’s legal and economic agency in colonial Spanish America by fifteen years, Arrom demonstrated women’s active participation in key economic and social relations in the middle period.

  • Deutsch, Sandra McGee. “Gender and Sociopolitical Change in Twentieth-Century Latin America.” Hispanic American Historical Review 71.2 (1991): 259–306.

    DOI: 10.2307/2515642

    Deutsch pioneered the use of the category of gender in this clear-eyed analysis of women and states in modern Latin America. Drawing on a limited field of published secondary works, Deutsch analyzed the gendered nature of four political movements: Revolutionary Mexico, Peronist Argentina, the Cuban Revolution, and Allende’s Chile. The essay marks a paradigm shift from women’s history to gender history among US historians of Latin America. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Graham, Sandra Lauderdale. House and Street: The Domestic World of Servants and Masters in Nineteenth-Century Rio de Janeiro. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992.

    Revises the analytical paradigm of casa e rua as a lens for race and class relations in the Brazilian Empire and First Republic, arguing that the experiences of domestic servants in Rio de Janeiro inverted the meanings of public and private space. Graham documents how servant women used “the street” to escape employer surveillance, exchange services for freedom, and create networks of sociability.

  • Guy, Donna J. White Slavery and Mothers Alive and Dead: The Troubled Meeting of Sex, Gender, Public Health, and Progress in Latin America. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000.

    This volume combines articles published by social historian Donna Guy in the 1980s, including the seminal 1981 piece “Women, Peonage and Industrialization: Argentina, 1810–1914” (American Research Review 16.3: 65–89), with chapters on Pan Americanism, white slavery, and the welfare state in Latin America. An important record of the shifting agenda of Latin American women’s history in the late-20th-century United States.

  • Kuznesof, Elizabeth. “The Role of the Female-Headed Household in Brazilian Modernization: São Paulo, 1765–1836.” Journal of Social History 13.4 (1980): 589–613.

    DOI: 10.1353/jsh/13.4.589

    Kuznesof’s groundbreaking research on family organization contributed to the transformation of key methods in Latin American family history. Scrutinizing Brazil’s population census of 1765, 1802, and 1836, this study explains the pervasiveness of female-headed households in late colonial and early empire Brazil as a local response to a transitional stage of economic development that favored women’s domestic manufacturing. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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

    Collection marks the emergence of the historical study of women in Latin America, edited and with a concluding essay by historian Asunción Lavrin. Though chapters focus predominantly on early Latin America, this collection marked the creation of women’s history as a specialized area of inquiry within the Latin American field, laying critical empirical groundwork for continuing research on women’s role in Latin American families, economy, and politics in the modern period.

  • Martínez-Alier, Verena. Marriage, Class and Colour in Nineteenth-Century Cuba: A Study of Racial Attitudes and Sexual Values in a Slave Society. 2d ed. Women and Culture Series. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1989.

    This early work of historical anthropology examines the effects of the Royal Pragmatic of 1776 on sexuality and race relations in 19th-century Cuba. Based on a close and systematic reading of marriage disputes and seduction cases over several decades, Martínez-Alier charted new terrain for students of Latin American women and gender.

  • Molyneux, Maxine. Women’s Movements in International Perspective: Latin America and Beyond. New York: Palgrave, 2001.

    This collection brings together Molyneux’s key essays, published in a variety of scholarly journals, including the 1986 study “No God, No Boss, No Husband” (American Perspectives 13.1: 119–145), an important article on the woman question in a late-19th-century Argentine anarchist journal. Includes key articles theorizing women’s mobilization and socialist states.

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