In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Gender in Colonial Brazil

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • General Overviews
  • Family and Gender

Latin American Studies Gender in Colonial Brazil
Júnia Ferreira Furtado
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0121


In Brazil, gender history became a specific branch of study very recently, although visions about the subject come from important studies of the beginning of the 20th century. Then, the first historians to study the role of women and men in the Brazilian colonial society reproduced almost the same scenes of their time of living, characterized by the dominance of the patriarchal family society, giving an impression that over latter periods women were completely submitted under male control. After the 1980s, several studies began to criticize these established analyses, when the history of the family, of women, and of slavery intertwine to change the gender studies scenery. It accompanied changes in social history, which during the last decades has rescued the roles of different social agents previously ignored by the historians, including the marginalized ones, like women. In the Brazilian colonial slavery economy, the role of the slave as actor—women included—was recovered, setting aside accounts that reduced their roles merely to a lowly instrument of work. Countless individuals who were previously ignored in the historiography emerged from the documents of the time. Based on vast documented research and primarily posing other questions to the sources, historians presented another vision of gender relationships established at the time in Brazil. Working particularly with inventories, wills, and other serial documents, they searched for information that remained forgotten in largely unedited sources.

Introductory Works

Freyre 1946 and Prado 1942 immortalized within the historiography that the only form of family organization of the era was the patriarchal one that submitted women under men’s control. Freyre 1946 is a key book that immortalized the image of Colonial Brazil as a patriarchal society.

  • Freyre, Gilberto. The Masters and the Slaves: A Study in the Development of Brazilian civilization. Translated by Samuel Putnam. New York: Knopf, 1946.

    In this book, the white men always submitted the women—free as wives and mothers or slave as concubines. The gender relations were characterized by licentious relationships established between masters and women slaves, and as consequence of that a racial democracy emerged. Due to the force of this interpretation, until nowadays, Brazil was seen and saw itself as a place where the races lived in harmony. Originally published as Casa grande & Senzala: Formação da familia Brasileira sob o regime de economia patriarcal (Rio de Janeiro: Olympio, 1943).

  • Prado, Caio, Jr. Formação do Brasil contemporâneo: Colônia. São Paulo: Brasiliense, 1942.

    Prado believed that slavery kept social and cultural relations at a primitive stage. Slave women fulfill the sexual needs of her masters, in encounters that never surpassed the pure animal level of the relationship. Owing to the growing number of mulattos social instability was the rule and it generated disorganization and disintegration that originated the two main characteristics of Brazilian life: indolence and the predominance of mestisage.

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