Women in Colonial Latin American History
- LAST REVIEWED: 05 May 2017
- LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2011
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0037
- LAST REVIEWED: 05 May 2017
- LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2011
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0037
The history of women in colonial Latin America has been a productive and exciting field since the mid-1970s. The study of women in the colonial empires of Spain and Portugal began in the final quarter of the 20th century, clearly influenced by the feminist movement and work by scholars in U.S. history. Although at least one male scholar had already produced a thin volume on the subject, his work, lacking a feminist perspective, tended to be ignored. Initial work on women was heavily politicized, presenting women as the victims of sexism and patriarchy and assuming that gender created a common “sisterhood” that trumped race and class. But during the 1980s, a more balanced historiography began to appear as scholars began to point out that the experience of a white elite woman was far different from, for example, a rural Indian woman. Moreover, historians became more sensitive to the range of variation within any social or racial group. More recent work, drawing in part from the work of subaltern studies, has tended to “empower” colonial women, seeing them as more able to overcome the structural limitations of their lives than previously thought. At the same time, as there were changes in interpretation of women’s actions, historians grew aware of new and far more varied sources then originally imagined. These sources include dowries, wills, probate records, parish records, Inquisition proceedings, both civil and criminal judicial cases, spiritual dowries, personal letters as well as censuses, donor lists, and notary and Cabildo records. While women of different economic and social strata have been studied, in general elite women, indigenous women, and female slaves have received the most attention. Still needed is more work on women from “middling groups,” such as artisans and small shop owners, as well as on poor women, many of whom were of mixed race. Whether women’s conditions improved over time is another issue that calls for more research. There is some suggestion that women’s roles were more fluid in the early colonial period, but few works have attempted to systematically compare women’s ability to mold their own lives across the colonial centuries. In addition it is not clear whether Enlightenment reforms improved or worsened the female situation.
The works listed in this section provide a general overview of the role of women in colonial Latin American society while stressing different aspects of the female experience in colonial Latin America. Pescatello 1976, the first book to provide an overview of women in colonial Ibero-America, argued that patriarchy was the overriding model for these societies. While Burkett 1977 did not challenge this model, it underlined the importance of race and class in understanding how gender worked in the colonial society. Shortly thereafter, the path-breaking anthologies edited by Asunción Lavrin (see Lavrin 1978 and Lavrin 1989) and her contribution to the Cambridge History of Latin America (see Lavrin 1984) presented a more complex vision of the lives of colonial women. Arrom 1985 focuses on Mexico City. The early 21st century produced Socolow 2000, an overview of the experience of women in colonial society, as well as Powers 2005 and Kellogg 2005, two books that concentrate on indigenous women.
Arrom, Silvia Marina. The Women of Mexico City, 1790–1857. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1985.
Provides a good overview of the women of Mexico City in the late colonial period and the wars of independence.
Burkett, Elinor. “In Dubious Sisterhood: Class and Sex in Spanish Colonial America.” Latin American Perspectives 4.1–2 (1977): 18–26.
A controversial article in its time that argues forcefully for the importance of race and social class in understanding women’s experiences.
Kellogg, Susan. Weaving the Past: A History of Latin America’s Indigenous Women from the Prehispanic Period to the Present. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
A history of indigenous women with special attention to pre-Colombian and colonial societies.
Lavrin, Asunción, ed. Latin American Women: Historical Perspectives. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1978.
A path-breaking anthology with solid articles on women in colonial Mexico, Peru, and Brazil as well as others on modern Latin America.
Lavrin, Asunción. “Women in Spanish American Colonial Society.” In The Cambridge History of Latin America. Edited by Leslie Bethell, 2:321–355. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1984.
A thoughtful article that covers several important topics (race, marriage, kinship, status, occupations, social mores and deviance, and education).
Lavrin, Asunción, ed. Sexuality and Marriage in Colonial Latin America. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989.
A strong introduction by Lavrin is followed by five articles on sexuality, sexual witchcraft, and the Church’s attempt to curb both; and four pieces on marriage and legal separation. Many of the articles in this collection have become classics.
Pescatello, Ann M. Power and Pawn: The Female in Iberian Families, Societies and Cultures. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1976.
Reacting against the first generation feminist idea that Hispanic women were spiritually superior to men and controlled their own destiny, Pescatello stresses the importance of patriarchy throughout all regions influenced by Spain and Portugal as well as in pre-Colombian societies.
Powers, Karen Vieira. Women in the Crucible of Conquest: The Gendered Genesis of Spanish American Society, 1500–1600. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2005.
Stresses the victimization of indigenous women who found their rights to property and access to resources curtailed by Spanish policies. Mestizas fared slightly better, but even nuns were intellectually exploited by their male confessors.
Socolow, Susan Migden. The Women of Colonial Latin America. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
A history of colonial women that emphasizes the importance of social position, race, and civil status on female roles and power.
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