Latin American Studies Women's Property Rights, Asset Ownership, and Wealth in Latin America
by
Carmen Diana Deere
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0231

Introduction

In the 1970s and 1980s, feminist historians began focusing attention on a much-neglected topic in social and economic history and the history of the family in Latin America—women’s property rights and their evolution. Single women and widows have always had almost the same property rights as men; up until the last quarter of the 20th century, it was married women’s property rights that differed from men’s, largely to women’s disadvantage. The extent of this disadvantage has been widely debated, with much of the literature demonstrating that married women had considerable economic agency, certainly a role not strictly confined to the private sphere. The first part of this essay focuses on women’s property rights, how the legal frameworks differed in colonial Spanish and Portuguese America, and the extent to which these may have varied in practice across the Spanish Empire. This variation becomes more visible as the different countries enacted their own civil codes in the 19th century, and then embarked on a process of reform toward legal gender equality in the 20th century. The emergence of the interdisciplinary field of women/gender in development in the 1970s and 1980s also drew social scientists from across disciplines to the study of gender inequality in the ownership of assets and wealth. Much of this literature focuses on specific assets, such as land or businesses or financial assets, and on how gender inequality in their ownership might condition other outcomes for women. This focus on women’s economic empowerment became more explicit in the 1990s with the development of household bargaining power models, which drew attention to how women’s access to resources, such as assets or income, conditioned their agency or role in household decision-making, and in turn, their capabilities. Hence, in the second part of this essay we turn to the literature—both quantitative and qualitative, historical and contemporary—on women’s ownership of specific assets, their relative wealth, and why it matters.

Women’s Property Rights

Women’s legal property rights are largely defined by the marital and inheritance regimes in a country’s civil code. Marital regimes refer to the status of property ownership and its management depending on when and how it was acquired—before or during a marriage—and its disposition once a marriage dissolves—whether due to death, separation, or divorce. Inheritance regimes encompass the legal framework governing testaments, intestate, and the practice of dowry. The marital and inheritance regimes of colonial Latin America followed those governing Spain and Portugal, which were similar in many respects, given their common origin in Roman law. Among the important differences is that colonial Hispanic America was governed by the marital regime of partial community property, where only the assets acquired during the marriage constitute the community property of the couple. Colonial Brazil, in contrast, was governed by full community property, where community property consists not only of assets acquired during the marriage, but also the property brought to marriage or inherited by each spouse. Upon dissolution of the marriage, in both cases, the community property is divided in equal halves between the spouses. With independence, the civil codes adopted in Hispanic America began to vary, culminating with the introduction of the separation of property regime in the late 19th century in Mexico and Central America as either an option or the legal default regime. Reforms regarding married women’s rights to manage their own property commenced in the late 19th century, but in most countries, women did not achieve equal rights in marriage until the last quarter of the 20th century. A constant feature of Latin America is that a large share of couples do not marry, remaining technically single. In most countries, consensual unions were not ceded the same property rights as married couples until the late 20th century. The inheritance rights of children born outside of marriage were equalized to those of legitimate children usually much earlier. We also give attention to the rules and trends regarding ecclesiastical and civil divorce, since it is with divorce that married women regain control over their own property, making their status similar to that of single and widowed women. This section is divided into four chronological periods. When there is overlap, the citation is usually included in the period in which the analysis begins. Another caveat is that citations to monographs usually refer only to material relevant to women’s property rights.

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