Women in Colonial Latin American History

Susan M. Socolow

in Latin American Studies

ISBN: 9780199766581
Published online October 2011 | | DOI:
Women in Colonial Latin American History

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  • Regional and Area Studies
  • History of the Americas


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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.

Article.  8629 words. 

Subjects: Regional and Area Studies ; History of the Americas

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