The following academic paper highlights the up-to-date issues and questions of Women’s Roles In Colonial Latin America. This sample provides just some ideas on how this topic can be analyzed and discussed.
Early Latin America is a rich and complex social, political, economic, and cultural environment possessing a distinctly Western (European) core constantly influenced by those forces inherent within a colonial system. Out of a mercantist fueled drive for wealth and power arose a new culture dominated by Iberian (Spanish and Portuguese) presuppositions concerning religious ideology and cultural mores.
At the same time, this newfound society was not fully European as it sought to contain an indigenous Indian population, an African slave population, as well as the increasingly intricate blending of the three.
In looking at how the unique blending of groups helped shape the colonial way of life, one can look to the system of castas as the dominant sociopolitical institution and structure of hierarchy which still remains influential within the modern Latin American world view.
During the colonial era, social castas intersected with gender to determine the boundaries between what was acceptable and what was not.
In looking at the construction of the colonial way of life, women played a unique part in that their place was primarily defined by their relationship to a man or religious institution and yet many were afforded more progressive roles in Latin America then in Europe. While women had more potential to defy cultural norms, they did not enjoy social or sexual equality with men.
In addition, they also served as a focal point for the pervasive honour system as they were seen as key to the maintenance of social castas.
Thus, female-headed households, women working outside the home, and other such social freedoms were commonly practiced by the plebe but, despite occasional exceptions, were not practiced by those who had honour to maintain. Elite women and those who aspired to be among the gente decente (decent people) were enjoined to defend their virginity, combine motherhood with matrimony, be faithful to their husbands, and thus help maintain the honor of their family and their own purity. The most influential aspect of a woman’s life was the castas into which she was born.
Castas originated from a need to organize people within the colonies, from the Europeans at the top, to the African slaves at the bottom, and the mixed races such as Mestizos and Mulattos throughout. The closer one got to the native Iberian (as opposed to the Creoles who were fully European but born in the Americas), the higher one’s social status. This status was fungible as one could move up or down depending on marriage or the purchase of Gracias as sacar (essentially, buying a higher degree of “whiteness”).
Though this one can see, “the Latin American tendency to think of race as negotiable spectrum, a ladder through which families might ascend. ” (Chasteen, 86) This caste / class system permeated every aspect of a woman’s life. One area upon which a woman’s caste had a great degree of influence was marriage. Women did not have many choices concerning what to do with their lives. They could join with the church, remain with their families under their father or brothers, and most significantly, get married. Marriage was both a religious and social institution. The marriage contract was a pillar of the Spanish social structure, crucial to the distribution of property. Marriage was a religious sacrament, and religious conformity was serious business in the Spanish Empire. ” (Chasteen, 56) Socially, it allowed a woman or man to heighten, weaken, or maintain a place within society. In, “A Glimpse of Family Life in Colonial Mexico,” Kathleen A. Myers uses the life of Madre Maria de San Jose to offer a glimpse of how a woman’s social caste influences her choices. Because of the caste system, marriages were not made between just economic equals.
Marias’ sisters married well above their social status because of the family prestige and descent from conquistadores. Likewise, her Mother had originally brought most of the wealth into the family but had married into a good family in return. (Myers, 69-71). In addition to bringing honour to the family she married into, a woman also remained a member of her own family after marriage (did not change last names, lose property rights, etc. ). Due in part, to the ability for a woman’s marriage to elevate or harm the social standing of her own family and her spouse, a woman’s purity determined the large part of her worth.
Women only maintained their purity if they engaged in sexual intercourse after having received a formal promise of marriage; those that had not were forced to have private pregnancies to protect their honor and that of their families. Sexual and other behavior was therefore tightly controlled among elite women while all men and women of lesser value / lower social castas were allowed comparative freedom. The social value of purity was supported by the ideological hegemony of Catholicism. Chasteen, 70) Ideologically, the Judeo-Christian faith has long been used to repress the rights and roles of the female sex by equating the woman with Eve, a temptress whose weak willed sexuality led Adam / man astray from God.
The redeemer of the sin brought by woman was born from a pure, non sexual, and subservient virgin. Christian womanhood was explicitly associated with such purity and subservience and priests encouraged women to stay in the house while men provided for the family. “Only when placed under male religious guidance could a woman’s unbridled sexuality be prevented from wrecking havoc on society? (Socolow, 6) Therefore, even though this was not viable for the vast majority of the population, the ideal of female enclosure was applied to all women under Catholicism. This view is reflected in the system of castas. Because only the elite women could achieve the status of a gente decente, it helped to rationalize and reinforce the lack of honour (and thus lack of status) held by the majority. Honour was a cluster of ideas that along with military and religious conquest, “justified the hierarchical colonial Spaniards’ (and their Creole descendants) place within it. (Burkholder, ) Whether slave or free, Creole, Spanish, or indigenous Indian, a unique set of ideas defined a woman’s honour and distinguished it from a man’s honour.
According to Chasteen, “Honour was a measure of how well men and women played their prescribed, and very different, social roles. ” (Chasteen, 71) The system, with its roots in Christianity, was inherently patriarchic and father’s ruled on both a microcosmic and macrocosmic level. Thus honor for a woman was fixed on her ability to remain sexually pure whereas a man’s honour was in defending, (even by bloodshed), the faithfulness of their wives and virginity of their daughters. Chasteen 71) Therefore, women who were without male control/oversight (widows), who worked (the poor, middle class, slaves), and who were part of cultures with different gender relations (indigenous peoples), were automatically see as less honorable, thus helping to maintain the social status quo of white elitism. While there was a system of white privilege and male privilege, it is interesting to note that with increased honour came a decrease in freedom for women. Women of higher class rarely left the home and did not work. There were exceptions found among women of higher castas but lower income.
Such single women, widows, and those with absent husbands would typically resort to those activities which kept them in the home and would have men to actually sell the product or interact socially. “Because these economic activities avoided direct entry into public space, they were acceptable for those among the finer class. ” (Socolow, 114) While upper class women were confined to the private sphere, plebian women throughout the Americas worked in a variety of fields and while it was not the norm, women were allowed to own businesses and property.
Women across races engaged in commercial activity, acted as merchants, grocers, and in agricultural positions. In Mexico City, one-third of all sellers of tobacco products were women (Socolow, 45) many women also worked in domestic positions such as maids and wet nurses which tended to be the highest paying. However, women who worked were not seen as having the same degree of honour as those who were “protected” and thus their lives were often categorized by humiliation, and verbal, physical, and sexual mistreatment. (Socolow p 118)
Through all of this one can see the wide array of factors that influences the lives of colonial Latin American women. While there were some notable exceptions, most women remained firmly within their constrained social roles as ordained by the patriarchic hegemony of Catholicism. This worldview influenced the whole of Latin America, from the Brazilian slave, to the newly arrived Spaniard. The sphere in which one operated was entrenched within the cultural mores of the era and helped to maintain the system of castas. The responsibility of the woman was to keep pure, thus maintaining her honor and that of her family.
Ideally this was achieved by isolation from potentially corrupting factors and thus it is ironic that more social freedom was afforded to those women who were deemed less worthy. Because so few women could afford the honorable lifestyle, women in the Americas experienced a much higher degree of social freedom then those in Europe as they often played an important part of the economic sector. Despite this freedom, women on the lower end of the social spectrum dealt with a variety of hardships and the legacy of race and gender relations remains difficult to overcome even in the present era.