Who Played The Old White Man In Coming To America Women in Colonial Latin America

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Women in Colonial Latin America

The role of women in colonial Latin America was largely determined by the ethnic group and culture into which they were born. In his book, Women of Colonial Latin America, Susan Migden Socolow lists some of the factors that led to differences in women’s lives. These other factors include “population, the causes of life, geographical differences, local economy, culture and reality, and changes over time” (Socolow 1).

Socolow argues that among these additional species, population was the most important. This is because “gender ratios can enhance or limit women’s choices” (Socolow 2). Women’s experiences also changed as they grew older and entered different roles in life, from childhood to family to widowhood. The economy of the area where women lived also affected them greatly, since women living in more developed areas (especially upper class women) lived more comfortably than their counterparts in poorer areas. Socolow argues that these women did not always adhere to the cultural norms of women established by the patriarchal society, and indeed there were different views of each race and group of women. And finally, these opinions of women, sometimes, change over time.

The quality of Iberian women’s culture, both in the Old and New Worlds, was heavily influenced by Islamic customs, which were for women to wear indoors. Female virginity at the time of marriage also had an impact on family honor and was closely monitored. This was especially the case for women in the Spanish elite, although many women found ways to evade the guards in order to meet their lovers, as evidenced by the number of abandoned Spanish children. This dress of the Iberian women was both a blessing and a curse; while they did not have the freedom to move around like the lower class women did, they escaped the public shaming of women who appeared in the streets. Also, the Iberian women were not expected to work, not outside the home. Elite women did not do any work, except for overseeing the work of domestic servants and slaves. Iberian women also benefited from laws such as marriage and inheritance that were not granted to other ethnic groups and social groups.

The role of women in pre-conquest Latin America differed depending on what race she belonged to, but many areas “regulated women’s sexuality in ways very similar to the Spanish” (Socolow 19). Unlike Spanish inheritance and property laws, “property was usually owned by men only” but women could own movable property (Socolow 21). Also like the people of Spain, the people of this region strongly divided the roles of sex, although their ideas about the work of women and men were different from the Spanish, even from region to region.

When the Spaniards arrived, the role of indigenous women changed dramatically. These elite women married non-elite Spanish men, because these women brought more wealth and wealth to the marriage. Spanish elite men (who participated in the conquest) took elite women of their own race as concubines, but rarely married them. Non-elite women had a hard time as they were sexually and economically abused by the Spanish conquistadors.

Mestiza women (those born in Spanish-Indian unions) were also married, mostly “those who inherited from their conqueror fathers” (Socolow 37). Socolow argues that the mestizas “wealth and culture that people see overcome any problems related to legitimacy and race” (Socolow 37). As America settled, mestiza women found their “acceptance in Spain difficult” (Socolow 38).

Unlike Iberian women, many indigenous and mestiza women were forced to work to survive and pay their taxes. Women who appeared in public were often considered immoral and disrespectful. Being employed outside the home often added to women’s work at home; that is, women worked as domestic workers, midwives, “or self-employed laundresses, candlestickers, laundresses, washerwomen, tailors, weavers, seamstresses, nurses, and cooks” (Socolow 119).

Although these women were subjected to sexual and economic abuse, they had certain legal rights to prevent abuse, which were denied to women who were slaves, for example, African women. These women were considered property and, as such, had “less power to resist intercourse with their masters than Indian women” (Socolow 134). Although there were laws to protect slaves from abuse, the few times a slave woman did complain, she was often dismissed because the courts “gave the testimony of the white man” (Socolow 134).

However, women who were slaves had rights and privileges. In most cases, they were allowed to sell their work in the towns and keep some of their money. This gave them the opportunity to save money to buy their rights. Some female slaves may be able to form sexual relationships with their owners. Because of these relationships, many slave women were the heads of families, as the father of mulatto children was rarely accepted. Slave women were encouraged to marry the Spanish crown and the Catholic Church, although many of the white owners opposed this because it tended to make slave trade more difficult. However, some slaves married but often became slaves of “people of higher status” (Socolow 135).

Convents in Latin America were emancipating Spanish women during the colonial era. Many noble women whose parents were unwilling or unable to provide for them were encouraged to become nuns. During this time, prospective nuns were required to be pure and have “purity of blood” (Socolow 94). The convents that were sued demanded that a ransom be given to the convent to help the woman; Poor Spanish women “were given special privileges to beg for charity in order to obtain the necessary dowries” (Socolow 96).

The convent was built according to the rules, and there were black-veiled nuns (who were high-ranking women) and white-veiled nuns. Dissolved convents did not require a dowry, but asked for an “annual fund for the support of a nun” (Socolow 97). These convents allowed property-owning nuns to regain control of their estates, something that was often not allowed in outside communities. Nuns were allowed to have slaves and servants in the houses of the priests. Convents also had educational opportunities for women that were not encouraged in colonial society. The convents became a refuge for women and girls “in need of protection, shelter, and support regardless of their family” (Socolow 103). Over time, convents for other races and classes were opened in Latin America, despite the opposition of Spanish nuns.

Many changes took place in the lives of these women, but her change was determined largely by the race and class she belonged to. During the Enlightenment in Europe, women’s education became more popular. However, in colonial Latin America, this education was limited to elite women and consisted only of education in housework and reading and writing sufficient to understand their religious education. The lower classes remained illiterate.

Socolow, Susan Migden. Women of Colonial Latin America. Cambridge University Press, 2000.

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