University of Cambridge

Women in Colonial Latin America

The role of women in colonial Latin America was very much determined by what racial group and social class they were born into. In her book, The Women of Colonial Latin America, Susan Migden Socolow identifies additional factors that caused differences in women’s lives. These other factors include “demography, life cause, spatial variations, local economy, norm and reality, and change over time” (Socolow 1).

Socolow contends that among these additional variables, demography was the most important. This is due to the fact that the “ratio of men to women could enhance or limit women’s choices” (Socolow 2). The experiences of women also changed as they grew older and moved into different roles in life, e.g. from childhood to marriage to widowhood. The economy of the area where the women lived also had an effect on them, since women in a more prosperous area (especially elite women) lived more comfortably than their counterparts in less affluent areas. Socolow argues that these women did not always follow the social ideal of women imposed by the patriarchal society, and of course there were different ideals for each race and class of women. And lastly, these ideals of women, in some instances, changed over time.

The social ideal for Iberian women, in the Old World and the New, was strongly influenced by the Islamic tradition, which was to keep the females cloistered in the home. Female virginity at the time of marriage also had an effect on the family’s honor and was strictly monitored. This was especially true of the women in the Spanish elite, although many women did find ways to evade their chaperones to meet their lovers, as evidenced by the number of abandoned Spanish children. This cloistering of Iberian women was both a blessing and curse; while they did not have freedom to move around as the lower class women did, they did escape the social stigma attached to women who did appear on the streets. Also these Iberian women were not expected to work, at least not outside the home. Elite women did no work at all, other than supervising the work of the household servants and slaves. Iberian women also benefited from laws such as marriage and inheritance laws that were not extended to the other racial groups and social classes.

The role of women in pre-conquest Latin America varied according to the ethnic group she belonged to, but many native societies “controlled female sexuality in ways strikingly similar to the Spanish” (Socolow 19). Unlike Spanish inheritance and property laws, “generally land was held only by men” but women could own movable property (Socolow 21). Also like the Spanish, indigenous peoples had a strict sexual division of labor, although their views of what was women’s and men’s labor differed from Spaniards, and even from region to region.

After the arrival of the Spaniards, the role of indigenous women changed dramatically. The indigenous elite women became attractive marriage candidates to non-elite Spanish men, because these women brought increased social status and wealth to the marriage. Elite Spanish men (the ones that participated in the conquest) took indigenous elite women as concubines, but usually did not marry them. Non-elite women had a more difficult time as they were abused sexually and economically by the Spanish conquerors.

Mestiza women (those born from Spanish-Indian unions) also were potential marriage partners, especially those “who inherited from their conquistador fathers” (Socolow 37). Socolow contends that the mestizas’ “wealth and perceived social status overcame any possible problems associated with legitimacy and race” (Socolow 37). Many poor mestizas became concubines to the Spaniards, until Iberian women became numerous in Latin America. As Latin America became more settled, the mestiza women found “their acceptance into Spanish society increasingly difficult” (Socolow 38).

Unlike Iberian women, most indigenous and mestiza women were forced to work in order to survive and pay their tribute tax. Women who appeared in public frequently were suspected of being immoral and lacking in honor. Employment outside the home was most usually an extension of female duties inside the home; that is, the women worked as domestic servants, midwives, “or self-employed washerwomen, candlemakers, laundresses, cleaning women, seamstresses, weavers, embroiderers, nurses, and cooks” (Socolow 119).

Although indigenous women were exploited sexually and economically, they did possess some legal rights against abuse, which were denied to enslaved women, i.e. African women. These women were considered property and, as such, had “even less power to resist the sexual advances of their masters than did Indian women” (Socolow 134). Although there were laws to protect slaves from abuse, in the few instances where a slave woman filed a complaint, it was usually dismissed because the courts “gave precedence to a white man’s testimony” (Socolow 134).

However, enslaved women did enjoy some rights and privileges. In many circumstances, they were allowed to sell their labor in the towns and keep some of their earnings for themselves. This allowed them the opportunity to save money to buy their freedom. Other slave women could achieve manumission by forming sexual liaisons with their owners. Because of these relationships, many enslaved women were the heads of the households, since paternity for the mulatto offspring was rarely acknowledged. Slave women were encouraged to marry by the Spanish crown and the Catholic Church, although most of their white owners opposed this since it tended to make selling the slave more difficult. However, some slaves did marry but these were usually the slaves of “persons with higher social status” (Socolow 135).

The convents in Latin America offered some freedoms for Spanish women during the colonial times. Many elite women whose parents did not want to or could not provide a dowry for her were encouraged to become a nun. At this time, prospective nuns had to be white and have “purity of blood” (Socolow 94). The calced convents required a dowry be given to the convent to support the woman; poor Spanish women were “given special licenses to beg for alms in order to amass the requisite white-veil dowry” (Socolow 96).

The convent was structured hierarchically, consisting of black-veil nuns (who were the elite women) and white-veil nuns. The discalced convents did not require dowries, but did ask for a “yearly income to support the nun” (Socolow 97). The calced convents allowed nuns with property to manage their holdings also, which was usually not allowed in the outside community. Nuns were allowed to have slaves and servants in the convents with them. The convents also had educational opportunities for women that they were not encouraged to pursue in the colonial society. The convents became a refuge for women and girls “in need of protection, shelter, and support regardless of their marital state” (Socolow 103). In later times, convents designed for other races and classes were opened in Latin America, despite the opposition of the elite Spanish nuns.

Many changes occurred during these women’s lives, but the level of change was very closely determined by what race and class she belonged to. During the Enlightenment period in Europe, the education of women became more popularized. However in colonial Latin America, this education was confined to elite women and only involved education in domestic responsibilities with just enough reading and writing so that they could understand their religious studies. The lower classes remained largely illiterate.

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

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