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Journal of World History 13.2 (2002) 517-519

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Book Review

The Women of Colonial Latin America

The Women of Colonial Latin America. By SUSAN MIGDEN SOCOLOW. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Pp. 237. $42.95 (cloth); $15.95 (paper).

Colonial Latin America witnessed a remarkable convergence of three different peoples: Africans, Europeans, and indigenous Americans. From the early days of contact and conquest the interactions of Spanish and Portuguese colonists, native Americans, and enslaved Africans created hybrid societies of great dynamism and complexity. In The Women of Colonial Latin America Susan Migden Socolow has produced an accessible and insightful introduction to the female experience in this patriarchal world where evolving hierarchies of gender, race, and class combined to regulate women's behavior.

To set a baseline allowing further contrast and comparison, Socolow devotes two chapters to an examination of gender ideologies and social realities confronting women in Spain, Portugal, Africa, and America in the late fifteenth century. Although by European standards the Iberian legal system was "exceptionally fair" to women, the combination of a long Muslim occupation with Counter-Reformation Catholicism fostered the ideal of the "cloistered, sheltered woman." Despite the Catholic ideals of virginity before marriage and chastity [End Page 517] thereafter, in practice barragania or concubinage was so widespread and popularly accepted that Spain had one of Europe's highest rates of illegitimacy. Native American women often faced "strikingly similar" attempts to control their sexuality, but some indigenous American societies condoned female sexual relations before marriage. As in Iberia, women who broke sexual norms often received far harsher punishments than men guilty of the same transgressions. In almost all of Africa women worked "longer and harder" than men yet routinely were excluded from the initiation societies that established important ties between young men and their elders.

When these three worlds collided in the Americas, the results for women were complex. The shortage of women among the early Europeans meant that the conquistadors took indigenous women not only as lovers and concubines (a common practice throughout the colonial era), but as wives. Of the Spanish men who arrived in the Mexican city of Puebla before 1600, for instance, one in four married an indigenous woman. By 1660, however, the accelerating pace of female immigration from Europe meant that Spanish men increasingly spurned indigenous and mestiza women to marry Spanish women, indicating that racial hierarchies became more, not less, entrenched as colonial society matured. In general, the tribute system imposed on indigenous communities by the Spaniards caused great suffering for indigenous women, lowering their reproductive rates. In the later colonial society elite women and the women of indigenous communities, although separated by a huge socioeconomic gap, did have a common propensity to marry, whereas the urban poor usually did not formalize their unions. In some regions and eras, Socolow points out, marriage was more the exception than the rule.

Perhaps the most interesting chapter in the book concerns nuns and other religious women. Despite their small numbers—only about 6,000 women in all of Latin America were affiliated with convents in 1820 —nuns played a surprisingly important role in colonial society. They sheltered abused women, educated elite women, and raised orphans. At the same time, convent education made nuns the most highly educated group of women in Latin America and produced the colonial era's greatest writer, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1648-1695). Like many aspects of colonial society, convents limited women's options in some areas while expanding them in others. Convents confined women who "diverged from the sanctioned models" of marriage and family life while simultaneously giving them "a way to escape from the restrictions of a patriarchal society." [End Page 518]

Tracing the history of Latin American women from 1492 until the independence era in the early nineteenth century might seem like a daunting task for writer and reader alike, but Socolow displays a striking ability to cut to the heart of the matter. In clear, concise prose she outlines major historical developments, notes exceptions and counter tendencies, and gives intriguing examples...


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