Latin American Research Review 40.3 (2005) 254-265
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Colonial Gender History
Susan Migden Socolow
Latin American colonial social history recently celebrated its fifty-first birthday, since it was in 1953 that Richard Konetzke published the first volume of his Colección de documentos para la historia de la formación social de Hispanoamérica, 1493–1810.1 The intervening years have seen methodologies, ranging from prosopography and quantitative analysis to the "new" social history, come and go and sometimes come again. [End Page 254] At the same time new topics have been born and old topics have been reworked. Thus we have important studies of social groups, marriage and family, "subalterns," women's history, and more limited studies of gender history, crime, childhood, honor, and sexuality.
Within these many subfields of social history, colonial Latin American women's history is today a well-established field of study. It began to take off in the late 1970s with the publication of Asunción Lavrin's edited volume, Latin American Women: Historical Perspectives,2 and was involved in documenting the social and economic roles of women while understanding both the scope and limits of their actions. As another generation of scholars emerges, a generation much influenced by James Scott's idea of "colonialism as a contested process," new interpretations of the role of women in colonial society are being put forth. Colonial women, according to this new paradigm, were social actors able to resist a European male-dominated social and economic structure. Furthermore, non-elite women (members of so-called "subaltern groups") demonstrate a high degree of "agency" in resisting the colonial system. Thus, this work raises the question of the degree to which colonial women were either victims of patriarchy or a self-empowered group able to fashion their response to power.
In spite of its rather vague subtitle, Women Who Live Evil Lives is ostensibly about "female sorcerers, witches, magical healers and leaders of clandestine religious devotions" (2). Martha Few is interested in the relationship of gender (and to a lesser extent ethnicity) to religion and power, but she is hardly the first scholar to write on this topic.3 The locale for this study is the city of Santiago de Guatemala from 1650 to 1750, and while the author justifies this location, we are never told why she chose to study these years.
This book is representative of a spate of doctoral dissertations produced in the 1990s that have systematically mined one or another type of Inquisition cases. Few's book is an example of the strengths and weaknesses of this approach to history. One clear weakness is the scant number of cases; indeed, according to the author, cases involving male sorcery were more common. Unfortunately she makes little attempt to consider these cases in an analysis of gender-based differences. In spite of having only forty-four cases (or an average of less than one case [End Page 255] every two years), Few ignores most of this evidence, concentrating instead on a handful...