- Women in the Crucible of Conquest: The Gendered Genesis of Spanish American Society, 1500-1600
Recent monographs on women and gender in the early colonial period suggest growing interest in the foundational period of Spanish colonialism. At the same time, the few general studies of women and gender in colonial Latin America tend to train their lens largely on the late colonial period. Often, too, early colonial scholars work within their regional foci without significant dialogue with those who study other regions. Karen Vieira Powers has therefore attempted a synthesis that will complement and complicate historical understanding in two broad areas: women's history in colonial Spanish America, and the more general historiography of the early colonial period, which has been resistant to incorporation of gendered realities. It is an ambitious task for a relatively slender volume. Powers, a respected historian of colonial process in the Andes, is an appropriate author for the undertaking.
The thesis of Powers' book is that the period she studies here saw diminution in the status of all Spanish American women, an argument based largely upon the changes in native women's status as a result of conquest and colonization. Because of their "precipitous decline in status" and because as "Indians" they became by far the largest ethnic group in the colonies, Powers devotes her greatest attention to indigenous women in the Andes and Mesoamerica. This section of the book is very successful, effectively synthesizing the substantial literature testifying to the myriad ways in which indigenous women's status changed with European domination, from the disruption of indigenous gender ideologies to changes in indigenous women's legal status and property rights. The focus on indigenous women in a synthetic work is refreshing; similarly welcome is Powers' sustained treatment of women's labor, [End Page 665] which goes well beyond gender ideology to treat the material conditions of both indigenous and non-indigenous women. Here, however, her lens seems perhaps too closely focused on Andean women. For example, she mentions the transition to cash tribute as a further burden for women though scholars working on the Maya have pointed to tribute in kind as potentially as burdensome, given that cloth, the proceed of female labor, was the principal good demanded.
The thesis of this book is compelling, but it causes Powers perhaps to overstate the absolute quality of Spanish patriarchy and to rely too heavily on ideology rather than experience. In addition, some of the comparisons she makes between pre-conquest and post-conquest societies obscure important questions about the transition. She devotes an entire chapter to colonial women's experience of rape and "unbridled" violence, while her discussion of pre-Columbian societies mentions only that Andean women who were abused by husbands could leave their marriages. The impression created is a simplistic movement from a non-violent society to a violent one. Moreover, the periodization allows Powers to compare Pre-Columbian and colonial women's realities effectively, but discourages nuanced treatment of gendered changes within the period, most notably from the supposedly more fluid norms of conquest society to those of the mature colony. Powers also sets up some straw men. For example, to prove that the "male discourse of sexual conquest" has been perpetuated to the present day, she cites Magnus Morner's study of mestizaje, a work published nearly forty years ago. Likewise, her assertion that the "whore/victim" dyad still describes the historical assessment of indigenous women seems unsustainable. Ultimately, such statements strain for novelty, which is perhaps not demanded of a work that rests on such a solid foundation. The real novelty and strength of Powers' work, its refusal to consider indigenous women as a subcategory, is enough.
This is a valuable and important book. It is not a monograph, so it breaks no new theoretical ground, except in its welcome foregrounding of indigenous women in a work dedicated to the entirety of colonial society. As a...