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The Americas 58.3 (2002) 479-480

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The Women of Colonial Latin America. By Susan M. Socolow. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Pp. xiii, 237. Illustrations. Notes. Suggested Readings. Index. $49.95 cloth.

This volume is testimony to the wealth of scholarship that now exists on the history of women in colonial Latin America. A generation of scholars have come of age since pioneering work in the field was published by Evelyn Stevens (1972), Ann Pescatello (1973), Meri Knaster (1976); the breadth of contemporary research is visible in the twenty-five pages of suggested further readings at the conclusion of the text.

The author states that the goal of the book is "to examine the roles and rules" of masculinity and femininity in order to "understand the variety and limitations of the female experience in colonial Latin America" (p. 1). The first third of the book outlines the role of women in the three societies that were "joined by Iberian voyages of discovery" (p. 4). Socolow's clearly-written synthesis of widely diverse material is informed and enriched by the incorporation of her own archival research and reflects the author's years of experience in the classroom.

Six chapters form the core of the book. In "Women, Marriage and the Family," Socolow pays particular attention to the ideologies of gender manifest in family law and the Church, contrasting the practices of various socioracial groups and economic classes. The chapters "Women and Work," "Women and Slavery," and "The Brides of Christ" offer overviews buttressed by examples and statistics of the choices and strictures that determined the patterns of women's lives in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, especially in the viceregal centers of Spanish America. For instance, in the discussion of women and work, Socolow writes, "Female silk [End Page 479] spinners were so numerous in Mexico City that in 1788 they were allowed to organize their own guild" (p. 115). She argues convincingly that sex was the most important factor determining a person's status in society: "race and social class were malleable; sex was not" (p. 1).

Civil and church court records provide a rich source of material on the history of women in Latin America. In the chapter "Women and Social Deviance" Socolow states that "a society's definition of normal female behavior is often best viewed by examining those individuals considered to be socially and culturally atypical or 'deviant'" (p. 147). Such a perspective tells us much about power relationships and what is deemed ideal behavior, though it is also important to keep in mind that the records we have are for people who fell afoul of the legal standard, which most women did not. Socolow points out that the majority of women whose names appear in the legal records were victims of crimes: assault, homicide, rape, and that these names are primarily those of poor women. Men of means, particularly male heads of households, were far less likely to be prosecuted.

In presenting a succinct synthesis of a complex history it is difficult to include the voices of individual women. Socolow has appended to the text selected documents which lend a glimpse into the lives of individuals, opening with a moving and richly detailed letter from Maria de Carranza, wife of a textile mill owner in Puebla, to her brother in Seville, in 1589. Maria and her husband have prospered in the New World; she offers her brother and his family good work away from "that poverty and need which people suffer in Spain--don't make your children endure hunger and necessity" (p. 181). The appended documents also will serve students as entries to the collections from which they are extracted.

The text provides a valuable introduction to the history of women in colonial Latin America, especially Spanish America, and will be particularly useful in introductory survey courses, making readily accessible the research and interpretive analyses of a generation of scholars.

Francesca Miller
University of California, Davis
Davis, California



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