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The Americas 59.1 (2002) 87-106

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Widows' Rights Questioned:
Indians, The State, And Fluctuating Gender Ideas In Central Highland Ecuador, 1870-1900*

Erin O'Connor
West Chester University
West Chester, Pennsylvania

This essay uses court disputes over indigenous widows' land rights to examine the impact of an expanding national state on indigenous peasant interpersonal relations in late nineteenth-century Ecuador. In doing so, it offers a response to historian Carmen Ramos Escandón's recent call for historical studies of changing family life in order "to know how this domestic web is related to social processes in a broader sense and how the organization of the family contradicts or reflects society's structures." 1 Specifically, the confrontations under scrutiny reveal the extent to which indigenous peasants' notions of marriage and widowhood rights adhered to, diverged from, or were influenced by state views of gender relations. Most court cases from the central highland province of Chimborazo in this period uncover parallels between indigenous and state views of marriage and widowhood; yet the three focal cases here, in which widows' privileges came under question, highlight differences between indigenous and state understandings of gender relations. In the first case, an Indian woman's father-in-law recognized her right as a widow to inherit a portion of her former mother-in-law's lands; court officials, however, decided to uphold patriarchal legal standards when they granted the land in question to the woman's second husband rather than to her. In two other cases, widows' claims were undermined not by state authorities themselves, but by Indian men in their own communities. Calling upon patriarchal notions that were at the center [End Page 87] of the state's marriage laws, these men wrested control of property from women whose customary claims to it were stronger than theirs. Though cases like these rarely appeared in the court data from Chimborazo, they are illuminating because they promote an exploration of the relevance of ethnically distinct gender ideologies.

Investigating the interplay between indigenous men, indigenous widows, and state officials uncovers a disparity between rigidly patriarchal state marriage laws and more malleable indigenous gender ideas that were shaped by kinship and generation as well as patriarchy. The state placed all women neatly in the private sphere under men's supervision; marriage laws reflected this by giving husbands control over all marital goods. Indigenous communities were also patriarchally structured, but the boundaries between public and private life were not always clearly drawn. Though indigenous communities endorsed husbands' dominance of women and children, they also acknowledged Indian women's contributions to family subsistence and cultural identity, as well as women's rights due to their positions in generational hierarchies and kinship structures; this recognition in turn reinforced Indian women's independent rights in some circumstances. These contrasting Indian and state gender principles, and how indigenous peoples manipulated them, offer evidence of both the cohesion and divisions that developed between men and women of indigenous peasant communities as a result of the increasing power and presence of the state in their lives from 1870-1900. In particular, disagreements over widows' privileges indicate that Indian men were pivotal to interethnic negotiation of gender ideologies, as they were the individuals who could either choose to uphold indigenous gender norms to support Indian widows or adopt state gender ideas to undermine independent rights of women in their communities.

These widows' experiences are important partly because widows were among the most active and independent of the indigenous female landowners that appeared in the Chimborazo court records in the late nineteenth century. Like many widows elsewhere in Latin America, indigenous widows in Ecuador were at once liberated and vulnerable. They participated directly in business and civil transactions (unlike married women), yet poverty often undermined the independence of widowhood and left Indian women struggling to meet their families' subsistence needs. 2 A particularly onerous [End Page 88] burden of widowhood was that, already having lost their husbands' income, these women were still held responsible for their deceased spouses' debts...


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