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  • New Perspectives in Latin American Women’s and Gender History1
  • Sarah C. Chambers


The history of women and gender in Latin America is still a young field, three decades old at the most. When searching for “women” as a key word on the most common on-line indexes for Latin American studies, not a single work appears for most years of the 1960s. Beginning in the 1970s a handful come up, the majority addressing contemporary politics by scholars outside history. In each subsequent decade, the number of entries doubles or triples, and in the 1990s “gender” and “masculinity,” as well as “women,” emerge as primary categories. When I began to teach a survey of women in Latin American history (foolishly perhaps trying to cover the full sweep from pre-Columbian empires to contemporary women’s movements) in the early 1990s, the literature on which I could draw was rich but manageable. Each time I teach the course, however, I have added exciting new material and agonized over what I would have to cut back. By the turn of this century, the relevance of Latin American women’s and gender history has been doubly recognized. On the one hand, Latin American works are appearing more frequently in women’s studies journals and winning prizes in that field.2 On the other hand, the most well-known journal in Latin American history—Hispanic American Historical Review—dedicated a recent issue to “Gender and Sexuality,” and the Conference on Latin American History gave a book prize for 2000 to a work on gender in Colombian textile mills.3

Therefore, I was both excited and daunted to receive an invitation to provide an overview of new perspectives in Latin American women’s history. How could I cover the central themes without making it a superficial whirlwind tour? I hope to pique your interest by referring to a few of the recent works that engage issues and methodologies with which I imagine many historians of gender in other parts of the world are grappling, and beg you to hold me—and not the historians I mention—responsible for any omissions or yawns that an overview might produce.4

First a very brief introduction to broad trends in the field. While feminist scholars from other social science disciplines opened up the field of Latin American women’s studies in the 1970s by analyzing contemporary political movements and economic development, there was an early preponderance of women’s history focused on the colonial period.5 More recently, many of the cutting-edge works have focused on the period of “modernization,” roughly 1870 to the 1940s. (Much of the nineteenth century remains understudied.6) Accompanying this shift in periodization, has been a movement from a social history approach to a focus on gender analysis, especially among scholars based in the United States. Indeed, compared to U.S. and European history, Latin American historians of Latin America have done proportionately fewer traditional social history studies (for example of women’s economic activities in different periods), because of the influence of various post-structural theories so early in the field’s development.7

I will begin by commenting on works relating to colonialism.8 In contrast to later European imperialism in Asia and Africa, during the Iberian colonization of the Americas beginning in the sixteenth century, the contacts between colonizers, native peoples, and imported African slaves, though often marked by violence, were nonetheless relatively close and sustained. These relationships gave rise to a society that was both multicultural and multiethnic, though of course hierarchical. Women’s historians have highlighted the centrality of gender to this process. During the early period, when there were few Iberian women in the Americas, the colonizers relied upon indigenous women for the classic reproductive services of food preparation and childrearing. Interracial relationships and even marriages continued throughout the centuries, but increasingly the preservation of colonial hierarchies hinged upon protecting the sexual honor of elite women of European descent. Colonial governance was also highly gendered; the paternalistic relationship of colonial landowners to their multiethnic dependents was mirrored by the authority of the father king over his subjects.9

Formal colonialism for most of Latin...

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