- Women’s Roles in Latin America and the Caribbean by Kathryn A. Sloan
Kathryn Sloan’s work is an admirable overview of the field of women’s history in Latin America. Her task is challenging: how does one write the histories of women from such a large region with such varying historical trajectories? Sloan acknowledges the difficulty, but correctly states that despite the very real differences, Latin American women nevertheless share a “common history of subordination, initiative and agency” (p. xi.). Sloan is interested in tracing these commonalities through the extant secondary literature. This volume is not primary research, but offers teachers of Latin American women’s history an excellent resource for the classroom.
Sloan’s introduction describes the major primary sources available to historians of Latin American women. In addition to the written sources left behind by well-to-do literate women, such as letters, diaries, travel accounts, and vidas (religious autobiographies penned by nuns during the colonial era), Sloan touches on sources that may help to get at the stories of women who may not have left their own record. These include judicial records, legal documents, and census material, and they can be used to get glimpses of the lives of women of all classes and backgrounds. Sloan concludes her introduction with a brief overview of Latin American women’s history and an introduction to the major debates in the field.
The volume itself is organized thematically and then chronologically within each theme. Sloan’s first chapter, on women and the family, starts with a discussion of girlhood and goes on to explore the different roles women have historically played within the family. Women have been daughters, mothers, wives and widows, as well as single. Sloan’s chapter shows how women’s roles within the family have changed over time and how women have used these roles to express agency in their daily lives. Other chapters examine women’s interactions with the law and notions of criminality. As noted, court records and legal documents have been an insightful source for historians, and it not surprising that there is a large body of literature focusing on women’s interactions [End Page 749] with the courts and various legal codes. Historians have also looked at historical constructions of crime and deviance, and how these categories are gendered.
Women’s participation in religion has also been a fruitful avenue for research and Sloan includes a chapter on this history. This section looks not only at Catholicism—its role in the conquest and women’s activities within the Church and Catholic convents—but also the impact of other religions on women’s lives. Judaism, Islam, and African religious traditions have all shaped the way women have understood their daily experiences and subjectivities. Another chapter focuses on women and work. Women have historically worked both within the family and, for many classes, outside it as well. There is discussion here of slavery and domestic service, as well as market work, other “traditional” occupations such as weaving and other crafts, sex work, and factory labor, as well as a discussion of professional women, entrepreneurs, and women’s contemporary interactions with the informal economy. The books last two chapters are on women, culture, and the arts, and on women and politics. Both chapters offer an overview of women’s participation in each sphere, and how this participation has changed over time.
As noted, this book is an impressive overview of the secondary literature in the field, although primary sources are included throughout the footnotes. It is a useful text for someone teaching a course on Latin American women’s history to undergraduates and could easily be supplemented with primary sources or more in-depth scholarly articles. The suggested readings at the end of each chapter are especially helpful.
That said, Sloan’s work is strongest when treating the colonial era and the nineteenth century and weaker when discussing the twentieth century, in particular its second half. Work on women in...