The Role of Women in Colonial Latin America

Women played a pivotal role in colonial Latin America despite living in a patriarchal society.

Mark A. Burkholder and Lyman L. Johnson argue, in Colonial Latin America (2004), that gender played a significant role in colonial Latin America since it determined a person’s status in society. Colonial Latin America’s society was patriarchal. Men did entirely different activities from those performed by women. Although mens and women’s activities varied by region, these dated back to aboriginal ancestry. Men worked in the government and decided its political future and controlled the economy. Men also dominated hard-labor spheres, such as mining, construction and transportation of commodities. Only men participated in the military service and occupied the majority of ecclesiastical positions, excluding those in convents. In addition, only men were able to obtain a higher education.

It seems as if men dominated colonial Latin America’s society, but the reality was more complex than this portrayal. Burkholder and Johnson suggest that “any general summary would obscure the full range of women’s important contributions.” In other words, women did play a pivotal role in colonial Latin America. The question is what they, in fact, accomplished.

Women labored outside the home

Burkholder and Johnson assert that numerous women worked outside the home in colonial Latin America. An intriguing example is that the sugar estates in Brazil relied substantially on the labor of women either slave or free. Latest investigations contend that women and their children were the owners of many farms in Uruguay. What is more, women prevailed on retail sales in rural and urban markets, where they sold handicrafts, bread and pastries. Women contributed significantly to colonial manufacturing. During the sixteenth century, women were members of guilds in Mexico City. Women labored even in artisan occupations, which were strictly banned.

Women in the domestic service

Women in colonial Latin America also played a significant role in the domestic service. Burkholder and Johnson point out that mostly women, submitted to slavery, worked as cooks, wet nurses and cleaners in elite households. The majority of female servants, especially during the early colonial period, were Indians subjugated to slavery. African slaves took on the role of domestic servants when the native populations of Latin America diminished. The majority of the elite households in Brazil and Spanish America had black women laboring as domestic servants. Free women also worked in the domestic service, but in small quantities because they had the option of choosing among other employments.

The role of elite and mid-level women

As stated above a great number of women labored outside the home in colonial Latin America; however, many women had significant responsibilities in the home. According to Burkholder and Johnson, women in elite and mid-level families had noteworthy responsibilities inside the household. Elite and mid-level women were in charge of bearing children, the inculcation of cultural values and management of domestic affairs. For example, it was common for elite and mid-level wives to administer the family’s finances; especially when their husbands’ jobs required traveling to distant places in order to check out investments and enterprises related to mining and agriculture.

Additionally, current researches have demonstrated that an abundant quantity of single women with children sustained households. An example is that women were the head of 38 percent of the households in the late colonial Buenos Aires. Widows also played a prominent role in the propertied fields of colonial society. In Spanish America, widows had full control over their dowries and received half of the riches attained during marriage.

The role of colonial Latin American women

Although it is clear that colonial Latin American society was patriarchal, women did play a vital role. Colonial Latin American women’s job certainly was to bear children and maintain domestic affairs in order. Nevertheless, a substantial amount of women labored as servants, merchants and artisans, while others administered households.

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