Spanish America.?Colonial Period
Colonial Spanish America presented the phenomenon of widespread racial mixture; the most important feature being the birth and growth of a new hybrid race, the mestizo, resulting from the union of Spanish male and Indian female, either through casual intercourse, concubinage, or marriage. Spanish women first arrived in the New World on Columbus' third voyage (1498) and before 1600 were found in practically all settlements. Black females imported as slaves arrived in the early 1500s and also spread through Spanish America. Three centuries of miscegenation aided the process of acculturation as the women of each race responded to contact with males of other races in keeping with their own cultures. In the colonial society that developed, white women from Spain were at the apex followed by creoles (American-born Spanish women). Lower levels were made up of mestizo, Indian, mulatto, and black women. Although a woman's position was determined principally by the socioeconomic status of her family, upward mobility, achieved through either acquisition of wealth or marriage, prevailed throughout the colonial period and in all areas. Wealth and social status were not the sole prerogatives of white women, however, and among the poor as well, women of all racial groups were to be found.
Women married early, usually not for love but to forge or consolidate family alliances. If not married by age 25, they were considered unmarriageable and hence were relegated to spinsterhood or entry into a convent. A woman brought not only the social prestige of her family into marriage but also a dowry that could be in the form of land, livestock, mortgages, slaves, or similar assets. Marital fidelity was a female obligation. Married women of the elite were guarded from admiring eyes by jealous husbands and hence were not often seen in public. A colonial ecclesiastical court could terminate a marriage by annulment or by divorce (legal separation), which allowed the parties to live apart but forbade either to remarry during the lifetime of the other. While many upper-class women in urban areas lived in comfort and luxury, at the lower end of the social scale were black female slaves whose contributions to colonial economic development were made under dehumanizing conditions from which only a few escaped through manumission. Throughout the period women were regarded as morally and spiritually superior to men, with great capacity for sacrifice and hardship.
Women's education sought to impose cultural standards as well as to integrate girls into family life and the social or racial group to which they belonged. A few of the creole elite hired tutors to teach their daughters drawing, song, and music in the hopes that this would qualify them for marriage to a rich, socially acceptable man. Practical or vocational instruction offered in convents and day schools was supplemented by the teaching of Christian doctrine, respect for the clergy, and reverence for the symbols of the faith. Girls were urged to practice the virtues of purity, unselfishness, and charity. The teaching of reading, spelling, and arithmetic came about slowly. Girls and boys received instruction separately. Schools were few in number, and most women were illiterate. Higher education was exclusively for men.
By law women were subject to the authority of their fathers and then their husbands. A married woman could not act without her spouse's consent, but a single woman had practically all the rights of a man. In addition to being legally classified as single or married, women were also classified as either decent and virtuous (those who feared "shame" if they violated behavioral norms) or "shameless" (those who showed disrespect for such norms). The latter group was ostracized from the protection of the family and had no refuge, often living on the fringes of society as vagrants or prostitutes.
Many Spanish, creole, and mestizo women participated actively in family business ventures, most often as silent partners in management, while other mestizo women as well as Indians, black freedwomen, and mulattoes became owners or operators of bakeries, cafés, inns, taverns, and small farms. Concentrations of women that became economically important during the period included convents that acquired capital through endowments and dowries for the inmates. Once invested, this wealth stimulated economic development. Although intended for those choosing to lead a communal life of prayer, chastity, and obedience, many convents became places of sumptuous living, with some of the nuns being waited on by slaves, having meals served in their cells, and even adopting children. By the end of the colonial period, convents had come to be populated by unmarried women, widows, divorcées, and reformed prostitutes, in other words, those for whom there was no place in society. (See SPANISH AMERICA, Colonial Convents in the New World.)
A symbol of independence and revolt against the subordinate role of women in society was the tapadas (veiled women) of Peru, whose stylish dress and provocative use of the shawl enabled the wearers to flaunt publicly the code of acceptable female behavior and arouse men's erotic interest as well. At the other extreme were the beatas (pious laywomen), whose daily religious devotions, acts of charity, and nunlike habits reflected Christian virtues.
For 300 years women contributed significantly to the social, cultural, and economic evolution of Spanish America according to their status in society. With limited or no education and existing in an inferior relationship to men, they raised children, managed large households, directed economic activities, transmitted the social values and customs of their particular group to their children, and provided social stability. The fact that many women of lower social status propelled themselves upward to positions of influence within society attests to their personal initiative and strength of character.
Julie Greer Johnson, Women in Colonial Spanish American Literature: Literary Images (Westport, Conn., 1983); Ann M. Pescatello, Power and Pawn: The Female in Iberian Families, Societies, and Cultures (Westport, Conn., 1976); Steve J. Stern, The Secret History of Gender: Women, Men, and Power in Late Colonial Mexico (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1995).
Citation: Contributor last name, contributor first name. "Spanish America.?Colonial Period." In Women's Studies Encyclopedia, ed. Helen Tierney. Greenwood Press, 2002. today's date <>