Women's Lives in Colonial Quito: Gender, Law, and Economy in Spanish America

Women's Lives in Colonial Quito: Gender, Law, and Economy in Spanish America

Women's Lives in Colonial Quito: Gender, Law, and Economy in Spanish America

Women's Lives in Colonial Quito: Gender, Law, and Economy in Spanish America

Synopsis

What did it mean to be a woman in colonial Spanish America? Given the many advances in women's rights since the nineteenth century, we might assume that colonial women had few rights and were fully subordinated to male authority in the family and in society--but we'd be wrong. In this provocative study, Kimberly Gauderman undermines the long-accepted patriarchal model of colonial society by uncovering the active participation of indigenous, mestiza, and Spanish women of all social classes in many aspects of civil life in seventeenth-century Quito. Gauderman draws on records of criminal and civil proceedings, notarial records, and city council records to reveal women's use of legal and extra-legal means to achieve personal and economic goals; their often successful attempts to confront men's physical violence, adultery, lack of financial support, and broken promises of marriage; women's control over property; and their participation in the local, interregional, and international economies. This research clearly demonstrates that authority in colonial society was less hierarchical and more decentralized than the patriarchal model suggests, which gave women substantial control over economic and social resources.

Excerpt

María’s Story

María lived in Quito, a city nestled high in the northern Andean sierra in what is now the country of Ecuador. Quito is located almost exactly at the equator and, at 10,000 feet above sea level, it is the second-highest capital city in the world today. The earliest Spanish observers of the city and its surrounding area described its climate as “eternal springtime.” Indeed, despite the burning morning sun and the afternoon hailstorms, the evenings there are pleasant, and many people leave their windows ajar to refresh their nighttime dreams. María, however, never did so. On the night in question, María, as was routine for her, carefully locked the outer gates of the stone wall surrounding her house, secured all the doors to the house, and locked the windows. As she probably would have told us, living in fear of violence affects the most mundane aspects of one’s life, even the air one breathes at night.

María was a married woman with two children. Both she and her husband came from respected families. At the time of their marriage her husband was educated, trained in law, and seemed like an aspiring candidate to the professional sectors that were rising in wealth and influence in the city at this time. At some point in their marriage, however, her husband became an alcoholic and frequently subjected María to violent outbursts. Eventually he abandoned the family, leaving her alone to support herself and their two children, as she had been doing for several years before his departure. She didn’t consider divorce an option. Although divorce was a legal possibility, it was a lengthy and expensive process. Most of all, from her and her family’s viewpoint, divorce left the woman and her family shamed and disgraced. So though she lived separately from her husband, the couple remained legally married. Periodically she would hear that her husband was living in some other city, but he moved around frequently. Occasionally he would return to Quito, as he did the night recounted here.

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