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Women's Lives in Colonial Quito

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

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.

December 2003
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195 pages | 6 x 9 | 2 maps |

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.

  • Preface. Nothing Stays the Same: One City, Two Women
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction. Putting Women in Their Place
  • Chapter 1. Ambiguous Authority, Contingent Relations: The Nature of Power in Seventeenth-Century Spanish America
  • Chapter 2. Married Women and Property Rights
  • Chapter 3. Women and the Criminal Justice System
  • Chapter 4. Women as Entrepreneurs
  • Chapter 5. Indigenous Market Women
  • Chapter 6. Conclusion
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Kimberly Gauderman is Assistant Professor of History at the University of New Mexico.


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.


Late at night María heard the thuds at the front gate, but she refused to open it. Her husband, however, climbed the wall and, as the doors were locked, broke a window to enter the house. Meanwhile, María sent word to the authorities to come, and she locked her children in their room. The authorities never came. This was not unusual; the law offered little protection in such cases. Once, when she had been badly injured by her husband, she tried to press criminal charges against him. The authorities explained to her, however, that wives legally could bring no suits against their husbands, including charges of physical violence. The reasoning behind this policy was to protect the integrity and privacy of the family from public interference. As María listened to her drunk husband scream obscenities at her from downstairs, she knew that her fear and pain would not be publicly acknowledged. The family, represented by the name and person of the husband/father, superceded all rights of the individuals it contained.


Ventura's Story


Ventura also lived in Quito, though at a different time. She was married with children and, like María, lived separately from her husband. Ventura's husband was physically abusive and, though she might have wished he would abandon her, it was in fact she who moved out of their house, relocating herself and their children to her mother's home. Although Ventura's husband traveled frequently outside of Quito on business, he continued to live in their Quito house and constantly menaced both Ventura and her mother when he was in town. He wanted Ventura to return to live with him, which she refused to do. Both women probably felt some relief when they learned that he again was leaving the city on business, this time to go to Lima. Any relief the women felt, however, quickly turned to concern when, the day after her husband's departure, Ventura received news that her husband had secretly come back into town with plans to harm her.


Like María, Ventura felt that she and her family were in imminent danger from her husband. Also like María, her long history of abuse at her husband's hands had led her to complain frequently to the civil authorities. This time, however, Ventura went before the authorities and insisted that they arrest her husband as a preventative measure to ensure her safety. At this time in Quito's history women could bring criminal charges against their husbands, and the authorities complied and sent out two armed men with orders to arrest Ventura's husband. The authorities found her husband with a group of armed men heading toward Ventura's mother's house. The confrontation between the officers and the group of men headed by Ventura's husband became violent, and her husband was killed by the pursuing officers. Ventura was not quite a merry widow (she sued the officer who killed her husband), but the legal and law enforcement systems had acted to protect her safety by intervening in an internal family matter at her request. Marriage did not eclipse her legal status as an individual who could actively represent her own interests as well as her family's. In fact, the success and status of the family depended on her ability to protect her own interests, even against her husband if necessary.




After reviewing these two women's lives, theorists and activists might be tempted to applaud the changes in society which produced such different circumstances for women. We might be inclined to see María as a victim of traditional gender roles, condemned by her sex to live under the perpetual tutelage and subjugation of a male. Ventura's ability to call on civil authorities to protect herself and her family from her husband's violence might be explained by more progressive and modern ideas concerning the status and rights of women in society. Such conclusions, however, would be ill founded; María lived in Quito in 1994, whereas Ventura's case occurred in 1685.


Until the late 1990s María's juridical, economic, and social status, like that of all women living in modern Ecuador, was derived from legislation defining the family as a nuclear unit, impermeable to public scrutiny, and headed by a male. Family members did not have individual rights, because the family was considered a "community of common interests," interests represented by its male head. To legally reinforce the communal interests of family members, the Penal Code of 1971 specifically prohibited spouses and their children from suing each other. Women were legally obligated to practice total obedience to their husbands. Domestic violence was not considered a criminal act in the code. The Center for Information and Investigation of Wife Abuse in Ecuador (Centro de Información e Investigación sobre el Maltrato de la Mujer Ecuatoriana, CEIMME) estimated in 1994 that over 68 percent of Ecuadorian wives were beaten and mistreated. Economically, the Labor Code of 1970 placed women in the same category as minors and the mentally deficient in terms of contracting labor agreements. Any property or income women acquired was directly controlled by their husbands and legally guaranteed the husbands' debts. Husbands exercised complete authority in deciding where the family would live and how all property and income would be used. In addition, men had exclusive rights to custody of their children.


When Law 103, the Law Prohibiting Violence against Wives and Family, was passed on 12 November 1995, it therefore dramatically altered the status of women in modern Ecuadorian society. Not only did the law give legal protection to wives and children against male family members, but, in doing so, it redefined the family itself. Legally, the family was no longer viewed as a uniquely private sphere; it was now open to public scrutiny and intervention. Commentators rightly heralded the passage of this law as a triumph for women and the culmination of years of struggle on behalf of women. The right of wives to sue their husbands was seen as a sign that Ecuadorian women were finally overcoming their colonial heritage. This is a modern struggle, however, and colonial women such as Ventura would have few reference points to understand what the struggle was about.


In the seventeenth century the legal system governing the status and conduct of women was quite different from that in modern Ecuador. Ventura had a very different set of options open to her than those available to María. In the mid-colonial period, the family was open to community and legal scrutiny and intervention. Although it was assumed that family members held interests in common, individual interests were also recognized; spouses and children could litigate against each other. At that time, the legal system did not consider women minors or compare them to the mentally deficient. Women made contracts, became business partners, and engaged in civil and criminal suits in their own right. The property of a married woman was protected from loss due to her husband's debts and could only be used to guarantee her husband's business negotiations with her express approval. Women shared the custody of their children with their husbands and could determine where the family would live.


Ventura's options for living independently and supporting her family in the seventeenth century can be seen, in many ways, as more secure than María's, over three hundred years later. Recent legislation in Ecuador that allows wives to litigate against their husbands is not an example of a society overcoming its colonial past; instead, it returns to women rights they held several hundred years earlier. This book examines the legal, economic, and social status of women living in the seventeenth-century Audiencia of Quito. The history of these women may surprise some readers and will, I hope, promote a deeper discussion of how women's lives today are connected to their colonial past. A fuller understanding of women's colonial history might, indeed, raise the question of how modernity failed María, leaving her alone in a house full of broken windows.


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Introduction: Putting Women in Their Place


What did it mean to be a woman in colonial Spanish America? One way to answer this question is to look at how women of indigenous and Spanish descent from different social ranks were defined through custom and law. This book explores the lives of a spectrum of women from the Audiencia of Quito during the seventeenth century. It focuses on women's use of legal and extralegal means to achieve personal and economic goals; their often successful attempts to confront men's physical violence, adultery, lack of financial support, and broken marriage proposals; women's control over property; and their participation in local, interregional, and international economies. In a larger sense, telling these stories is a way of integrating women's lives into our understanding of Spanish colonial society.


One of the most surprising findings is that maintenance of social order during this period required women's relative independence from men. The logic of Spanish culture consistently undermined attempts to consolidate absolute positions of power at all levels of society, including the family and relations between men and women. The system of decentralized authority that structured Spanish colonial social and legal norms gave women--of both Spanish and indigenous descent--substantial control over economic and social resources.




The Audiencia of Quito was located in the northern section of the Viceroyalty of Peru. Although the city of Quito is now the capital of the nation of Ecuador, in the seventeenth century the city was the seat of the Royal Audiencia, a royal judicial court. The Audiencia's jurisdiction stretched north to Buenaventura, midway up the coast of modern Colombia, and south to Tumbez in what is now northern Peru. Eastward, the Audiencia extended from the Pacific coast across the Amazon to the frontier with Portuguese Brazil.1 Although the Audiencia's jurisdiction was geographically large, effective Spanish control was concentrated mainly in the Andean highlands, the region in which the city of Quito was located. Beyond the port of Guayaquil, which connected the region to the rest of South America and to Europe, vast areas of the coast remained unconquered until the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The eastern Amazon region remained largely unexplored until the nineteenth century, and, even today, many argue that national governments have difficulties establishing an effective presence in this region.


The seventeenth century was a period of prosperity for the Audiencia of Quito. While populations were dropping in the rest of Peru, the Spanish and indigenous populations in the region of Quito grew throughout the century. This demographic growth provided the labor necessary to produce the agricultural and manufacturing surpluses that already by the 1580s had made Quito a major center of production and trade in Spanish Peru, following only Lima and Potosí. During the seventeenth century, in fact, the diocese of Quito shared fourth place with the archbishopric of Mexico among all American sees in terms of wealth. Despite the decline in silver production in Potosí (located within greater Peru in what is now Bolivia, the largest silver-producing district in Spanish America), the Quito economy expanded throughout the century, reaching its highest point for the entire colonial period in 1690. Quito's importation of regional and European goods was higher between 1640 and 1710 than it would be for the rest of the colonial period and even thereafter.


The region's economy was noted for its diversity. The area around Quito was an important producer of tanned hides, sugar, biscuits (for provisioning the large ships which passed through the port city of Guayaquil), and gunpowder. Quito exported artisanal products such as buttons, fine lace, and rosaries. Beginning in the seventeenth century, it also became an important center in the production of art. Through the Escuela quiteña, an artistic style associated with the region, Quito was the source for paintings and sculptures shipped as far south as Chile. The basis of the region's economy, however, was textile manufacturing. The quantity and quality of wool produced in the region and the availability of a large skilled labor force made Quito a major cloth producer in the Peruvian viceroyalty. Textiles were exported to Lima in the south and to the northern gold-producing regions in what is now Colombia. The production and sale of wool and cloth involved all sectors of the region's population and included high levels of participation by women.


The hub of this economic network was the city of Quito. As an administrative, commercial, and social center, the city exerted its influence over the entire district but especially over the Andean region proper. Located high in the Andean mountain chain, several arduous days of travel away from the port of Guayaquil (which connected Quito to Lima and Europe), and far from any of the significant mineral deposits so sought after by Spaniards, Quito seemed initially an unlikely place for an important urban center. Travel to and from the city through the high mountain passes was difficult in the best of times, but during the rainy season (October through April) washed-out roads frequently made transportation impossible, leaving the city isolated. The city itself was built on the flanks of the active volcano Pichincha, its neighborhoods squeezed between deep ravines that quickly became rushing rivers in the afternoon rains, typical even during the dry season.


In his study of eighteenth-century Quito, Martin Minchom described the city as a European center with a progressively more indigenous hinterland. The ravines crisscrossing the city acted as barriers between barrios, or neighborhoods, allowing different areas of the city to develop their own cultural distinctiveness. Although the city was founded as a center for the region's Spanish population, the unusual geography of urban Quito made physical expansion difficult. As its population climbed--estimated at 50,000 in 1650--earlier attempts to racially divide the city's Spanish and indigenous inhabitants became impossible to maintain. The parishes of San Sebastián and San Blas, originally created in 1568 to house the city's indigenous population, were described in 1627 as racially mixed, along with all the other parishes in the city. This integration of indigenous and Spanish populations exceeded that of some other major cities in Spanish America. Lima, for instance, retained its indigenous parish, Santiago del Cercado, through the seventeenth century, and Tenochtitlán and Tlatelolco remained indigenous communities within Mexico City into the nineteenth century.


The proximity of Spaniards and Indians within the city did not, of course, erase the cultural distinctions between these groups. Indians and many mestizos continued to dress in traditional indigenous clothing, and almost all Indians and even some mestizos needed translators in order to testify in Spanish. Continual interracial contact, however, did provoke visible adaptations in both groups. Testaments show that wealthy indigenous women had their clothing made from Chinese silks and Spanish woolens. The households of wealthy Spaniards frequently contained articles such as tablecloths made from cumbi, the very fine indigenous fabric formerly used to clothe the Inca nobility. The need to communicate between the two groups, not only for official governmental purposes but also in common official transactions, such as business agreements and land sales, produced a large and easily available corpus of translators. In addition to the material and administrative adaptations by Indians and Spaniards, there was also a blurring of ethnic boundaries as members of the two groups intermarried and formed permanent or casual unions.


The city of Quito was indeed a bustling Spanish metropolis, but the indigenous hinterland was not devoid of Spaniards. Even those Indians living in officially designated Indian pueblos often shared their towns with non-Indians. As we shall see later, royal policy prohibited Spaniards, mestizos, blacks, and mulattos from residing in Indian pueblos, but such mandates were largely ignored. The presence of poor Spaniards, mestizos, and Spanish officials in Indian communities was commonplace, a practice that helped connect these pueblos to the city of Quito through commercial and political networks.


The Audiencia of Quito is thus an ideal site for examining the situation of women in seventeenth-century Spanish America. The region's prosperity, demographic growth, and social stability make it possible to study colonial gender relations as they operated in a normal, mundane fashion, in a context relatively unmarked by the turmoil of conquest in the sixteenth century and before the centralizing forces of the Spanish Crown's fiscal and legal reforms reworked colonial social relations in the eighteenth century. Because of the Audiencia's economic and political importance, the region's inhabitants produced a rich body of documentation. Spanish, indigenous, and mestizo women left numerous traces of their lives in the historical record. This study examines women's lives through records of criminal and civil proceedings, notarial records (including testaments, business contracts, and property rentals and sales), and city council records. These records from the Quito region itself are supplemented by Spanish legislation and commentaries on the legal status of women dating back to the seventh-century laws formulated as the Fuero Juzgo.


This broad range of sources, produced by and about women from the general population, permits a view of women involved in a variety of activities from a number of different perspectives. Because this study includes women from different racial backgrounds, it also explores connections between gender and racial categories in colonial society. Race, of course, has long been used as an analytical tool for understanding colonial society, and it is now commonly accepted that racial categories are socially constructed and fluid rather than purely biological and fixed. Colonial legislative practice actually encouraged imprecise racial distinctions. Elizabeth Anne Kuznesof shows that although references to race appear consistently in colonial legislation, racial groups are not clearly defined. For this reason, "the courts themselves varied the criteria used to determine race in a particular case." Racial categories were negotiable and had practical legal effects, the most important of which were fiscal obligations. The major racial division in colonial society was between Indians and non-Indians, and, as Olivia Harris notes, this was an economically grounded distinction. "The term Indian . . . became in the Andes fundamentally a fiscal category by which the obligations of the native population to the colonial state were defined." In Minchom's study of Quito, he found abundant evidence of individuals who appeared to be culturally Indian but who sought Spanish or mestizo racial status to avoid paying tribute. Racial categories manifested themselves saliently in the colonial economy, giving individuals financial incentive to mask racial/cultural identities that under other circumstances could have had great meaning for them.


For the women in this study, racial status primarily became an issue in their economic relations. Women, regardless of their racial status, who sought to establish property rights or criminally prosecute men, engaged with a large corpus of Spanish gender legislation in which racial status was largely irrelevant. When women entered the economy, however, they were constrained by the same fiscally based racial distinctions as men. My research suggests that women's racial status, not their gender or marital status, was consistently used to determine the legal scope of their economic activities. The main economic distinction was between Indians and non-Indians, and, as in Minchom's study, women tried to position themselves on either side of this racial division in service to their economic interests. In the economic realm gender did become a prominent aspect of racial status in the indigenous population. As will be seen indigenous women claimed financial advantages on the basis of both their gender and their race. Although people were obviously defined by both their racial and gendered status in colonial society, the importance of individuals' racial and gender identities varied according to the specific situations they faced.




The book is organized around two central and connected arguments. The first is the premise that gender roles are culturally defined and that, therefore, the roles of women and men must be interpreted through the specific cultural matrix in which they were produced. Following this insight the book begins with an examination of Spanish social organization and argues that the constraints and possibilities governing women's lives in the seventeenth century were created within the system of decentralized authority that had historically characterized their society. Exploring how women were integrated into this system of decentered relations of power produces a perspective strikingly different from standard accounts of women's status in colonial Spanish America. Researchers traditionally use a patriarchal model to show how men, on the basis of their gender, held greater economic, social, and political power than women. As commonly used, the patriarchal model assumes that Spanish society was hierarchically arranged around a central authority and that this cultural framework also explains relations between men and women in society and the family. This work challenges that view by arguing that Spanish society was highly decentralized and that this social organization gave women more options for exercising authority than researchers have usually acknowledged.


Chapter 1 analyzes how the patriarchal paradigm has been used by historians and outlines the methodological and analytical inconsistencies generated by its continued use in the field of colonial women's history. This discussion is followed by an analysis of Spanish society based on the well-established body of historical scholarship on social relations and state structure in early Latin America. As early as 1947 Clarence Haring published the now classic Spanish Empire in America, an exhaustive analysis of virtually every level of administration within the Spanish colonial system of governance. His research clearly demonstrates that administrative and judicial bureaucracies were not hierarchically arranged and that even the authority of the king was quite restricted within this system. (Haring, however, still held that centralization was the ideal organizational model that produced social order and that decentralization led to instability and corruption.) In the 1960s John Phelan drew on Haring's work to address the connection between decentralization and social stability in colonial Spanish America. Although Phelan's own research on the Philippines and the Audiencia of Quito supported Haring's characterization of Spanish society as inherently decentralized, he argued against universally applying Western ideals of social organization. Instead, he argued that the contingency in relations of authority that so marked Spanish society actually produced a network of checks and balances guaranteeing that organizations and individuals, jealous of their own power, would control and limit abuses by others, thereby negating the need for a centralized figure of authority. Both Haring's and Phelan's work demonstrates that Spanish culture consistently worked against attempts to consolidate centralized positions of power, relying instead on multiple hierarchies with competing jurisdictions. Power relations were contingent; subordinates could impede the directives of superiors.


This decentralization marked all relations throughout the social and political institutions and practices of seventeenth-century Spanish America, including those between men and women, promoting asymmetry, disequilibrium, and difference, while at the same time ensuring authority and flexibility and, ultimately, social stability. Decisions within governmental bureaucracies and family networks were the result of tension and conflict, compromises made in realms where authority was always contingent rather than rigidly defined. Mutual surveillance was important in the maintenance of social order. Church and government officials watched and reported on each other; neighbors kept track of events in their part of the city; husbands and wives exercised authority over each other, and their property was under the watch of an extensive family network.


This system depended heavily on multiple, alternative channels of communication; social and legal mechanisms allowed individuals at any point to inform others about the conduct of those around them. This constant flow of information within all sectors of society made individuals accountable for their actions and thus did not require a centralized point of control. In fact, social stability required that individuals, including women, manipulate the inherent conflicts in the norms and laws governing social existence by, in essence, "playing the system."


These conclusions about Spanish social organization are reinforced by an examination of Spanish legal codes and the way they were used in Spanish America, as well as by a comparison of the status of Spanish American women with that of their female counterparts in Britain and France. Finally, a close look at legislation affecting women's control over the choice of marriage partners for themselves and their children demonstrates how gender relations in the colonial period changed over time. Women faced considerably greater limitations in their ability to control property and to influence political alliances between families toward the end of the eighteenth century than they had in the seventeenth century.


The book's second central argument is that women were not sacrificial victims of a social order based on hierarchical, patriarchal relations of power, not because of notions of equality or fairness but simply because the system did not require such victims. Chapters 2 through 5 examine women of different ethnic and economic backgrounds through evidence of their legal and economic activities, showing women's active participation in civil society. Many of the women in this study took independent actions, but they were not seen as challenging the authority of colonial society. The system used women, but women also used the system to protect their social and economic interests and to punish the men who abused them. Women's rights, like those of other individuals and groups, were recognized and guaranteed in order to counterbalance and limit the authority of others. If women "hold up half the sky," in colonial Spanish America they did this precisely to keep men from claiming it all.


One clarification is perhaps necessary here: this study does not seek nor does it find gender equality in colonial Spanish America. Women's semiautonomous position in Spanish American society was not due to enlightened notions of women's rights or equality between the sexes. Women were not equal to men, but neither were men equal among themselves. An individual's status was influenced by wealth, occupation, special privileges (fueros) granted to members of specific groups (church officials, the military, aristocrats, students, guilds, Indians), and family status, along with race and gender. Social practice and legal reasoning emphasized the rights of people in different categories and virtually ignored questions of equality.


Given this fuero-based legal system, women readily accessed the legal mechanisms in defense of their rights. Chapters 2 and 3 examine women's use of the Spanish legal system. Chapter 2 examines the control of married women over property by analyzing the constitution of dowries and how women used this property. An analysis of a typical dowry contract, combined with examples from court cases, shows how women used their private estates to attain personal and family goals. Both husbands and wives faced legal restrictions on their ability to invest dowry property in economic ventures. Mirroring the general cultural logic of the time, marriage was a union in which the interests of wives and husbands at the same time merged and remained distinct, and this relation was reflected in their possession of both community property and separate estates. Wives independently invested in properties, and wives and husbands engaged in joint economic ventures, as we shall see in a detailed analysis of a contract between a wife and husband to jointly invest a part of her estate.


Women in colonial Latin America used the criminal justice system to protect themselves and family members from violent and unacceptable treatment by men. Chapter 3 describes the limitations women faced in resolving domestic disputes through the ecclesiastical courts. Although many scholars have recognized that church authorities failed to support women in domestic disputes, they have interpreted this failure as evidence that male adultery and physical aggression against female family members were socially acceptable behaviors. Legal records, however, paint a different picture. Adultery, physical aggression, and abandonment were criminal acts, and women routinely used the criminal justice system against men who abused them. An examination of court cases from the colonial period shows how and why women of different social rank and ethnicity sued men, the punishments men received, and why the royal government often supported women in domestic disputes.


The final two chapters shift the focus from legal issues to women's economic activities in the Audiencia of Quito. The region's rising prosperity and racial diversity are reflected in women's economic activities. Chapter 4 broadly discusses women's economic activities by examining the participation of Spanish, indigenous, and mestizo women in various sectors of the Audiencia's economy. The chapter begins with a detailed description and analysis of woman's participation in textile manufacturing, the region's main industry, and goes on to consider women as urban and rural property owners, slaveholders, moneylenders, grocery store owners and operators, servants, bread bakers, and makers of chicha (a traditional, indigenous, fermented beverage). Case studies of women involved in these activities demonstrate that women, both married and single, operated their businesses and often invested their capital independently from the men around them. Women were not only economically active but were essential to the region's economic prosperity in this period.


Chapter 5 focuses specifically on the indigenous market women, known as gateras, who provisioned the city of Quito and surrounding pueblos with both staples and luxury goods. Information about their lives emerges from records of eighty years of litigation between these indigenous women and Spanish male grocery store operators and government officials, as well as from criminal records in which the women appear as defendants and witnesses. These records show that Indian women consistently won their cases and progressively expanded their economic activities throughout the seventeenth century. The chapter includes discussions of commercial law and its enforcement, the gateras' commercial activities in the city of Quito and in the surrounding pueblos, and the nature of the disputes generated through the gateras' economic activities. Surprisingly, the evidence shows that indigenous women faced few gender-specific constraints on their commercial or legal activities and that they claimed economic and legal advantages in market vending because of their racial status.


The final chapter draws together the various strands of analysis to reflect on women's status in colonial Spanish America. The fluidity of categories regulating relations of all kinds and defining gender roles and racial difference leads to a rethinking of traditional models that rely on hierarchical and patriarchal mechanisms of authority to understand the role of women in colonial Spanish American society. In rejecting this paradigm of female subordination, this study draws on a growing body of ethnohistorical research on this period. In traditional scholarship both indigenous peoples and women have been perceived as similar, subordinated historical subjects. However, revisionist work, especially since the 1980s, has sought to recontextualize the lives of indigenous peoples by including them as participants in creating and limiting authority in colonial society.


Bartolomé de Las Casas in the sixteenth century enshrined the image of Indians as defenseless, passive victims of Spaniards whose genocidal tendencies destroyed indigenous cultures, economies, and political systems. This view of Indians in colonial Spanish America, also known as the Black Legend, endured from the postconquest period until the mid-twentieth century. At that time, scholars increasingly became aware that this model could not explain why Indians retained so much autonomy in the central areas of conquest, Mexico and Peru. Research indicated that the Spanish economic system depended on indigenous societies' maintaining a great deal of independence. Sedentary indigenous polities, operating within their own political, economic, and cultural systems, efficiently channeled the labor and goods that Spaniards required without centralized control by Spanish authorities. Spaniards and many indigenous societies, notably those who formerly had been conquered by the Inca and Aztec, in fact held similar cultural expectations that conquered groups would retain significant political and economic authority. As researchers began to explore how Indians, in many different ways, understood and interacted with the Spanish system of decentralized authority, they revised indigenous history. Researchers redefined the "paradigm of conquest," as Steve Stern so eloquently frames the process, and revealed Indians as active agents in manipulating competing legal jurisdictions, quarreling government officials, and the contradictory laws that constituted the Spanish system of governance.


Spaniards were not promoters of cultural diversity. However, the shifting alliances and conflicts that quickened the Spanish concept of authority also created moments when Indians, like other social groups, could exert their autonomy. This book suggests that, like ethnohistorians, we Latin Americanists should reevaluate our research on women in colonial Spanish America by considering their lives within the context of traditional Spanish cultural norms that promoted contingent, decentralized relations of authority. As in ethnohistory such a move requires that we revise an entrenched paradigm that has structured, and in many ways crippled, our research.


This book argues that the patriarchal paradigm masks more than it reveals about the status of women in colonial Spanish America. Spanish culture traditionally undermined the establishment of centralized positions of authority through which a patriarchal system might operate. By contesting the relevance of the patriarchal paradigm for understanding colonial Spanish America, I am not arguing that women were more liberated than they are today. Rather, evidence supports the conclusion that to the extent that women as individuals faced subordination in colonial society, it cannot be attributed to the Spanish legal system or to essentialized notions of gender within Spanish society. Patriarchy has structured many other societies, and continues to do so, but its emergence and resilience require specific forms of social organization. For this reason the patriarchal paradigm is a powerful tool for researchers, not because of patriarchy's timeless nature but because in many aspects of Spanish American life patriarchy is a modern creation.



“Kimberly Gauderman has produced an informative, well-organized study on the lives of Spanish, mestiza, and indigenous women in seventeenth-century Quito.”
Colonial Latin American Historical Review

“Gauderman's book is a must-read for anyone interested in gender and the law. ”
Law and History Review

“Overall, this book contributes significantly to the field by shedding a great deal of light on the complex terrain in which the women, men, and state officials of colonial Quito negotiated policies and power. Its careful analysis, rich data, and readability will make it enormously useful in both research pursuits and the classroom.”
The Journal of Latin American Anthropology

“I am impressed by the extent to which Gauderman . . . seems to have better grasped the complexities of [colonial] women’s lives than most of the [authors of] existing literature. . . . I am very enthusiastic about this book.Patricia”
Seed Rice University, author of To Love, Honor, and Obey in Colonial Mexico: Conflicts over Marriage Choice, 1574–1821


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