Women have long been considered second class citizens (if considered citizens at all!) throughout the course of world history. Often dismissed from history books, I feel that it is important to recognize their role in Spanish colonialism. By carefully analyzing important events, I endeavor to draw out examples of how women have helped shape the Spanish colonies and the great danger they were put in my Spanish Inquisitors. By looking at gender roles one can determine how these roles played a part in the Spanish society and how they have changed. I propose that women did indeed provide instrumental support in the development of the colonies and that there is ample evidence throughout history to indeed point to their accomplishments. The evolution of gender roles shows that as time progresses people are more willing to accept and honor these contributions to history.
The colonialism of the Spanish, British, and French allowed for the spread of Christianity. By spreading the word of Christ to other cultures and the Natives, this expansion resulted in converting many to Christianity. Of course there were also those that used religion as an excuse to gain more power. Spain obtained their settlements by insisting that it was their duty to convert the native residents to Christianity. With seeing the violence and greed that existed in Spain’s colonies, the idea that their intent was to convert Natives is a bit of a travesty. s. This controversy only served to cause more tension between religious factions. This unfortunately also included the idea that women were “less” than men. Women were expected to provide household and sexual “chores” (Bristol). Spanish women had very little freedom from their husbands and fathers. Religion was used as an excuse to condemn any woman that stepped outside of traditional gender roles. The Counter Reformation was an attempt to impose Catholicism and only the beginning of the battle for the spread of Christianity to the colonies. While the Spanish may have suffered a defeat in the short term they quickly recovered and the events essentially accomplished little is anything.
The colonies benefited from the ethnic diversity developed by colonization. Each colony had their own set of skills and cultural influences. Due to the relatively close proximity of colonies these cultural influences spread to neighboring colonies. Likewise the colonists related what they learned back to their native countries. A wealth of information was gained by the discovery of different cultures. However communication between the Spanish and the colonies was often very strained due to cultural misunderstandings. Even methods of communication were vastly different, such as the written word versus the spoken word. This caused disagreement in any attempts at diplomacy. To the Spanish the written word was law, while natives took all promises and negotiations into account and felt betrayed by the methods of the Spaniards.
The book Christians, Blasphemers, and Witches explains how Africans coming to Mexico contributed to changes in society and religion of the area. The import of slaves meant an economic boost for Spanish ventures. The Spanish also expect the Africans to convert to Christianity and conform to social classes. Spanish women for the first time had someone in the household that was lower class than themselves. Classism was prominent at this time.
This mixture of cultures, religions, and classes all contributed to cultural misunderstandings and superstition that eventually led to what is known as the Spanish Inquisition The idea that women were associated with witchcraft, sorcery, and spell casting was a prominent belief among Spanish culture (Few). These women caught the blame for many things including illness or tragedy. Brujeria, or witchcraft is sometimes though to cause psychical or mental illness (Few). Death could be the result of a hex in the eyes of this culture. Many still held the belief that spells or home remedies are sometimes thought acceptable forms of treatment. They also believe in "mal de ojo" or “the evil eye” that struck fear in the hearts of settlers. The idea that women were impure led Spaniards to execute thousands of women in the name of the church. However the colonies themselves were often more welcoming, causing many to flee to them to avoid execution.
However some areas such as Mexico and Central America often embraced the idea of witchcraft. In these areas of the world the ability to produce magic was a trait that was highly revered. A witch might make a good living by selling spells, charms, and cures. These women were able create their own businesses because of their talents. This afforded them a life that most other women could not obtain. The mixture of cultures in this area left more room for open thought than that of Spain’s religious fanatics. In the book Hall of Mirrors, the author states that, “Non-Spanish customers for Indian magic were as prominent as Spanish ones.” (Lexis) Black or mulatto women were typically thought of as witches because of their cultural traditions and superstitions (Lewis). Indian women were also thought of as witches because of their vast knowledge about flora and fauna. Their mastery at mixing herbs into medicines made them both respected and feared.
The expansion of the Spanish helped play an important role in the establishment of the cultural influences in many areas of the world. The multi-ethnic and religious beliefs of today was a result of colonization. Spain began their quest for colonization as am attempt at conquering rivals. Achieving power and wealth were the main concerns. Eventually however they created the new identity, especially for women. Not only were the economies of Spain improved, but also the economies of those under their control.
Overall the colonization of the Spaniards resulted in many benefits and failures for the European nations who participated in the great race for colonies. Power and wealth were achieved. The economy and trade soared with success. Many mistakes in political and military ruling did serve to weaken these countries, yet ultimately the lessons learned from these mistakes helped shape the current systems of government. Without the expansion of Spain, it would have been many years later before we would be able to develop the cultural understanding developed by the ethnic diversity of the colonies. The colonies teach us an important message that with success also comes troubles and responsibilities. The treatment of women was based upon both religious beliefs and superstition. The mix of cultures contributed to this misunderstanding, leading many women to be labeled as witches. It also allowed for Spanish women to move up a step on the social ladder to be above slaves and those of mixed race. Overall colonization was both positive and negative for Spanish women.
Bristol, Joan Cameron. Christians, blasphemers, and witches: Afro-Mexican ritual practice in the seventeenth century. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2007. Print.
Few, Martha. Women who live evil lives: gender, religion, and the politics of power in colonial Guatemala. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002. Print.
Lewis, Laura A.. Hall of mirrors: power, witchcraft, and caste in colonial Mexico. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003. Print.