Throughout the colonial period, women in the major cities of Latin America experienced vast differences in their marital and sexual lives. In areas such as Mexico City and Buenos Aries, women dealt consistently with social and religious regulation of the intimate portions of their lives, transforming what was otherwise considered to be a personal decision of love into social and economic mechanisms for the binding of family interests and social norms (Lavrin 1989). Yet in other areas, these social institutions accepted different norms, resulting in slightly more freedom for the women of the area.
This paper will analyze the sexual and marital lives of women in four major Latin American cities between the 17th and 19th centuries. By analyzing and comparing the experiences of women in Mexico City, Bahia, Buenos Aries, and Lima, this paper will show that while there were certainly some differences in the intimate lives of the populations in these areas, there were more often vastly similar social norms and religious institutions which resulted in similar life experiences from one major city to another. Further, this paper will discuss these differences and similarities in terms of their effects on the sexual and marital lives of the women in colonial Latin America.
During the colonial period, Mexico City, Mexico, was a place of rapid change in terms of the views on the marital and sexual lives of women within the population. In the early 17th century, the Catholic Church, a large part of the social institution of the time period, supported two basic cultural attitudes with regard to marriage and sexuality (Seed 1988). The first of those attitudes was the will of both parties to consent to marriage. Since the Church saw marriage as a sacrament, and therefore saw it's self as the only power able to have jurisdiction over marriage, this requirement for the free will held fast, even in the face of parental disapproval (Seed 1988). These conditions meant males were not the only ones with control over their marriage, and also that women were allowed to choose their marriage partner, even in the face of disapproval.
In addition to the free will component to marriage, the social institutions of the early 17th century in Mexico City specifically discussed honor in terms of sexuality as having a vital role in the institution of marriage. The concept of honor is clear through the writings of the time, in that "honor" can be thought of as synonymous with "virtue" (Seed 1988). Women to be married were expected to be sexually inexperienced prior to marriage according to societal norms and were expected to be monogamous once married.
However, perhaps the most noted aspect of this virtuous requirement for women lay in the concept that virtue relied much more heavily in Mexico City on outward appearance than on true virtue. According to what reports are available from the time period, women in Mexico City had higher rates of out-of-wedlock births than even their European relations (Seed 1988). Yet the response of social institutions was not to humiliate or shame those whose virtue had been lost, but rather, to remedy the situation. If the loss of virtue was due to a loss of virginity that did not result in pregnancy, it was considered highly immoral to discuss this loss of virtue. If the impropriety did result in pregnancy, the response of the Church and family were to quickly, secretly, and quietly marry the couple (Seed 1988). Another option was to quickly hide the pregnancy altogether, by keeping the mother-to-be hidden from society whenever she began to show visible signs of her condition. The child was often then born as an "orphan," since the mother and father's names were left off the birth certificate (Arrom 1985). In all cases, the reputation of the woman was to be upheld, through whatever course was believed necessary (Seed 1988).
It is also important to note that the power of women to maintain their virtue overpowered the male's right to consent to marriage. According to records, if a man promised to marry a woman, and sexual relations occurred prior to marriage, the man was obliged to marry. If he did not, the males of the family, the crown, and the Church could imprison the male. If the male continued to refuse marriage, he was often moved to a work camp for an unlimited amount of time or required to pay reparations (Seed 1988). This clearly displays the power of a woman's honor in colonial Mexico City.
The idea that women were to be sexually active only in marriage can also be seen in the laws of Mexico City in the late 17th century. In respect to the protection for the marriage promise, the law noted that this protection was only offered to "decent" women, those seen to be honest wives or women, or virgins. Prostitutes were not offered the right to child support for out-of-wedlock birth, and the rape of a "vile" woman held no penalty. If a female were found to be an honest woman, but dressed as a "vile" woman, she was not able to sue a male who promised marriage, but did not marry. Only women who were virgins when single, monogamous when married, and chaste when widowed were allowed legal discourse (Seed 1988). Sexual crimes such as concubinage, incest, bigamy, and abortion were often harshly punished when the offender were female (Seed 1988). Further, prostitution was illegal, as was adultery, and both were punishable by a loss of dowry and shares of community property, or imprisonment. In drastic cases, the husband was allowed to kill the woman (Seed 1988).
While it is obvious that women were oppressed in relation to sexual activity, those who chose a path of virtue were often still oppressed in marriage. A woman was expected to show her husband total obedience, in return for his support. Upon marriage, women relinquished sovereignty over her property, any earnings, and all domestic activities, according to civil law. However, the Church did offer more rights to married women, in that both spouses were expected to support and care for children (Seed 1988).
There were areas, however, that a woman was allowed to exert her own free will, even in this time of restricted freedom. A woman could accept an unencumbered inheritance, for example, and that inheritance did not have to be equally divided between herself and her husband. The married woman could also control her own final will and testament, as well as owning half of all property purchased while married. The dowry was owned by the woman alone, although the husband controlled it, and any money or property left upon the husband's death or upon separation was equally divided between the widow and any remaining family members of the husband (Seed 1988).
Married women to some extent also lost their right to control the children under civil law. The father alone had the right to decide the child's educational path, controlled any property owned by the child, had legal power over their official transactions, and had control over punishment (Seed 1988). The woman also lost guardianship rights upon the death of her husband, unless he failed to name another guardian in his will (Seed 1988).
It is obvious that women in colonial Mexico City were not offered the same rights in relation to sexuality and marriage as men in this Catholic society. While the Church actually offered more protection and granted more rights than civil law, the Church did not have any power to enforce their concepts. Thus, colonial women were to be virgins until their wedding, and monogamous throughout their marriage. In return for this virtuous life, their rights to income, property, legal affairs, and most other daily tasks, including child rearing, were immediately given over to their husbands. While they retained their dowry and half of the community property, this was not accessible until the husband's death or separation. Those who chose a less virtuous life were often not even considered members of society, and were severely punished.
The sexual and marital life of women in Bahia, Brazil during colonial times was much like that of the women in Mexico City, but with some notable differences. Many of these differences related to the varied racial classes present in the area during the early seventeenth century. Both Indian women and Portuguese women were represented in Bahia, and these two races had vastly different views of sexual morality. The Portuguese women, much like their sisters in Mexico City, were raised to believe in a virtuous life, and were thought to be virtuous if they avoided sexual activity out of wedlock. On the other hand, the Indian women of the area were far less interested in virtue, and more interested in securing a future. Thus, their more adventurous sexual ways were attractions for early colonial men in Bahia (Schwartz 1973).
This difference in motive for virtue is in part due to the easier transition from one class system to the…