1492 – 1734 Early Encounters

Nicolás Enríquez de Vargas (artist), Portrait of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, ca. 1750. Oil on canvas. Chapultepec Castle, Mexico City.

Key Ideas

1. Women were integral to the formation and evolution of societies in the early colonies of the Americas.

2. The experiences of women in the early colonial period varied widely based on race, class, age, gender identity, and geographic region.

3. The full story of the early colonial period cannot be properly understood without considering the experiences of the women who lived it.


When you think of the early colonial period in the Americas, what comes to mind? The era roughly defined as beginning with Columbus’s arrival in the Americas in 1492 and ending in the early 1700s is widely remembered as a time of great struggle, when stalwart individuals worked tirelessly to overcome impossible odds and carve out a new place in the world.

This popular narrative is almost entirely focused on the experiences and contributions of men. From the earliest male explorers to the male leaders who negotiated with adversaries and commanded their communities, to the male workers who did the labor of building homes and cultivating land, a brief look at a textbook or other student-friendly summary of the early colonial period would lead one to believe that women were hardly present for, and certainly not integral to, the development of the colonies in the Americas. When they are mentioned, women of this period are characterized as housewives, important to their families but not critical to the development of their communities.

Jacobus Houbraken from Georg Gsell, “An occupational portrait of Maria Sybilla Merian,” 1700, Das Insektenbuch. Leipzig Frankfurt am Main: Insel Verlag, 1991.

This version of history is wrong. Even a cursory glance through available historical evidence reveals women operating at every level of society and government, making contributions that would alter the course of history. What’s more, examining the experiences of women in this period allows us to develop a more holistic sense of life in these communities, from gender expectations to race relations. Without knowing the history of women, we are literally missing half the story.