1. Women played critical roles in the Spanish conquest of the Americas.
2. Spanish and Native women in the Spanish colonies found many ways to challenge and subvert the patriarchy of Spanish colonial society.
3. Native women played a proactive role in tribal responses to Spanish colonization.
4. The cruelties of the encomienda and enslavement systems fell particularly hard on women.
Women in the Spanish Colonies, 1492–1715
The popular narrative of the Spanish conquest and colonization of the Americas is hyper-masculine.
Daring male explorers returned to Spain with tales of vast populations and wealth, and paved the way for brutal male conquistadors to invade and suppress the Native warriors who dared to oppose them. After the early years of invasion, two colonial territories were established: New Spain in North America, and Peru in South America. Spanish elite grew rich off plantations and mines that they staffed with enslaved Native people and Africans, while Franciscan friars forced thousands of Native people to convert to Catholicism through the oppressive mission system.
And yet, women were active participants in every part of the history of the Spanish colonies of the Americas. It was Queen Isabella I of Castile, who funded the Columbus voyage of 1492, and determined the shape and tone of the Spanish conquest. Conquistador Hernan Cortés’s conquest of the Aztec Empire may have failed without the guidance and skill of his enslaved interpreter, Malitzen. And it is impossible to truly understand the horrors of the conquest without a consideration of the toll it took on Native and African women.
Women also found ways to challenge and subvert the patriarchy of Spanish colonial society. The gateras, the Native market women of Quito in Peru, exploited the legal system to earn greater financial security for their people. Zuni potters were at the forefront of the revival of traditional Native practices during the Pueblo Revolt. Women could use the marriage traditions of the dowry and arras to escape unhappy marriages. And wealthy Spanish women expertly wielded their privilege to draw attention to the hypocrisy of traditional gender roles or survive encounters with the dreaded Holy Office of the Inquisition.
Section Essential Questions
1. What were the rights and responsibilities of women in colonial Spanish society?
2. How did race, class, and social differences affect the lives of the women in the Spanish colonies?
3. How did women contribute to the establishment of new societies in the New World?
4. What gender specific challenges did women face in the Spanish colonies?
For more information and resources about the history of the Spanish colonies in North America, see our curriculum guide Nueva York: 1613-1945.