Women as Agents of Empire : Sexuality and Immigration in the Spanish Empire during the XVIIIth century

Although colonization has largely been seen as masculine effort, women were a critical part of late colonial colonization schemes. These imperial projects, which involved the voluntary resettlement of families from one part of the empire to another, were predicated on assumptions about the role of women and families in reinforcing European norms in the colonies, whose creole cultures differed increasingly from those of their European counterparts. In 1778, Spain attempted just such a colonization project, moving more than 1900 peasants from northern Spain (including nearly 850 adult women) to the Rio de la Plata. In this paper, I will examine both the assumptions of imperial authorities about the ongoing need for women on the periphery of the Spanish empire and the role of these peasant women in bringing peninsular culture and gender norms to new outposts established in the regions outside of Buenos Aires and Montevideo. In my preliminary research, I have found that although the presence of peninsular women was important in bringing stable families to those outposts, these female immigrants did not always maintain the rigid sexual and gender expectations that the authorities desired.  Indeed, their native peninsular cultures that emphasized female authority and tolerated non-marital sexuality had much more in common with colonial culture than imperial authorities understood. Moreover, their presence only temporarily mitigated relationships between Spanish men and women of other races.

Allyson M. Poska is Professor in the University of Mary Washington (formerly Mary Washington College), Fredericksburg, VA. She published Ashgate Research Companion to Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe. Coedited with Katherine McIver and Jane Couchman (in progress) ; Women and Authority in Early Modern Spain: The Peasants of Galicia, Oxford University Press, 2005 (Winner of the 2006 Roland H. Bainton Prize for best book in early modern history or theology) ; Women and Gender in the Western Past. Coauthored with Katherine French, Houghton Mifflin (now Cengage), June 2006 ; Regulating the People: The Catholic Reformation in Seventeenth-Century Spain, Leiden: E. J. Brill Academic Press, 1998.

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