Author Virginia Woolf claimed in her essay A Room of One’s Own, “for most of history, anonymous was a woman”[i]. While colonial and post-colonial history predominately features the literature and accounts of the struggles of mankind little documentation exists on the accomplishments, adversities, and general lifestyles of women. Colonization by western European powers in the North American Southwest and in India left stratifying societal impacts on these civilizations in ways that still manifest today. Ranking ideals brought over from Spain and Britain such as marital status, skin color, family upbringing, and ethnicity completely dictated the paths of Mexican and Indian women and further emphasized their place in society. These reinforcements of gender roles left women, especially poor women, experiencing “meager, if not inconsequential treatment”[ii] and exploitation from an indisputably male dominated culture. In Spanish ruled Mexico, women received value through the family lineages they could create with their ethnicity. Women in India endured seclusion, polygamy and the one-sided right of divorce for men during the reign of the British Raj[iii]. Colonialism perpetuated the segregation of class as well as gender, and these two societies would fail to “[integrate] women quantitatively and qualitatively into organizational and political work”[iv] for centuries.
Spanish colonialism provided vivid, physical examples of the classifications and social order through casta paintings. Developed in the viceroyalty of New Spain and inspired by curiosity of the new world inhabitants, painters illustrated family dynamics and created societal phylum terminologies to explain hierarchy in the conquered Spanish colony[v]. Different casta paintings stimulated various narratives based on race and gender. Most of the casta paintings showed Spanish males intermarrying with wives of a lower ethnic grade- ie. Spanish-Indian or Spanish-black. The paintings maintained the image that white Spanish men “were in command of the sexuality of all [types of] women” in the new world[vi]. The women of lesser ethnic value became the subject of a reinforced “sexual subordination” dominated by this misogynistic colonial power[vii]. A woman’s sole identity became her ethnicity, leaving her no choice but to attempt to cement her presence within Spanish pedigree. Isabel de Tolosa Cortes Moctezuma, the granddaughter of Hernan Cortes and great grand-daughter of Aztec Emperor Moctezuma Xocoyotzin, married wealthy Spaniard Don Juan de Onate to secure a “white” future rather than an impure, “indigenous” future for her children[viii]. The more integrated new world Spanish settlers became in Mexico, the more challenges the castas system faced. Because Spain predominantly sent male colonizers to the new world, the population began to see a dramatic increase in families with mixed ancestry and indigenous backgrounds[ix]. As identifying pure Spanish lineage became more difficult to prove, women’s identity began to shift from cultural ethnicity to outward appearance. Woman of lighter complexion with Spanish-looking features could achieve social mobility, while dark women remained stagnated in society. The casta system, although giving misleading and bigoted views on some aspects of social order, did give accurate portrayals of the lifestyles of the types of women illustrated in the paintings. Light-skinned women in the upper crust of Mexican society that married pure Spanish peninsulares employed darker, ethnically inferior women as unskilled laborers, like seen in the picture to the left[x]. This trend in ethnic separation influenced the labor and lifestyle of Mexican women even after the removal of Spanish power.
The arrival of European missionaries and the strictly enforced Catholic ideology brought over from Spain beginning in the sixteenth century heavily influenced women’s societal worth from a different angle. Spanish colonizers in the Southwest, especially in California, created a culture centered on the classic patriarchal order of Spain[xi]. With this patriarchy came an understood routine that perpetuated the idea that the hard-working male of the household provided for the wife and children who in turn “owed him obedience and respect”[xii]. This male-dominated societal expectation subjected wives to a life of slavery in their own home. As seen in the picture to the right, women cooked; women cleaned; women nurtured the children; repeat. In addition to having to work towards a life centered on becoming the most submissive of domestics, this extremely Catholic society demanded that women keep their sexual purity before marriage and keep a chaste mind even after marriage[xiii]. Historian Antonia Castaneda went as far as to say that a woman’s honor is “centered on their sexuality, and on their own [control of it]”[xiv]. Society viewed female victims of rape and sexual abuse as dirty, contaminated, disposable and impure. As discussed earlier with the legacies of casta paintings, class hierarchies formed to further define the status of the Mexican women. Spanish-speaking women, along with Spanish speaking males, were considered gente de razon, or “people of reason”[xv]. Spanish-speaking Christian women generally possessed the highest status in society, while a non-Christian woman possessed the lowest status in the Catholic missionary culture[xvi]. While ethnicity and appearance slowly became less of a ranking scale, Spanish heritage and ties to Christianity stepped in as the new measuring stick for the value of a woman in the American Southwest/ Mexico.
The British Raj used socioeconomic and gender divisions as a “vehicle for proving their liberality” and as a catalyst to legitimize outstanding authority[xvii]. Indian women already endured generations of mistreatment and oppression at the hand of Brahmin law. Brahmin women and girls, as shown in the photo, could not divorce their husband, women could not claim ownership to family land, and widows were prohibited from remarrying[xviii]. Unfortunately, the official arrival of the British government did not improve the Indian woman’s quality of life. Although British liberal reformist agreed to end some obviously inhumane traditions and practices of Indian culture, the colonial authorities did not plan to give up female dominance[xix]. British policymakers enacted positive reforms for women, such as the illegalization of Sati, or widow-burning, the restoration of prostitution and conjugal rights show that their intentions “were far form progressive” and enlightened[xx]. The British introduced the reinstatement of the Christian-influenced conjugal law that allowed a male spouse to “sue his [wife] for refusing to fulfill the sexual obligations of marriage”[xxi]. Indian women who refused to comply with this law, such as with the case of the college-educated Rukhmabai, spent time in prison[xxii]. This law also continued to firmly tie women’s sexuality to men by requiring that the wife stay in the marital house instead of returning to her original home to escape an abusive, idle, or unfortunate marriage; Indian males had complete control of their spouses[xxiii]. Demand from British soldiers for more young, beautiful Indian women continued to rise, for they saw it as their right as a soldier to receive sexual services from young women against their will.
Also, the British authorities exploited Indian women, like the Lowana women shown to the left, as well-oiled “licensed” prostitutes for the British and Indian soldiers. This policy subjected these women to constant medical examinations, and a “sliding tariff according to the soldier’s rank”[xxiv]. British generals and other policymakers alike agreed that the female prostitutes acted as a morale boost for the troops, but in actuality many of these women fell victim to abuse and violence from the soldiers that claimed to need it for morale. The authorities ignored these disturbing incidents in the interest of the reputation of the British army. Other problems erupted, such as the wide spread of venereal diseases and infections between the women and the soldiers. Some British officials had the nerve to call the young soldiers the “victims” of the prostitutes they forced themselves upon[xxv]. To the authorities that turned a blind eye to this licensed sex trafficking claimed that the sexual activities these women performed for the soldiers fulfilled a duty to their country.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, women and strong, feminist supporters in both Britain and India began to push for beneficial legislation for Indian women. Women’s suffrage and voting in India, first raised as an issue in 1917, could not catch momentum due to the conflicts that would soon ensue with the highly conservative culture[xxvi]. The British officials had just banned long-standing, yet horrible, societal conducts and did not want to cause uproar from Hindu or Muslim traditionalists. At first, the 1919 the Central Assembly dropped its exclusion clause to allow women to share opinion in public forum. The British quickly reversed that notion. Although the colonial government and British officials claimed it wanted women “free from male dominance”, the authorities did not want to allow women equal voting rights[xxvii]. The All India Women’s Conference met in 1929 to discuss adult suffrage, but the British government vetoed the notion altogether. This policy to allow Indian women to vote would never pass in 1919, especially because even women in Britain could not vote until 1928. The British government saw the Indian women’s movement as a threat to male privilege and traditional Hindu society. Indian male domination did not act alone in disseminating women’s subordination. The British policymakers’ actions came from a place of selfish financial interests and intemperate political dominance in their profitable proxy state.
The male supremacy ideals of European colonists in Mexico/ American Southwest and India stagnated the progress of woman’s equality and impeded a whole half of a population from realizing an identity of self-worth beyond social patriarchal-placed norms. From absurd attempts at protecting pure lineage in Mexico to reinstatement of licensed prostitution for the British army in India, both societies of women endured unbridled classist and sexist hardships. The perpetuation of segregated class, ethnic, and gender roles only helped colonial powers gain the foreign domination they craved. Colonial powers purposefully struck divides between socioeconomic tiers, genders, and religions in order to prevent a unified rebellion against the authority they created. These great imperial nations failed to recognize the “particular form of male supremacy in their own culture”, and therefore had no interest in preventing the male dominance that they unknowingly propagated[xxviii]. The radical “power differential” between genders in Mexico and the American Southwest has lightened significantly beginning in the mid-twentieth century[xxix]. The nationalist movements and constant push for educating women in India has taken place and has continued to persist since the beginning of the twentieth century. Although the last one hundred years has shown an enormous amount of progress in the social, mental, and physical well being of women, challenges still lie ahead for these deeply European, patriarchy-dominated cultures. The policies, actions, and cultural ideologies of these colonial powers left a lasting impact on these two impressionable civilizations.
[i] “A Room of One’s Own,” Hold That Thought, Accessed April 24, 2015, http://thought.artsci.wustl.edu/podcasts-retellings/a-room-of-ones-own
[ii]Magdalena Mora and Adelaida R. Del Castillo, Mexican Women in the United States: Struggles Past and Present (Los Angeles: U of California, 1980), 7
[iii] Sophie M. Tharakan and Michael Tharakan, Status of Women in India: A Historical Perspective (Nov.-Dec, 1975), 120, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3516124
[iv] Mora and Del Castillo, Mexican Women, 7
[v] “’Limpieza de Sangre’ in the Age of Reason and Reform”, 229
[vi] “’Limpieza de Sangre’”, 233
[vii] “’Limpieza de Sangre’”, 233
[viii] Laura Woodworth-Ney, Women in the American West, (Santa Barbara: ABC-Clio, 2008), 76
[ix] “’Limpieza de Sangre’”, 239
[x] “’Limpieza de Sangre’”, 239
[xi] Woodworth-Ney, Women in the American West, 83
[xii] Ibid., 83
[xiii] Ibid., 83
[xiv] Ibid., 83
[xv] Ibid., 83
[xvi] Ibid., 83
[xviii] Liddle, Gender and Imperialism, 2
[xix] Tharakan, Status of Women, 119
[xx] Liddle, Gender and Imperialism, 2
[xxi] Ibid., 2
[xxix]Woodworth-Ney, Women in the American West, 85
Chavez, John R., The Lost Land: The Chicano Image of the Southwest. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1984.
Hold That Thought. “A Room of One’s Own.” 2013 Accessed April 24, 2015. http://thought.artsci.wustl.edu/podcasts-retellings/a-room-of-ones-own
Johnson, William, Brahmin Women of the Konkan. 1855-1962. DeGoyler Library, Dallas.
Johnson, William. Lowana Women. 1855-1862. DeGoyler Library, Dallas.
Liddle, Joanna and Rama Joshi. Gender and Imperialism in British India. Economic and Political Weekly, 1985, WS72WS78.
“’Limpieza de Sangre’ in the Age of Reason and Reform”, pp. 227-264
Mayo & Weed. Mexican Wash Woman. 1895-1910. DeGoyler Library, Dallas.
Mora, Magdalena and Del Castillo Adelaida R. Mexican Women in the United States: Struggles Past and Present. Los Angeles: U of California, 1980.
Peers, Douglas M., and Nandini Gooptu, India and the British Empire, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012
Tharakan, Sophie M. and Michael Tharakan, Status of Women in India: A Historical Perspective (Nov.-Dec., 1975), 115-123 http://www.jstor.org/stable/3516124
Unknown, Mexican Women and Children Cooking Outside. 1897. DeGoyler Library, Dallas.
Woodworth-Ney, Laura. Women in the American West. Santa Barbara: ABC-Clio, 2008.