The spinning wheel—few material objects so succinctly represent patriarchal oppression under colonialism. The wheel was once the expedient implement to create thread and yarn, and pondering the vast demand in the 18th century before the industrial revolution rendered it obsolete, to make a capital fortune in cotton required innumerable wheels and an equal representation of labor. However, prior to colonization the indigenous peoples of India and the New World did not have a standard market economy. Their societies had not eclipsed the “hunter-gatherer” way of life that was displaced ages ago in Europe. Their nations did not participate in market trade on a grand scale; capitalism did not exist, nor did the European socio-cultural standards that governed the most developed nations. Arguably, a colonial power’s first goal when establishing new territories is to assimilate the indigenous peoples into the collective, allowing for more taxable subjects and labor to support the Crown and its endeavors. But the power must contend with established social, cultural, political, economic, and religious infrastructure; to successfully bring a colony into the imperial fold is a difficult endeavor. Entrenched in a clash of cultures is a proxy colonial powers used to bring the Natives under an assimilationist regime: the sexual repression of women. In colonial territories, implementation of traditional European gender roles allowed imperial powers to realign socio-cultural infrastructure and generate a free international market. And this did not occur solely in the cotton trade: regardless of the economic resource the territory provided, the power found labor when men assumed the role of “worker” and women of “domestic.” Through the rising a falling periods of colonization in India and modern day Mexico, the controlling powers—Britain and Spain—sought to repress women to curry further control in their colonies. The ultimate results of their actions remain unclear, but myriad evidence suggests this repression furthered political, social, and cultural hierarchies disadvantaging women; as a direct result, in many edges of empire women still suffer lasting consequences of colonial gender subjugation.
To analyze sexual repression in these Spanish and British colonies, I turn my focus away from print sources and call the reader’s attention to primary photographs. Period photography offers a window through which we can observe the light of history, and allow ourselves the opportunity to step into someone else’s skin and experience their experience. Unlike print resources that rely on imagery to captivate the reader, primary photographs provide the reader with concrete image—an accurate and candid representation of the past.
We begin with the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire and the establishment of New Spain. As a colonial power, Spanish peoples sought the riches buried in their new territory; however, mining was a costly and dangerous expense. Of course the silver would be well worth the incursion when extracted—recognizing this hard reality, the Spanish colonists plunged headfirst into a program to assimilate and subjugate the Native peoples to do the Crown’s work. Although this was not slavery, it was certainly a form of indentured servitude. In return for Spanish “protection,” the Indian people would work Spanish land in an agreement called encomienda. This compact formed the beginnings of gender oppression in the New World; as Catholics, the Spanish considered the Indian people inferior, or gente sin razon: a people without reason. The missions considered it their duty to baptize and convert as many of the pagan Natives as possible. Whereas the Crown traded in silver, the Faith traded in souls. But despite an ocean’s breadth the Spanish would apply their socio-cultural gender construction to the indigenous. Man worked to the Spaniard’s content, lest he be beaten or his family starved and uprooted from their home; woman would fall under the watchful eye of the missionaries. Culture clash was inevitable, but nothing disturbed the Spanish missionaries more than the Indian’s unchaste sexual conduct. Prior to Colonialism, female fertility and sexuality had been celebrated in Native tradition and heritage. Nevertheless, missionaries concurred that in order to foster Indian conversion to Catholicism, they would supplant Native gender roles with a Spanish gender hierarchy. Culturally and religiously, Indian women’s “cosmic power” emanates from fertility.[i] The Spanish missionaries sought to realign women’s role by “enforcing monogamous sexual relations,” and “suppressing rituals, symbols, and religious societies associated with fertility and sexuality.”[ii] The missionaries considered female sexuality alien, women’s bodies “base and vile;” thus, the reconstruction of gender roles was based on morality, and a woman’s fertility was the single “most important source of her value.”[iii]
As the tendrils of Spanish colonial influence snaked across the continent, missionaries established residence among tribal communities; these infamous Alto missions in present day California provide evidence suggesting that these Natives suffered among the most abhorrent conditions in the entirety of Spanish colonial rule. All women below marriage age were required to take residence in the mission, in a “dormitory” called monjeríos. In truth, “dormitory” is an ineffectual description of what a monjerío really was: a tool to subjugate female sexuality, under the closest scrutiny. These were cages for young Indian women, preventing them from any contact with the men in their tribe. Deviant sexual conduct—or any deviant conduct for that matter—was severely punished; the corma would chain a woman’s legs together so she could not separate them.[iv] Those women who suffered miscarriages were “punished by ‘shaving the head, flogging for fifteen subsequent days, [wearing] iron on the feet for three months, and having to appear every Sunday in church, on the steps leading up to the altar, with a hideous painted wooden child… in her arms’ representing the dead infant;” the missionaries considered all miscarriages acts of infanticide.[v]
From an early age in monjeríos girls are taught to sew, cook, spin cotton, and accomplish similar “household tasks.”[vi] We can observe this process in action in [Girl sewing on doorstep] (http://digitalcollections.smu.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/mex/id/664/rec/2) by Winfield Scott. There is no way of knowing whether this picture was taken in a monjerío, but she provides a very accurate depiction of what a monjerío girl might look like. She is working diligently, and does not appear to notice the camera. However, as the rest of the photographs in Scott’s collection are blocked, we can rationally assume that she was blocked as well. The difference between analyzing a candid photograph and a blocked photograph is that the latter is more subjective according to the opinions and views of the photographer. Scott chose an excellent setting for his photograph: the girl’s surroundings are decrepit. With the exception of what appears to be a running tap behind her, there are no commodities to speak of. Women in monjeríos were rarely allowed outside the mission buildings, and were certainly never allowed outside the compound. This photograph demonstrates exactly the living conditions one might expect to see in a monjerio; bereft of all but essential furniture, and without luxuries of any kind, the Spartan design of these quarters served to break women of immoral, “uncontrolled sexuality and confused gender roles.”[vii]
That the patriarchy held ultimate control of Indian women’s sexuality is apparent in several more period photographs, also taken by Scott. These pictures, [Girl by river] (http://digitalcollections.smu.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/mex/id/670/rec/8) and Lily (http://digitalcollections.smu.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/mex/id/663/rec/1), are both disturbing in that they are intentionally blocked to engender feelings of sexual objectification. The girl by the river and Lily are blocked in remarkably similar poses; their legs are casually crossed as they sit; their arms support their upper body in a way that appears naturally resilient. As this photograph is blocked, that the girl by the river’s cleavage shows is no accident, but a deliberate staging conducted by Scott. Furthermore, as if in irony, Lily is holding a white rose in her hand; she holds the bloom towards us, as if offering it. White roses have long been known as a symbol of purity; this distinction in mind, we begin to understand the purpose of these photographs. Both the girl and Lily stare directly into the camera. As a viewer, the first time I saw these photographs together I was taken aback by the maturity evident in their expressions. It is not hard to tell these girls are both young—they appear to be roughly thirteen years old—and yet they look as if they have endured experiences that hardened their resolve. The patriarchy has compromised their sexuality to such an extent that these young girls are prepared to give themselves to a stranger. Unfortunately, this might have been their fate. When establishing missions, the Spanish would organize a garrison to protect the Faith; considering that Indians vastly outnumbered both missionaries and soldiers, in regards to the duality of the Spanish assimilation program outlined by the Faith and enforced by the Crown these far away missions were essentially state actors. The garrison’s presence has tremendous significance: soldiers committed appalling crimes against Indian women, including rape and murder; families would commit their daughters to monjeríos so as to protect them from the “unbridled lust” of the soldiers.[viii] In fact, the existence of monjeríos was justified in part by the Faith’s interest in protecting the Indian women’s chastity.[ix] The girls seem to regard the photographer—Scott—with some modicum of dissatisfaction. Presumably, if these pictures were taken in a monjerío the girls would know to avoid the interest of men, especially strange men, for fear of retribution by the missionaries or assault by a soldier. But they must both know that marriage lies in wait for them when a suitable Catholic groom comes calling to the mission. This would perhaps in part explain the sewing girl’s (above) disinterest with the man photographing her. Once married in a Catholic ceremony, the women would be allowed to return to their husband’s house under his private sphere of patriarchy. Until then, they lived through a unique hell. The Spanish missions accomplished their gender restructuring with remarkable gusto. In employing forced assimilation to Indian culture, they were granted with souls to save and men to work.[x] affixing women’s sexuality in the patriarchy’s pocket was the last piece of the puzzle.
Now, we turn our attention to gender subjugation in India. The similarities between British and Spanish colonial gender subjugation are evident. In India socio-cultural treatment of women already held the gender to be subservient to men; we must recognize a very fine distinction for how the British applied this means of colonial control. The British sought revenues through the establishment of trade in India and the control of cotton textile exports. Creating beautiful cottons textiles—the kind British popular culture craved—remains to this day a process rooted in tradition and heritage.[xi] Interestingly, the British did not seek to enforce gender subjugation directly, but they certainly allowed the Indian Brahmins to perpetuate it. In developing new law, the British “defined a structure of revenue-collection and settlement that depended preeminently on local bonds of social cohesion based on patrilineal descent… British colonial officials idealized ‘the timeless village’… where the folk who accepted and supported the [British] Raj lived in ‘grateful peace.’”[xii] The British controlled sexuality through passive means. Utilizing the existing caste system to redefine legal obligations as colonial power, India’s laws were defined by local custom, for which the British instituted the necessary infrastructure.[xiii] It was certainly a subtle means of achieving colonial domination, quite different from those Spain used.
But it is critical to understand that British colonization tactics were identical to the Spanish in certain capacities, such as public perception of the Indian people. Just as the Spanish considered Indians—especially female Indians—immoral for embracing sexuality, Elie cites “the harem syndrome” as the colloquial perception of Indian women as suffering under the yoke of Islam.[xiv] From the outside looking in, the British had an inadequate understanding of what harem represented as a tradition, and thus the word’s meaning rapidly evolved into something scandalous. This concept is reinforced by Ghosh’s theories concerning the effects of colonization on the colonial woman. She claims that the common law disadvantaging British women derived from prior cultural and societal standards; namely, that women are inferior to men—they constitute the “weaker sex.”[xv] Ghosh and Elie’s theories juxtapose British and Indian women on the sexual level. The harem syndrome contributes to British perception of Indian women as sexually “unbridled,” whereas the British woman was “demure,” and “sexually restrained.”[xvi] To understand this concept is to understand how Britain established its international trade system in India. The British simply had to structure a gendered distinction between “work” and “leisure;” men contributed to the furtherance of colonization by working on public service projects, primarily railroads. Women participated in what the British defined as the “leisurely” activity of producing textiles.[xvii] This naturalization technique served to provide the labor necessary to produce Indian infrastructure on a massive scale, and simultaneously furthered revenues from the production and sale of cotton.
Pictured above is [Bengal-Nagpur Railway Construction, Photograph No. 14] (http://digitalcollections.smu.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/eaa/id/1478/rec/13). This is just one snippet of the complex network of railroads produced during British colonial rule. The large number of men working in this picture serves to corroborate the gendered work distinction. This is a candid shot, meaning that the photographer did not block any of his subject matter. Its significance is its contribution to positive public perception of Britain’s activities in India. British viewers saw the occupation of India was contributing positively to the economy, and providing jobs for those who might otherwise be unemployed. The photograph demonstrates the relentless march from Indian antiquity to modern industry. Further, it reinforced the familiar notion of man as the laborer and woman as the domestic. This is at least partially reflected in William Johnson’s Parsee Ladies (http://digitalcollections.smu.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/eaa/id/670/rec/39). The women in this picture are obviously blocked, and the same details that painted a repressive picture for Mexican Indians in Lily etc. are present here. These women are dressed relatively well in juxtaposition to the poorer Indian castes; however, this is irrelevant in analyzing each of the four women’s distinct mannerisms. The woman on the left is posed in an equally provocative position as in [Girl by river]. Note the position of her arms and legs: as opposed to her company, she cocks her right arm against her hip and the left behind her head, an elbow resting on a stump. You can almost see something of what one might loosely dub “American sex appeal.” But the woman on the center left is flatly disregarding Johnston, taking up an insignificant space below the level of her companions. Her expression is apathetic, in that she has no expression; her face is completely blank. The woman on the right gapes at the camera, but not with malice or surprise. There is something haunting in her gaze, something hollow, like an empty promise. The final woman leans casually against the tree trunk, and her expression seems to represent polite indifference, like the Mona Lisa smile. Whether Johnston intended this interesting juxtaposition is unclear. What is clear is that at least two of the four women are unhappy with something—perhaps, the injurious nature of British colonialism. The woman on the left happily perpetuates the notion of Indian women as sexually rampant. The second and third women represent two sects of Indian opposition to colonial oppression: the woman on the right is haunted by experience, and the crouching woman wants nothing more than to relinquish Johnston’s company as soon as possible. What they have in common is a mutual dislike of the colonial powers, or at least white men in general. After careful analysis, the final woman appears to be folding her arms across her chest as if to cloak herself from the patriarchal gaze of the British people; she is not concerned to share the company of the white man, but she respects her position of subservience. To be sure, the four expressions highlight tremendous confusion. The women live under patriarchal law, but perhaps some question why they should be treated any differently than British colonial women? The oppressed never deserve to be the object of oppression—they seek change. However, at a cursory glance the elements of harem syndrome are the most apparent. I assume that this was Johnston’s goal when blocking this photograph: to perpetuate designations of Indian and corresponding castes for the people of Britain to better understand the nature of the Indian people. What he did not anticipate were the subtle clues his subjects left us with.
It is no mean feat to break the yoke of colonial gender oppression. Perhaps the most important aspect of this analysis is to understand that to an extent only the oppressed can break their bonds; although there may be entities from the outside looking in that see oppression for what it is, only those who have suffered invidious discrimination know the strength to break free of it.[xviii] The spinning wheel of colonialism and sexual subjugation is cyclical. A colonial power does not acquire territories to leave them untouched. Imperial powers will always seek to effect broad and sweeping change to achieve their interests. But change is cyclical as well. The Industrial Revolution made the spinning wheel obsolete; now, as democratic institutions span the world over, equality is slowly but surely rendering gender repression as useless as the wheel that once symbolized it.
[i] Pauline Turner Strong, “Feminist Theory and the ‘Invasion of the Heart’ in North America,” Ethnohistory 43, no. 4 (Autumn 1996): 683-712, JSTOR (689).
[ii] Ibid., 689.
[iii] Antonia I. Castañeda, “Engendering the History of Alta California 1769-1848: Gender, Sexuality, and the Family,” California History 76, no. 2/3 (Summer – Fall 1997): 230-59, EBSCOhost (231).
[iv] Terria Smith, “Under Lock and Key,” News from Native California 28, no. 2 (2015),
[v] Ibid., 235.
[vi] Chelsea K. Vaughn, “Locating Absence: The Forgotten Presence of Monjeríos in Alta
California Missions,” Southern California Quarterly 93, no. 2 (Summer 2011): 141-74, JSTOR (170).
[vii] Strong, 695
[ix] Smith; Castañeda.
[x] Castañeda, 235
[xi] Michelle Maskiell, “Embroidering the Past: Phulkari Textiles and Gendered Work as ‘Tradition’ and ‘Heritage’ in Colonial and Contemporary Punjab,” The Journal of Asian Studies 58, no. 2 (May 1999): 361-88, JSTOR (361).
[xii] Ibid., 363.
[xiii] Ibid., 363.
[xiv] Serge D. Elie, “The Harem Syndrome: Moving Beyond Anthropology’s Discursive
Colonization of Gender in the Middle East,” Alternatives: Local, Global, Political 29, no. 2 (March-May 2004): 139-69, JSTOR (140).
[xv] Durba Ghosh, “Gender and Colonialism: Expansion or Marginalization?” The Historical
Journal 47, no. 3 (September 2004): 737-55, JSTOR (738).
[xvi] Ibid., 740.
[xvii] Maskiell, 362.
[xviii] John R. Chavez, “Aliens in Their Native Lands: The Persistence of Internal Colonial
Theory,” Journal of World History 22, no. 4 (December 2011): 758-809, JSTOR (801-2).
- Anne M. Price. “Colonial History, Muslim Presence, and Gender Equity Ideology: A Cross-National Analysis.” International Journal of Sociology 38, no. 1 (Spring 2008): 81-103. JSTOR.
- Antonia I. Castañeda. “Engendering the History of Alta California 1769-1848: Gender, Sexuality, and the Family.” California History 76, no. 2/3 (Summer – Fall 1997): 230-59. EBSCOhost.
- Chelsea K. Vaughn. “Locating Absence: The Forgotten Presence of Monjeríos in Alta California Missions,” Southern California Quarterly 93, no. 2 (Summer 2011): 141-74. JSTOR.
- Durba Ghosh. “Gender and Colonialism: Expansion or Marginalization?” The Historical Journal 47, no. 3 (September 2004): 737-55. JSTOR.
- John R. Chavez. “Aliens in Their Native Lands: The Persistence of Internal Colonial Theory.” Journal of World History 22, no. 4 (December 2011): 758-809. JSTOR.
- Leslie C. Gates. “The Strategic Uses of Gender in Household Negotiations: Women Workers on Mexico’s Northern Border.” Bulletin of Latin American Research 21, no. 4 (October 2002): 507-26. JSTOR.
- Leti Volpp. “Feminism versus Multiculturalism.” Columbia Law Review 101, no. 5 (June 2001): 1181-1218. JSTOR
- Michelle Maskiell. “Embroidering the Past: Phulkari Textiles and Gendered Work as ‘Tradition’ and ‘Heritage’ in Colonial and Contemporary Punjab.” The Journal of Asian Studies 58, no. 2 (May 1999): 361-88. JSTOR.
- Pauline Turner Strong. “Feminist Theory and the ‘Invasion of the Heart’ in North America.” Ethnohistory 43, no. 4 (Autumn 1996): 683-712. JSTOR.
- Serge D. Elie. “The Harem Syndrome: Moving Beyond Anthropology’s Discursive Colonization of Gender in the Middle East.” Alternatives: Local, Global, Political 29, no. 2 (March-May 2004): 139-69. JSTOR.
- Terria Smith. “Under Lock and Key.” News from Native California 28, no. 2 (2015). http://web.b.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=e98a93f1-f445-4fd0-8dfe-d8276940983b%40sessionmgr114&vid=5&hid=102