Colonizing Gender

One of the hardest things about social reality is that it is something that we don’t see – it becomes invisible.”

-Dr. Ella Schmidt

Through Irene Silverblatt’s book, Sun, Moon, and Witches: Gender Ideologies and Class in Inca and Colonial Peru (1987), we can see how 500 years of limited transformation within class and gender (due to the conquest of indigenous peoples by the Inca’s and then Spanish) has transformed the social structure in the Andes region of South America, particularly in gender relations. You can see how women’s status shifted as the Andean social structure evolved from one with an emphasis on kinship ties to a society with institutionalized class hierarchies. This power shift is seen again in Susan Kellogg’s article, The Woman’s Room: Some Aspects of Gender Relations in Tenochtitlan in the Late Pre-Hispanic Period (1995), in the Mexicas (Aztecs) of what is now Mexico City. Where once men and women functioned in “semiseparable domains” where there existed “parallel male and female spheres in which men and women played significant public roles” (Kellogg, 1995), colonization has worked to squelch the woman’s power in society and limit her domain to the household.

Conquest has an immense influence on culture. Indigenous women, in general, lost extraordinary space in society when the West took charge. Women’s power and place in society were demonized and dubbed as witchcraft. Over an over, throughout the globe, you can find examples of indigenous societies practices and beliefs turned upside down as colonial powers take over and work to spread the ideals of the West. As these powers have written and rewritten history, what we have come to think of as “history” has truly been a one-sided account of historical events. It has only been recently addressed that there are gender biases due to the fact that these historical accounts were told by and through men alone. That men were almost always the ones observing, interviewing, and being interviewed, it was men’s views who were always prioritized. On top of this, colonial powers systematically worked to destroy indigenous women’s status in their societies, which was many times much more equal than in Western culture.

This is clearly evident through Silverblatt’s research. Inca noblemen, and Spanish conquerors and explorers (who were also, of course, men) wrote the history of the Andes. Silverblatt has tried to tease out the truth of Andean histories amidst all of the biases written into these historical accounts. What she has given us is an account of women who were viewed as an integral part of society, who were allowed rights to “land, water, herds, and other necessities of life” (pg. 5). Andean society pre-colonization contained a bilateral system of descent and parallel transmissions of inheritance. This meant that histories were traced back and held importance for both the mother’s and father’s families and that property was passed from mother to daughter, father to son. Even as the Inca created a class system by establishing themselves as the noble class, Andean society still operated in this way. Wives and husbands saw themselves as equal and complementary. Though there was a division of labor based on age and gender, both male’s and female’s work were viewed as integral. (The drawings in Silverblatt’s book perfectly illustrate this.)

Much like the pre-colonial Andeans, the Mexica “structured activities and ceremonies so that women and men had semiseparate responsibilities and organizations. The structuring of production, politics, and rituals ensured that women had access to positions of authority and did not differentiate strongly between public and private realms” (Kellogg, pg. 571). This parallel gender structuring allowed for space and autonomy within gender. A woman was not, then, defined by her association to a man. However, colonization changed this system.

“True to the ideology of the conquest hierarchy, the Incas intertwined gender hierarchy and the formation of class as they consolidated imperial rule” (Silerblatt, pg. 81). This meant that Andean women were now seen to be there to fulfill imperial needs. Women were valued then for their ability to perform “women’s tasks” – such as spinning, weaving, and the preparation of special foods – and for their chastity. Here enters the Madonna/Whore dichotomy in Andean history. The most beautiful and chaste peasant girls were literally taken in by the noble Incas to live with the higher class and perform these special women’s duties.

Women lost even more autonomy with the Spanish conquest. “The Spanish tribute regimen had prejudicial consequences on peasant women. One of its effects was to undermine traditional patterns of land tenure and inheritance whereby women maintained independent access to lands. Owing to Spanish law and the nature of the tributary system itself, men from the Spanish elite, as well as from the native peasantry, were induced to wrest from women their pre-Hispanic rights to autonomous control over productive resources” (Silverblatt, pg. 131). This meant that the bilateral system of descent and parallel transmissions of inheritance were effectively destroyed, leaving in it’s place a patriarchal system.

To fast forward to how this change has affected women of Central and South America post-Spanish colonization, we can look at the film Retrato de Teresa (Pastor Vega, 1979). The movie follows Teresa, a mother of three trying to manage a house, children, full time union work, and a philandering husband. Life is really hard on a working mom, as the movie clearly illustrates. Many times, the woman ends up doing the brunt of the housework and childcare while also working as many hours as her husband. Essentially, the mother is still the manager and full-time employee of the home while being a full-time employee outside the home, and she usually runs the social aspects of family life, such as holidays, visiting relatives, and extra curriculars for the kids. The man still expects to be treated like the “man of the house,” even if he works less, even if he makes less money, even if he moves out and takes another woman outside of the marriage!

While the film depicts a Cuban woman who is characterized by marianismo (a selfless woman, like the virgin mother, Mary), this female ideal can be seen in many, many cultures. (In the same way masculinity and femininity are compliments, marianismo and machismo are complements, and one cannot exist without the other.) This ideal is left over from the takeover of the indigenous societies mentioned above by colonial powers. Had this conquering not taken place, perhaps we would find cultures throughout the Americas that more closely mirrored the pre-colonial Andean societies, with emphasis placed on the complementary nature of the genders rather than the oppositional nature which defines modern gender relations.

And here are some great quotes from the film to highlight the modern woman’s plight:

Nobody is indestructible. We’re all made of flesh and blood.” -Teresa

I’m working like a slave.” -Teresa

I never did anything to upset him. That’s how we raised kids together.” -Teresa’s mom

A woman belongs at home.” -Teresa’s mom


He’s a monster!

Screams and horror

Knuckled hands entrap tiny wrists

Her petals twirl

But drown in jet waters

Little girls don’t float like little flower boats

They sink into shadows

Masking features

so creatures can come to light



Scratch in the corners

Slink dim-lit corridors

He hides by day

Slips in and out of shadows

Blind eyes cast from passers-by

His green skin screams

so cloaks himself in blackness

and slinks with cats


They love monsters!

Shriek in dark theaters

Hold on, close those eyes

Screen rips

Horror spills into the isles

Automatic strobe touches skulls

Mothers weep – beg back fair

Mothers seek armor against modern demons


That monster!

Bat wings

silhouetting the new moon

Howling behind the treeline

Seducing angels in skirts of satin

Ancient form bent low

Insert the devil in long kiss

He lingers upon your lips

He tastes your scream

Breathes terror in deep


O Monster!

She weeps – but loves the drama

Ingenue, strapped to the tracks

He’s coming full force

He’s head-on

Knuckled hands hold her heart

It doesn’t float

She drowns in black waters

Screaming for her monster