A Celebration of Women Writers

"Woman's Position In The South American States." by Matilde G. De Miro Quesada.
Publication: Elliott, Maud Howe, ed. (1854-1948) Art and Handicraft in the Woman's Building of the World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893. Chicago and New York: Rand, McNally & Company, 1894. pp. 271-282.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom


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IN order to obtain a correct appreciation of the present condition of the Spanish-American woman it will be necessary to bear in mind the influence exerted by many circumstances appertaining to ancient times, as well as the action of more recent and immediate causes.

The bulk of the Spanish-American population is mainly composed of two elements: First, the descendants of the Spanish conquerors. Second, the native Indian races of Central and South America. The first one, although far inferior in numbers, has always been and continues to be the only ruling power in all the states.

These two elements brought into contact during four centuries have never become assimilated to any considerable extent. It might be said that they have rather kept themselves at a distance from each other, so that the overwhelming majority still remains a pure-blooded Indian, while only a small portion of it has become mixed with the Spanish race.

But even this partial union of those elements could not produce any substantial change in the position of woman in the Spanish-American colonies. She had always lived surrounded by a similar atmosphere and placed under similar circumstances in Spanish as well as in Indian civilization, her field of action never extending beyond the narrow limits of the family and of religious institutions, the church, convent, etc. In public life she was totally absent, absolutely ignored, as if she could not have any political significance whatever. Beyond the walls of the family dwellings she could become nothing but a Spanish nun or an Indian vestal.

The form of government was essentially monarchical and theocratic in Spain, as it was in Indian countries. The divine right of kings was the same in both; and, as a natural consequence, in the course of several centuries the most exclusive religious sentiment became the main characteristic of the population. It must be added that the secular war in which Spain fought for national

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independence and religious creed made a single block of these two principles, and fused patriotic feeling and the Catholic faith to such a degree that they became one and the same thought and aspiration in every part of that warlike and proud nation. Such is the mold in which Spanish-American character was shaped.

The effects of this cause were, of course, much deeper in woman's character, owing to her natural sensibility, her instinctive religious tendency, and the docility with which she adapts herself to the influences prevailing in her home. Being inexorably excluded from all participation in political or public life, her patriotic

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feeling remained latent, the whole of her activity being thus completely absorbed by her domestic duties and religious worship.

Laws, traditions, and habits worked together in restraining to an excessive degree the freedom and power of woman, even in the narrow field of her strictly private life. Her existence from beginning to end passed in passive submission to the authority and will of her lord and master, and in spite of the chivalrous character of the Spaniard, the companion of his life was no better than any of her oriental ancestors, an imprisoned or enslaved beauty, deprived of all the blessings and advantages of education and learning.

Yet it is doubtful if there are more intelligent or better endowed women in any region of the earth. Her quick comprehension, her bright imagination, her artistic propensities, her truly wonderful precocity, and even her impulsive and passionate character, will evidently mark in the course of time the transformation of this brilliant and fascinating spoiled child into the noblest type of woman, shining amidst the elements of national and universal progress. I am conscious of not overestimating the richness of her nature when I affirm that there is no heroic self-abnegation, no sublime ideal, no delicate refinement, no degree of moral courage to which she can not rise.

The war for the emancipation of the Spanish colonies of America was the first shock that awakened the Spanish-American woman from her slumbers, and opened to her astonished eyes a new and brilliant horizon. She was everywhere an enthusiastic agent and a devoted champion of the independent party, carrying her action so far that on several occasions the Spanish military executions reddened with her blood the soil she labored to liberate.

During the protracted period of internal convulsion and civil war that preceded the organization and present state of the Spanish-American republics, the influence of woman was frequently felt in prominent events of political life. She had no right granted by law to interfere with such matters, but she deemed her right to be sufficiently justified by her own self-sacrifice in the war for independence. Her action was in many instances an efficient force that brought about the final solution, and gave rise to deep changes–nay, to the very existence of new governments.

In later years new laws have swept away some of the most powerful obstacles opposed by ancient legislation to the improvement of woman's position in private and public life. The barrier of religious intolerance was partially demolished in several of the new republics, and the free access of foreign immigration to their

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respective territories produced a large number of inter-marriages and of new homes where an enlightened and liberal spirit prevails.

Public and private education began to spread in the upper classes of the young nations, although for the most part it still remained in the hands of sectarian teachers and religious institutions. But in the last score of years a most considerable progress has been accomplished by the united action of governments and private individuals in the principal Spanish-American states.


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It is with the deepest feeling of joy and pride that I call attention to the influence of our sex in this great evolution. Nearly all the schools for girls are actually placed under the control of female teachers; normal schools for women are amply supported or protected by the national authorities; large and beautiful buildings, that in some cities are true palaces, have been erected for educational purposes; and hundreds of foreign professors are being continually brought from their native countries to the hospitable and promising homes of Spanish America.

The majority of female teachers are native girls, who have obtained reliable credentials; and it can be confidently asserted that there will be in the future no lack or deficiency in the supply of intelligent direction for all public schools.

This has been the first authorized step of the Spanish-American woman's career beyond the limits of domestic life. Another important movement, attained by a strength of will and moral courage of which no one unacquainted with Spanish countries can even form an idea, is the admission lately granted to female .students to the curriculum of the regular universities.

To duly appreciate this success it will be necessary to remember certain circumstances peculiar to several of the Spanish-American countries which formed an almost impassable barrier against so great an innovation. For many generations woman had been regarded in every Spanish community as a being deprived by nature of every condition of mind and character fit for any sober or serious purpose. She could be but a comfort and an ornament in the home of her proud and indolent master. On the other hand, with the exception of legal and military affairs, labor in whatever form was sincerely despised by the nobility, or governing class, of the country. Even such professions as medicine, architecture, and engineering (as it existed at the time) were carried on by individuals of the colored race, and not infrequently by slaves. Contempt for labor had thus become in all classes of society a habit, an instinct, a deeply rooted feeling, that even to this day shows its vitality in spite of foreign intercourse and advanced education. Daily experience, with its eloquent teachings, has to a certain extent undermined that ancient prejudice. Still, what remains of the old spirit is enough to shake the most resolute courage.

It might therefore be said in all truth that the Spanish-American woman has carried the position by storm, and she may justly be proud of her new victory.

Although in very limited numbers, there are at present 1awyers,


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physicians, dentists, midwives of the female sex, who sustain a decorous position among their male colleagues.

The expansive force of her natural talent has found a broad field besides in almost every branch of art and literature–drawing, painting, music, poetry, romance afford a pleasant employment for the leisure hours of the educated woman, and in many instances have given her a reputation which extends beyond the boundaries of her native country. Several women rank as high in Spanish literature, especially in poetry, as some of the old classic writers, and stand almost on a level with the very best poets of the present day.

Even the political press begins to feel the influence of woman, there being already a few daily or periodical newspapers edited by women, and devoted to the interest of some political organization. It is unnecessary to add that they are always enthusiastic defenders of woman's rights.

It must not be forgotten that the foregoing remarks concern only a small class of women placed in the most favorable circumstances, and that even among them literary and artistic labor are not professional. Still, there is no doubt that before long it will become as useful and productive as any career opened to the activity of our sex.

The number of girls and women belonging to the middle class (and they are generally more or less educated) who find in their own exertions some means of support is very limited indeed. In the great majority of cases they remain a burden to their parents, their husbands, or some other male members of the family; and, in spite of their natural disinterestedness, girls are sometimes induced to accept a marriage by necessity rather than by choice.

This truly deplorable condition of affairs can not be suddenly changed, as it is a natural effect of the peculiar organization of Spanish society. The Spaniard, and, still more, his American descendant, deems himself disgraced, dishonored, if it is known that his wife, his daughter, or his sister works for her living, or for the improvement of her home. Such a prejudice and false pride could only have arisen in the period of fantastic wealth, when almost everybody lived rich and happy in the Spanish colonies without the trouble of any personal labor, for all the work was carried on by slaves. That immense wealth passed away long ago, yet the old proud feeling still remains. How long will it last?

Let us hope that more frequent intercourse with foreign peoples, together with the necessity of securing domestic happiness by providing young girls with elements of self-support, so as to make

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them the companions and helpmates, not the servile attendants, of their husbands, will soon do away with that unnatural inactivity of so many intelligent and educated women.

With the exception of some of the post office, telephone, and telegraphic offices, there is not a single official bureau where women are regularly employed; and besides certain lines of tramways in a few cities, and occasionally in a small number of stores and shops, they are never seen anywhere in the vast field of public or private activity.

To close the series of these brief notes, I submit two very significant facts, viz.: First, the spirit of association for serious and useful purposes, lately initiated among the Spanish-American women and attaining every day more remarkable proportions. Second, the ever-increasing circulation of literary and scientific books and periodicals among the women of the principal cities in almost every one of those States.

It is the moral duty, as well as the practical interest, of the North American people to extend to the young and promising nations of Spanish-America the influence of their modern institutions, and the liberal and progressive spirit which is advancing the cause of woman; and very particularly the atmosphere of freedom and encouragement that surrounds the life of our sex in the North. No field richer in promise can be opened to their energies than the more complete social emancipation of the Spanish-American woman–a blessing of which she has proved to be worthy in every respect–and that no nation could as easily as yours grant to these sympathetic and benevolent homes. It seems to me an axiomatic truth that to complete the personality of woman in the domestic and social life is to secure her legitimate influence and civilizing power in the general evolution of mankind.


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Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

This chapter has been put on-line as part of the BUILD-A-BOOK Initiative at the
Celebration of Women Writers.
Initial text entry and proof-reading of this chapter were the work of volunteer
Mary Mark Ockerbloom.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom