The historical narrative often delineates a collective feminine identity confined to the perimeter of her home, with little or nothing to contribute to the political and social environment beyond her domestic setting. We are given a linear discourse, wherein men are the only protagonists and women are relegated to a meaningless role.
During the 18th century, women of limited means shared a multitude of characteristics, whether they lived in Segovia or in Baltimore. Born into a life with low intellectual perspectives and a pressing need to survive, they received little if any schooling, perhaps comparable to that of their brothers, since education was considered a superfluous diversion for anyone whose day was largely devoted to eking out a living. From a very early age, they learned to do household chores, as well as the skills of the family trade. They might find work away from home as washerwomen, maids, cooks, or seamstresses. In these cases, they were paid less than their brothers and were expected to turn their earnings over to their parents, the managers of the family finances. At the appropriate time, usually at an early age, they were married, with the approval or at the behest of their parents, and possibly left the family home.
They fulfilled their religious duties faithfully; they could embroider and knit; their clothing was simple and similarly styled. They were exposed, as humble women everywhere, to illnesses, to polluted waters, to complications during childbirth, and to the hunger caused by poor harvests. Most likely, they entertained themselves by sharing anecdotes and gossiping about the goings-on in their immediate surroundings.
If there was anything that separated the existence of a woman born in Spanish territory from that of any other woman, it was the law that sheltered them.
Spanish laws were paternalistically protective; they granted women specific rights and a legal standing. Women did not lose their surname or their autonomous identity with marriage, which meant they had final say over their personal legal issues and patrimony. They had the right to inherit and to bequeath their property as they saw fit; they retained ownership of their dowry and personal possessions, apart from marriage; and if they came from affluent families, they managed a certain amount of money which was out of their husband’s control. They were bestowed and could bestow titles and lineage. In addition, if they were widowed, they had legal ownership of half of the wealth accrued during their marriage. In cases of abuse or manifest discord, they could apply for a separation from their husbands with a full return of their dowry. They could also ask for child support, including for illegitimate children. A Spanish woman’s presence made a difference in the productive and social spheres of society; it was far from being meaningless. In a highly hierarchical world, where men enjoyed full rights, a woman’s activity was relegated to a lower tier; yet, women would take advantage of every possible legal loophole to acquire power to their benefit and to manage their affairs as they desired.
In the most basic economic level, that is to say, farming, a woman’s role was crucial. In Valencia, for example, the very first steps in silk manufacturing, which was a major industry, involved raising silkworms and extracting the thread from the cocoons, before spinning the silk fabrics in looms. It was a process carried out by women and children, using wooden platforms erected in their houses.
The education women received tended to be simple and did not test their abilities or attempt to transcend their limitations. We cannot know the extent of our capacities unless they are put to the test, and yet as heirs of their parents or husbands, what these women needed was practical know-how, administrative skills, and commercial acumen in order to run the family business. In the archives of Cádiz we read, for example, about María de Aranda, who owned a printing press in 1739; in the municipal archives of Burgos, we learn of presses that were run by the widows of Marín and of José de Astúlez; in 1776, Maria Antonia Ferrer y Pinos conducted trade in the port of Havana, in addition to being an Hermana de la Mesta, that is, a member of the association of livestock breeders. We read of other prosperous women, such as Ana de Elorriaga y Endaya, whose trading activities in 1766 extended to several ports in Europe, the Peninsula, New Spain, and the Philippines.
The women who had access to higher learning considered their academic achievement an act of self-esteem; they had risen above themselves and their circumstances. Among this list of achievers we find the members of the Junta de Damas de Honor y Mérito (The Society of Ladies of Honor and Merit), a women’s intellectual and philanthropic organization founded in 1787, which promoted education in all sectors of society, especially the education of girls. They were preceded, years before, by the mathematician Maria Andrea Casamayor y de la Coma, who at the age of seventeen published the text Tirocinio Aritmetico (1738) (Arithmetic Tutorial). These successes were perceived as isolated cases of individual merit until the time of the Enlightenment, when women realized the importance of their collective contribution to society, which could be the change agent that would bring about universal “enlightened bliss”.
Paradoxically, despite its protectionist laws, Spain would not be exempt from the acrimonious debate over a woman’s mental capacities, or the belief that nature had not designed her for deep intellectual inquiry, or why her involvement in society should not be limited to motherhood and the home. It was a debate that resisted any evidence to the contrary or the passage of time.
The social status of women remained unchanged during the period of the American Revolution and the ensuing international conflict in which Spain was embroiled. Military wives continued to be a part of the “logistics corps” in the king’s armies in those territories directly affected by the war. There, these wives of soldiers and officers displayed courage, even heroism, as was the case of Marie Josepha Pinconneau de Rigauche in the Battle of St. Louis (Missouri). After her husband was killed, she donned his uniform, and armed with pistol and a knife, joined in the defense of the city.
The women ran the farms and were responsible for their survival; the local economy depended on the bounty of their harvests, which also fed the territory. And like everyone else, these women contributed to the collections organized in support of the war. Those who moved in political circles used their diplomatic skills to support their husbands, indirectly supporting themselves as well. This would be the case of Brigida Josefa de Orueta y Uriarte, Diego Gardoqui’s wife, who lent her family home in Vitoria for the meetings with Arthur Lee between March 9 and 21, 1777. In the course of those conversations, Spain agreed to increase its clandestine aid to the American revolutionary effort. Or Margaret Pollock, who would use the power and social influence granted her under Spanish law, by virtue of her marriage in New Orleans, to favor her husband Oliver. And more than one woman would disguise as a man in order to enlist. Such was the case of Carlos Garain, a seventeen-year-old killed during the assault on the island of Menorca, whose real identity remains unknown.
But none of these women risked losing their individual rights, nor did they face the dilemma of having to choose sides.
For the women of the Thirteen Colonies, the repercussions of their decisions exceeded personal and family loyalties. A particular allegiance would easily place their personal physical safety at risk. And there was more at issue than having troops marching outside their doors. Their choice would affect the rest of their lives; it would determine under which laws they would live, what level of personal freedom they would enjoy, and in what kind of country their children would be raised. As the tensions between the colonies and the British government escalated, the colonists split into three groups: Loyalists, Patriots, and those who remained neutral out of a deep religious objection to war. Each group had its corresponding share of women who would serve and suffer. Many of the heavily taxed British products were items of regular use, such as tea, paper, and sugar. Women had to decide whether to do without many of these common household commodities and support the revolutionary cause, or purchase them nonetheless and be subject to the scrutiny of their revolutionary neighbors. They had to demonstrate a total political commitment, and so the women who were dedicated to the Patriots’ cause refused to entertain suitors or even dance with men who were not openly anti-English.
Women like Martha Washington and Abigail Adams were not only the wives of leading revolutionary figures, they also played very active political roles. In March, 1776, Abigail Adams wrote to her husband John, who was attending the Continental Congress in Philadelphia where the Declaration of Independence was being drafted. In her letter, she advocated insistently for women’s rights: “If particular attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.” The American female Patriots dreamed of a new, emerging republic, where women would enjoy the same legal rights as their male counterparts, and they fought on every front to see that nation rise.
Some women enlisted in the Continental Army dressed as men. Among them was Anna Maria Lane, wounded in the Battle of Germantown, for which she was granted a pension; and Ann (or Nancy) Bailey from Boston, who signed up in 1777 by using the alias of Sam Gay; she was promoted to corporal before her identity was revealed, which then led to her arrest and imprisonment. Other women organized boycotts of British goods and founded associations like the Daughters of Liberty; they wove their own textiles and made their own basic materials to eliminate their dependency on the English metropolis. Still others took up the war effort through the written word, among them the poet Sarah Wentworth Morton and the intellectual Mercy Otis Warren. American women longed to be free, not only from British sovereignty, but also from any form of tyranny.
There is one particular area where women earned indisputable success, whether they were fighting for the revolution or had decided to remain loyal to the British Crown. Both the British and American armies recruited women as cooks and maids, a situation that opened up a unique way they could assist in the struggle. With virtually unrestricted access, these women were able to listen in on confidential conversations in the camps and then provide highly sensitive intelligence to their allies. They succeeded because the men would often underestimate their ability to understand the complexities of military strategy. As a result, these women became accurate and highly reliable agents. Ann Bates, a schoolteacher in Philadelphia, was a Loyalist, and she felt that it was her duty to seek out information about the illegal movements of the colonists and then relay it to her husband’s superiors. Her husband had taught her to recognize the most relevant aspects of military information, such as the number of cannons or men and the amount of supplies. Underrating her intellectual abilities, her opponents allowed her to move about freely, as they did the other female spies and informants.
The feminine ideal that emerged in the newborn republic at the end of the war is displayed in the illustration Keep Within Compass, with its allegorical depiction of a figure within the limits circumscribed by the compass. A woman must be guided by her intelligence and understanding, as she walks on the road to moral perfection; she must be “mother of the nation”, literally and metaphorically; she must step forward with firmness and precision on the pathways of duty, eliminating or rejecting bad habits, unrefined passions, and in general, all those vices acquired through weakness of character or human frailty.
This feminine model did not confine women’s endeavors to the domestic realm, but it did prioritize it above all others. At that historical moment, the nation’s survival depended entirely on the strength of its families, on their productive capability, and their capacity to contribute to the nation’s growth by bringing healthy offspring into the world, children who would be raised and educated in rectitude and with a sense of duty and responsibility toward their country.