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While Indian women and those of mixed races were certainly lower class citizens, they could easily become elite through their marriage to a white male of Spanish decent (Mabry 1990). Marriage was often seen to transcend any race or class issue, and thus prompted many women to act in non-virtuous ways in order to secure a future (Johnson 1998).
This difference in virtuous intent also relates to the very real danger for women in Bahia who committed acts considered to be sexually outlandish or improper, whether married or single. For married women, the punishment for adultery could include death until 1830. Prior to that time, men who killed their adulterous wives were often acquitted, since they were defending their honor in the eyes of the social system of the time (Caulfield 2000). Further, even single women found to be concubines could be killed by their families, to prevent a loss of the family honor (Johnson 1998). However, since many of these dangers related only to the women of Spanish decent, Indian women were not at risk for such violent repercussions.
In light of these serious punishments for a loss of honor, married Latin women of Bahia did not take a passive role in the defense of their honor. Rather than relying on the men of the community to defend their honor, women took a vested interest in their own and their families reputations. Women often acted together to protect their reputations through legal means, if they were higher-class citizens, or through the use of violence and deception. Elite women in Bahia often conspired to hide illegitimate children by placing them with married relatives or foster homes (Johnson 1998). Thus, while the strict rulings against sexuality in women certainly helped to stifle some, these regulations also created a contradiction in reality, since to be honorable, one often had to be deceitful (Johnson 1998).
The rights of elite women in Bahia marriages were also different. While they were expected to be "corrected" by their husbands, controlled few assets once married, and were allowed no legal proceedings, they were the petitioners in all divorce cases, showing a power for these women many lower class women did not have in other areas. According to the Roman Catholic Church, the reigning social institution at the time, women were the only persons allowed to bring "divorce" proceedings against their spouse. These "divorces" were simply separations, in which neither male nor female could remarry. Generally, these proceedings were requested in cases of abuse or mistreatment (Lavrin 1989).
Additionally, married women in colonial Bahia were entitled to half of the community property acquired during marriage, and had the power to control those assets. Dowries given to daughters often exceeded their male siblings' share of any family property, and those daughters still retained their rights to that family property. However, it is important to note that these dowries were not so much an expression of the life of the married woman, but were instead intended to attract a husband. Often, if a female were sexually active prior to marriage, the dowry actually increased to conceal or at least diminish the indiscretion (Nazzari 1991).
Another difference can be found in the way in which the male spouse was chosen for the female. In Mexico City, as discussed, the Church and other social institutions favored personal choice for the couple to be married. In Bahia, however, fathers often used the large dowries to entice suitors. Once a number of suitors showed interest, the father could then chose the best among them. Since females were a prime member of the productive family unit of Bahia in the 17th century, the maintenance of the status quo was a desired outcome. The Church rarely interfered with this practice, and arranged marriages were often the result (Nazzari 1991).
It is important to note that many of these sexual restrictions and lack of rights applied only to those in the elite status quo. Lower class or slave class women often fought against such restrictions on their sexual or marital activities. Since these families often had no dowry, their choice for spouses remained based on mutual attraction. Additionally, since there was no real honor to the slave class, slave women were not "expected" to remain virgins. Rather, these women often became concubines or lovers of their masters. In terms of free lower class women, they too often became servants to the elite males, and were often lovers (Hahner 1990).
It is clear that while there were some differences in the married and sexual lives of women in Bahia, Brazil during colonial times, they also shared many experiences with those in Mexico City. The elite classes were expected to be virtuous, the protection of a woman's honor was a primary factor in all daily life, women were often treated as the lesser class, and marriage often dealt more with the solidification of families than with emotion. However, because of the high level of mixed race sexual relations, there were some women who were removed from this highly restrictive lifestyle. Additionally, the elite women were allowed to control property, allowed to assist in their own "divorce" proceedings, and were less passive than their sisters in Mexico City.
In Buenos Aires, Argentina, women again experienced many of the same issues as those in Bahia and Mexico City. As in Mexico City, the Church held a high position of power, and through the late 17th century, continued to be the primary party in the approval of marriage. Once a declaration of marriage occurred, the couple's union could be objected to by family. Yet, as in Mexico City, the Church often sided with the couple, allowing marriages when objections were based on race or class issues (Lavrin 1989). This also meant that, similar to Bahia, women of lower social classes could marry outside of their economic situation, and thereby become more prominent members of society (Lavrin 1995).
Women in Buenos Aires often married early. Unlike in Bahia, where the female was a primary member of a productive family group even when single, the female in a family of Buenos Aires was often married as early as the age fourteen. It was not until the late 18th century that women were required to reach the age of 25 prior to marriage, or were required to have parental consent for marriage. It is important to note that even this step was not intended to allow the female any additional rights, but was instead instituted to allow more parental control over martial choice (Lavrin 1989).
As in Mexico City and Bahia, any female promised marriage by a male who did not follow through with the promise could sue the offender for breach of contract. This was again due to the high value placed on the reputation of the female in the daily life of Buenos Aires. However, it is important to note that there were some differences in the proceedings of these cases. In Buenos Aires in colonial times, issues of race were highly sensitive issues. Whereas in Bahia, members of the mulatto class were more or less accepted as part of society, the situation in Buenos Aires was far more delicate. Those found to be from mixed heritage often found themselves lowered in their class status, and those in the elite families were no longer treated as elite. Thus, while dissent cases were popular in Mexico City and while race issues were not as pressing in Bahia, cases before the courts for marriage dissent were not as common in Buenos Aires (Lavrin 1989).
As in other Latin areas during colonial times, the most frequent dissent against marriage was brought by the parents of the male, claiming a "non-virtuous" life of the female. As in Mexico City, the elite were often spared this humiliation, since their class and honor were to be highly guarded. However, for lower-class women in Buenos Aires, claims of highly active sexual lives, prostitution, venereal disease, and prior consensual unions and out of wedlock births were common (Lavrin 1989). Since lower class females did not have the resources to combat these charges, and since the legal and political system of Buenos Aires in colonial times did not protect the honor of the lower class, these women were often left with no hope of marrying outside their economic or social stations.
However, unlike in Mexico City, where the female was expected to remain a virgin until the actual marriage ceremony, those in Buenos Aires made clear distinction between sexual relations with the betrothed, and other relations. Certainly, honor was a highly valued trait for women, and a mainstay of their social standing. Yet sexual relations between those intending to marry were a common practice in Buenos Aires, even in the elite classes. This created a problem in cases where the male breached the marriage contract. If a female were to have sexual relations with the male, and the male were to breach the contract, the female was seen…[continue]
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