Women and society

Society in Colonial Rio de Janeiro was extremely patriarchal. If you were an elite woman, you would have lived in seclusion most your life. Women were viewed as delicate beings, guarded against the outside world. Women learnt to sew and embroider, with the ultimate aim of becoming good wives. Marriage for elite women was more of an economic arrangement than anything else. It was used to create crucial social, political and economic ties with individuals and groups seen as important for a family’s survival or to recruit members to an occupational elite.

Jose Joaquin Fernandez de Lizardi, a Mexican writer wrote, “ The marriage arrangements of the wealthy are usually such shameful (economic) pacts that they should take place in the Consulado (merchant’s guild) because of their economic content rather than in the church because of their religious content.”[1]

After marriage, a woman’s life became even more isolated. She was expected to contribute only within the domestic sphere. Long lasting friendships and relationships were discouraged, as these would take attention away from her religious duties and duties towards her husband and children.

'The Lunch'- By Jean Baptiste Debret

‘The Lunch’- By Jean Baptiste Debret

This picture by Debret, I think, captures the daily life of an elite women in colonial Rio. She usually spent all her time at home, her principal male contact was her husband. Wives were taught to accept husbands’ infidelities, while adultery by a woman was punishable by death.

Since women married so young, widowhood was an expected part of their lives. Even within a deeply patriarchal society, women were the head of the household for at least the last 20 years of their lives. Although they did little to change gender stereotypes, this is an example of how women carved a niche for themselves.

As Rio became more prosperous as a trading hub, lower class merchants grew in power. This threatened the careful social hierarchy the elites had constructed and thrived in for so long. This led to an emphasis on a ‘well structured society’ within which women were bound by the institution of marriage.

Slave women, on the other hand were raised with the expectation of working to earn their keep. Although most slaves worked in plantations or as domestic servants, the few free lower class women worked as seamstresses, bakers, etc.

Early evening refreshment in Rio de Janeiro by Jean Baptiste Debret

This painting by Debret, titled ‘Early Evening refreshment in Rio’ shows several slave women, probably working in town as bakers, cooks, etc.. attending to the needs of higher class elites and soldiers.
Women earned only a marginal wage from working these jobs. Their freedom was highly regulated by the state. They were placed under surveillance and their geographic mobility was restricted. If women were slaves, their situation was not much better. They were  forced in to being concubines to their white masters and were sexually exploited. The rate of illegitimate children was the highest amongst this group.
The Church viewed slaves as being ‘inherently promiscuous’ and ‘licentious’ Slave women who wore silk or other luxury goods were accused of earning them through illicit activities. In 1571, slaves were prohibited from displaying such wealth. Elites on the other hand, wore ‘extravagant silk cloaks’ and were carried in ‘gilded sedans.’ Slaves were forced to give up traditional African jewelry and clothing, which represented their culture and identity and forced to wear plain and ‘appropriate’ fabrics instead.
'The first distribution of crosses'- by Jean Baptiste Debret

‘The first distribution of crosses’- by Jean Baptiste Debret


'Travelling saleswoman in RIo'- by Jean Baptiste Debret

‘Travelling saleswoman in RIo’- by Jean Baptiste Debret

Notice the difference in clothing and opulence between the upper and lower classes in the above two pictures.

[1] Jose Joaquin Fernandez de Lizardi, El Periquillo Sarniento, book V, chap. 6, cited in Juan Javier Pescador, De bautizados a fieles difuntos (Mexico, El Colegio de Mexico), 224.