Women and the Church

Colonial Rio de Janeiro was a society deeply entrenched in religion and the doctrines of the Catholic Church. The Church acted as at the foremost authority on all matters of state and society, including issues involving gender and gender rights. Writings of Jesuit missionaries such as Martin de Azpilcueta Navarro and Antonio Viera give us an insight in to what the Church expected from elite and slave women.

In a majority of cases, elite women only had access to one type of education: the doctrines of the Church. Catholic teachings were inscribed to them since childhood. These teachings, the Church believed would lead to a woman’s own salvation as well as the teachings of her children. Though men had held power and authority over their wives in a majority of cases, the Church could intervene when a husband prevented a wife from practicing her devotion to God. This shows that even though there existed legal laws to protect women, (most women had equal rights concerning issues such as poverty), religious laws held precedence.

Elite women were viewed as second class citizens in need of protection by the Church. The writings of Martin de Azpilcueta Navarro bound women’s lives to the preservation of chastity and subversion to the religious doctrine.[1] A husband’s authority is needed, Navarro explains to command that she ‘abandon her superfluous vanities and dishonest habits.’[2] Antonio Viera, another Jesuit missionary argued that since the sole duty of women is to keep chaste before and in marriage, the single sin undoes the very nature of women and ‘encompasses all sins’ they might commit.[3] Hence, the Church helped propagate archaic and constricting gender stereotypes that infringed elite women’s mobility and agency.

Slave owners could escape the covenants set forth by marriage because sexual relations with non Christian African or indigenous women were not considered adultery. This led to  sexual exploitation of slave women which further decreased their status in society. Furthermore, slave owners were encouraged to convert their slaves to Christianity, taking away hundreds of years of traditional culture, religion and history. This forced cultural appropriation further alienated slaves from their white masters.

Government official with family- Jean Baptiste Debret

Government official with family- Jean Baptiste Debret

The above painting by Debret is significant of the social hierarchy that existed in colonial Rio. This government official is followed by his children, wife and slaves. The Catholic Church encouraged women to be subservient to men and for slave masters to encourage cultural appropriation of their slaves, probably what is happening in the picture above.

[1] Serafim Leite (ed), Cartas dos primeiros jeuitas do Brazil, Sao Paola, Comissao do IV Centenario da Cidade de Sao Paulo 1956, I, pp. 132-145, 361.

[2] Martin de Azpilcueta Navarro, Manual de confessors y Penitentes que contine quase todas la dudas que en las confessions suelen occurir de los peccados, absoluciones, restituciones, censuras & irregularidades, Valladolid, Fernandez de Cordova 1570.

[3] Antonio Vieira, Semoes, Goncalo Alves (ed.), 5 vols, Porto, Lello& Irmao, editors 1959, IV, pp 43-50.