The Laywomen of the Vela Perpetua: Gender, Religion, and Political Culture in Mexico, 1750–1930

Saturday, January 9, 2010: 10:00 AM
America's Cup B (Hyatt)
Margaret Chowning , University of California, Berkeley, Berkely, CA
Urban cofradías, especially in colonial Mexico City, have received a fair amount of attention from historians.  However, we have a much less clear picture of what happened to these cofradías after independence, and what kinds of institutions, if any, emerged to take their place in the first half of the nineteenth century.  Furthermore, one area in which even the colonial Mexico City literature is deficient is gender analysis, despite a wealth of studies for Catholic Europe (and Protestant North America) documenting the “feminization of religion” and of religious institutions beginning in the eighteenth century, and evaluating the importance of this phenomenon for an understanding of religious modernization. This paper addresses some of these gaps in the literature, analyzing changes in the composition and function of cofradías over time and space (with a focus on the archbishoprics of Mexico, Michoacan, and Guadalajara), with a central focus on the role of women.  To anticipate my conclusions, the most successful adaptations made by church and laity to changed circumstances after independence were pious associations composed primarily of and (more importantly) led by women.  The earliest of these was the Vela Perpetua, an institution that originated in San Miguel de Allende in 1840 and spread rapidly through the regions that—perhaps not coincidentally—provided the most active support for the Cristero movement over eighty years later.  Well before this, however, the Vela Perpetua and the other female-dominated pious associations that followed its lead re-shaped and re-invigorated pious practices at the community and neighborhood level in the dioceses of Michoacán and Guadalajara.  The emergence of stronger institutional roles in the Church for laywomen can be seen as having significant implications in a political world in which the position of the Church depended not only on the savvy of its bishops, but also on the strength of its grassroots organizations. 
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