Beneath the Words: Women, Lawsuits, and Agency in the Eighteenth-Century Spanish Empire

Sunday, January 10, 2010: 8:50 AM
Manchester Ballroom G (Hyatt)
Bianca Premo , Florida International University, Miami, FL
Women's lawsuits have become a documentary staple for historians who are interested in everyday struggles over gender power in the Spanish empire. As litigious as their male counterparts, women entered Church and royal courts to, among other things, defend themselves against abusive men, protect their dowries, and to obtain divorces. In the late 1700s, they also entered royal courts to sue for alimentos, or basic alimony or child support. But historians' general lack of attention to the fact that male legal professionals—lawyers, procurators, and scribes— put words in women's mouths in the text of these disputes complicates any assumption that these lawsuits are pristine evidence of women's historical agency. This paper examines the rise of alimentos disputes in first-instance and appellate courts in eighteenth-century Lima, Mexico City and Valladolid (Spain). It proposes that women's suits against husbands are part of a broader, more conventionally “political” story in which subordinates—slaves and Indian peasants, as well as women-- increasingly turned to secular judges to limit the authority of their social superiors. Situating alimentos cases within the context of rising litigation in Spanish empire, my analysis focuses on several elements of women's cases that are largely ignored or relegated to the background of social historical work: the narrative justifications for women's very decision to bring formal suits based on new, secular notions of authority and law; the extrajudicial steps they took to resolve conflict before going to court; references to prior judgments and causes célèbres; and, especially, the multiple instances in which women simultaneously brought suits in competing jurisdictions, such as criminal abuse charges and divorce cases in ecclesiastical courts. Excavating the subterranean history of alimony suits reveals women to be far more engaged, informed and autonomous political actors than a focus on the textual intervention of male lawyers and scribes would suggest.