More Than a Gaze and an Exchange: North American Women in Mexico and Cuba, 1830–50

Thursday, January 5, 2017: 2:30 PM
Director's Row H (Sheraton Denver Downtown)
Rikki Bettinger, University of Houston
When Susan Shelby Magoffin, a merchant’s wife on the Santa Fe Trail traveling on the heels of General Stephen W. Kearney’s army, took quarter in a Don José’s home, Magoffin observed women making tortillas, and remarked in her diary how uncomfortable they looked. “I have now seen the whole operation from beginning to end,” Magoffin wrote (Magoffin, Down the Santa Fe Trail, 167-8).  Much of her learning was done through observation; although she wanted to be a part of the process she continually situated herself as an outsider - one who would later be waited upon and served those same tortillas.  Yet Magoffin, and other North American women who traveled as imperial counterparts to their husbands in the first half of the nineteenth-century, did much more than simply observe.  This study contends that women’s presence played an important role in structuring colonial and imperial processes, exercised through their daily relationships in local environments in situations as varied as conducting economic transactions, maintaining the household, playing the diplomatic hostess, and through child-rearing.

Recognizing diaries as negotiated constructions of self, this paper highlights economic transactions as portrayed in the diaries of two North American women who traveled in Mexico and Cuba in the 1830s and 1840s.  It argues that women’s travel played a role in colonial and imperial processes, negotiated not just through policy but also through relationships “on the ground” that have been less commonly documented throughout history.  By approaching the diaries as archival records of interactions, the mundane messiness of daily life in colonial settings is highlighted as a key player in the empire-making process.  This study demonstrates that the traveling women and their interactions with local persons had political significance, and argues explicitly that women’s experiences highlight different insights about U.S. imperialism, in areas both private and public.

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