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date: 27 April 2017

Women and Writing in Latin America from Colonial Times to 1936

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature. Please check back later for the full article.

As with other Western literary traditions, women’s relationship to writing in Latin America had been problematic since the period of early modernity. From colonial times, their emergence on the writing scene as authors went hand in hand with a re-description of the feminine that allowed them to become producers of written culture and to find a decent entry into the public sphere from which they had previously been excluded. Latin American feminine tradition from the 16th through the 20th century may be read as a gradual, heterogeneous, and difficult, but nonetheless sustained and very productive, occupation of new ground. Authorization of their word passes through the reading of the male tradition, the establishment of a female tradition, and the re-description of a subjectivity that would make it possible for them to take up the pen and, eventually, imagine themselves being read by others. Establishing the contents of these women’s libraries, reconstructed through their testimonies of reading in highly illiterate colonial society—especially within the female population—and in 19th century society, in which access to the written word remained restricted, are key elements for the understanding of their writing. Female authorship during the colonial period mainly took the form of religious writing; it was dependent upon the male figure of the confessor, as was the possibility of publishing their life stories and writings. But female authors were not only nuns; and we can find some examples of women who left their mark on writing due to special circumstances (witches, travelers). Male tutelage tended to remain in force throughout the 19th century, but it would eventually become a problem for the women writers of the young independent republics, and newspapers would provide vitally important new spaces for publication. Women’s relationship to newspapers as readers and/or as authors was definitive in this writing tradition, and it would allow them to build reading and editorial networks—within the Americas and across the Atlantic—without which their writing projects cannot be properly understood. Early 20th century female writers would travel, not without difficulty, along the roads paved by the pioneers. With 1936 as a provisional closing date, marked by the beginning of the Spanish Civil War and the preamble to the Second World War, one can think of 20th century literature as one of the forms of the crises of modernity: that which reveals and celebrates heterogeneity and can no longer openly exclude women from the authorized spaces for the production of meaning.