The New World was the possibility for many people to change their lives or, at least, make the attempts and demonstrate their intentions, dreams, and desires. However, the colonial times turned out to be a real challenge for many women because they had to be ready to change, act, and think. On the one hand, in a male-dominated society, a colonial woman was characterized as a demure person with a long veil hiding her face, no voice, and properly developed labor skills (Burkholder and Johnson 205).
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On the other hand, the colonial times observed the women, who were ready to take a chance and demonstrate their true knowledge the way Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz did in the movie I, the Worst of All. That nun was not a conventional example, but an exception with her image and actions helping to understand the importance of the issue and create a strong statement about the place of women in colonial society.
Though the role and place of colonial women depended on socio-economic changes in the 1600s-1700s and were usually considered in the home where they had to bear children, develop cultural values, stand behind their men, and neglect their interests, opinions, and wishes, there was a slight chance for them to choose their destiny and follow the example of Sor Juana, whose experience was not perfect but had the right to existence.
Changes that determined colonial society
Socio-economic and political changes in colonial America made local leaders take care of their people and develop the possibility to save everyone. Besides, there was the thought that society was “infected by disbelief” and full of “laxity” that destroyed order and standards (Bemberg). Such attitude and the intentions were spread not on women only. There were many men who could not neglect their responsibilities. Women were always treated as those inferior to their men.
In their turn, men had to be ready to take many responsibilities, establish the order, and prove the correctness of the chosen ideology. At the same time, it was wrong to believe that men were those who created the rules. Much attention was paid to the role of ancestry and its influence on “the selection of marital partners”, the creation of a family, and the support of traditions and cultural values (Burkholder and Johnson 201).
Therefore, the role of women and their chances to change their lives and choose their destinies did not depend on men only. The ancestry was able to determine women’s lives. However, it is wrong to believe that women were not important or unable to change something. Traditions had to be taken into consideration in order to comprehend the role of women in colonial society and realize the importance of female decisions, abilities, and skills that promoted the development of society.
Women’s role in their home
People who lived in the colonial times could not neglect the fact that a woman had to be devoted to her only place that was home or the church she belonged to. Society controlled women from different perspectives and did not provide women with the same rights men had. Female life was not easy because of the necessity to combine their family duties and become a significant part of society that “worked openly” (Burkholder and Johnson 206).
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It was easy to find women working in textiles, sugar, and farming industries. After watching the movie I, the Worst of All, the opinion that colonial women had to live in dark places where nothing except the power of men and their leaders and the importance of obedience and penance mattered was developed. The peculiar feature of the movie is an evident dark background chosen by the creators. That darkness helped to underline the fact that people did not even try to break the boundaries and step aside from the already offered paths.
Sor Juana was ready to break everything with the help of her knowledge and literacy. However, the power and impact of other “conventional” women were so huge and impressive that the attempts of Sor Juana to go ahead were not accepted as something usual, but exceptional. As a rule, women did not have many opportunities. Even if some women got access to new chances and knowledge, they were neither ready for that nor aware of how to use that and declined those opportunities. Though not all people believe, there were many women who were satisfied with their positions and got used to them so that there was no need to change something.
Exception of rules and the possibility to change the destiny
Still, despite the existing orders and rules established by male leaders, there was a chance for women to choose their freedoms and follow their interests. The story of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz described in the movie I, the Worst of All and the literary sources showed another way of how women could be developed during the colonial times. Sor Juana believed that there was no need for “penance in order to reach Heaven” even if she knew that she was “not very pious” (Bemberg).
The images of other women like the Vicereine, Juana’s mom, and other sisters of the convert can be used to understand that women could use their life opportunities in different ways and stay full of fears and doubts, or ask for forgiveness all the time, or believe in changes as something dangerous. Sister Juana tried to escape her own burdens and avoid personal and social conflicts. Still, she was obliged to focus on several aspects of social and personal lives and find the consensus between the both. “My soul is confusedly divided into two parts, one a slave to passion, the other measured by reason… each part strives to prevail” (Burkholder and Johnson 228).
The role of Sor Juana was not to make women recognize their chances and learn how to step aside neglecting the rules and social norms. That person and her role in history proved that women were able to choose their destiny and change something in order to become happier, healthier, and wealthier than they were at the moment. The point was to decide if women were really in need of those changes and were aware of what they could do. Unfortunately, the answer to this question was hard to find during the colonial times, as well as it is hard to find it today.
In general, the role of women in colonial society was crucial despite the fact that their place and rights were diminished considerably. Men and the ancestry did not want to allow women doing everything they wanted. At the same time, men and the ancestry could hardly be defined as the main obstacle for women’s attempts to change their destiny. Anyway, colonial women were strong because, on the one hand, they were ready to cope with their tasks and demands established by society, and, on the other hand, they were able to control their emotions, fears, and skills in order to become a worthy part of the world.
Bemberg, Maria Luisa, director. I, the Worse of All. Assai Communications and Screening 22 Films, 1990.
Burkholder, Mark, and Lyman Johnson. Colonial Latin America. Oxford University Press, 1994.