The Journal of San Diego History
Spring 2003, Volume 49, Number 2
Gregg Hennessey, Editor

Book Review

Matthew F. Bokovoy, Book Review Editor

Women and the Conquest of California, 1542-1840: Codes of Silence.

By Virginia M. Bouvier. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2001. Bibliography, illustrations, index, ix + 260 pp. $40.00 cloth.

Reviewed by Phoebe S. Kropp, Assistant Professor, Department of History, University of Pennsylvania.

Virginia Bouvier offers a revealing new look into the social, political, and cultural life of mission California. She puts gender squarely at the center of colonial history, as few other scholars of this era in California have done. Beginning with the outlook of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century explorers and their first contacts with indigenous peoples, Bouvier traces Spanish colonization to the Franciscans building of the expansive mission system. She considers native life within their walls, resistance to the new order, and nineteenth-century historiographic practices of mission history. Her argument that “gender ideology [was] one of the ingredients in the glue that held the conquest project together” (xv), as well as threatened to pull it apart at times, is not necessarily a new one. Historians from Ramón Gutiérrez (1991) to Kathleen Brown (1996) have insisted upon the significance of gender and sexuality in various colonial settings. Yet for California, Bouvier’s research opens valuable new windows on the mission era and the relationship of gender to conquest.

Bouvier finds women at the center of the mission era where earlier historians saw few or none. She works to correct the gender-blindness of classic nineteenth century historians like Hubert Howe Bancroft, work already begun in recent studies by Lisbeth Haas (1995) and Albert Hurtado (1999). Her careful recovery of stories and reinterpretation of events involving women or ideas of womanhood is impressive. For example, she discusses indigenous responses to the relative absence of women among Spanish colonists that influenced the spectrum of native-Franciscan interactions (39). At the same time, she locates and lists the female colonists present at the founding of Los Angeles, women ignored by both contemporary and recent chroniclers. She documents the dire consequences for many native women who came into the mission fold, including rape by Spanish soldiers and a higher death rate than their male counterparts (50, 98). The data she musters to support these findings are convincing enough to make one wonder why they had yet to appear more prominently in histories of the California missions.

Women and the Conquest of California is not simply an attempt to add women to the woeful roster of genocide. Bouvier argues that as symbols and in gender ideologies women powerfully shaped the conquest and colonization of California, even if individual women often found themselves relatively powerless. Her opening chapter investigates how the myth of the Amazons informed the expectations of conquest among Spanish explorers. Her discussion parallels male domination of women with Spanish domination of indigenous peoples. That the female role in conquest was stereotypically envisioned as part of natural law, a conquered subject, is perhaps not surprising, but the fertile connections she makes between mythology and motivation are intriguing. The author also points out that the symbolic participation of women in conquest was more complicated. The old and new world virgins—Mary and Guadalupe—were of particular importance in the evangelization of California, the kinder gentler side of Catholicism that may have drawn in some native converts. In myriad ways, Bouvier demonstrates, Spanish missionaries understood gender systems as key to their project. They recognized the need for Spanish women to help normalize gender relations among Spanish colonists and diffuse sexual tension between them and native Californians. At the same time, friars believed that gaining control over native sexuality and structuring converts’ gender relations along more Spanish lines was crucial to the success of their efforts.

Yet, as Bouvier argues convincingly, “Gender ideologies, while used by the priests to justify their paternal role, provided both images and language to critics of the missions as well.” (100) Both foreign visitors and native women and men themselves understood how gender systems could be subject to manipulation. The author illustrates, for example, how “Ironically the potentially repressive aspects of an institution that counseled the subordination of wives to their husbands also provided indigenous women with a new external authority vis-à-vis their spouses and children.” (120) Native women often used their access to Spanish gender assumptions to gain a different kind of authority than they had before colonization.

Bouvier also demonstrates, however, that indigenous women’s adoption of new identities could also place them in difficult positions. She recounts a story of an Ohlone woman, Isidora Filomena, whose Christian marriage to a Suisun chief allowed her a measure of leverage over his policies. Her relationship as well made her a prime subject for one of Bancroft’s 1870s interviews, allowing her an opportunity to have her “voice recorded for posterity,” (123) rare among her peers. Yet as Bouvier carefully dissects the interview, both for its content and its character, it becomes clear that the interviewer, Henry Cerruti, appeared as part of “a new generation of conquerors—the historians who inscribed earlier conquests.” (124) Cerruti plied Isidora with alcohol not only to loosen her tongue but also to persuade her to sell her treasured wedding dress against her stated will. Though Cerruti recalled this tale in his memoirs, in his official report to Bancroft, he remarked upon her intoxication only to discredit her often biting critiques of “the white man.” Isidora’s wedding dress, Bouvier writes, is a telling “metaphor for indigenous syncretism and acculturation” as well as a “poignant reminder of how matrimony was an institution at the service of conquest.” (124)

This story of the wedding dress provides a good marker of the real strength of this book’s contribution to California, colonial, and gender history. The book retraces some familiar ground, but employs new techniques offered by more recent scholars. Her careful reexamination of such oft-cited sources as missionary records, explorer’s journals, and Bancroft’s tomes, as well as her skillful integration of social history and literary analysis, makes this a commendable work. Virginia Bouvier’s affirmation of the centrality of gender ought to alter the way we think about the mission era in California. It also adds a valuable new study to the growing list of volumes on gender and conquest in the Americas.