6 de Diciembre: Las Mujeres en la Historia

This week, I would like to share an article that was published today in La Razón newspaper of La Paz, Bolivia, entitled “Una colección para el estudio médico sobre las mujeres” (“A collection for the medical study of women”).  Although somewhat dry in character, this article, like others in the “Memorias” series published weekly in La Razón, aims to educate Bolivian readers about the diversity of resources available at La Paz’s departmental archive–the Archivo Histórico La Paz (ALP)–and the opportunities that these resources present for getting to know men and women Bolivians of decades and centuries past.  You can access the article at:


The ALP publishes this weekly review of its collections in part to rally support for a long-standing struggle to obtain more space for its currently overflowing documents.  This week’s installment of the “Memorias” series, however, accomplishes another important goal–that of identifying resources that help us to reconstruct the history of women.

Over the past roughly twenty-five years, a wealth of academic and popular literature has emerged exploring issues of women and gender.  The authors of this literature–anthropologists, historians, sociologists, journalists, and creative writers, among others–often had to confront the sexist stereotypes of colleagues and advisors who viewed “women’s issues,” particularly phenomena such as reproduction, gender relations, or domestic violence, as “private” topics of little interest to the scholarly world.  Despite these obstacles, over the past few decades hundreds if not thousands of authors have produced studies demonstrating the connections between national and international economic and political processes, and phenomena such as reproduction.  These studies, exploring issues of women and gender around the globe, are far too numerous to cite here.  However, one example for Bolivia may help to illustrate my point.

U.S. historian and Bolivianist Ann Zulawski, author of Unequal Cures: Public Health and Political Change in Bolivia, 1900-1950 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007), argues that illegal abortion and infanticide worried medical professionals and politicians as early as 1900.  According to Zulawski, professionals’ concerns with abortion and women’s reproduction in general expressed broader debates about women’s political and social roles in the Andean nation.  Even as pressure was growing for women’s suffrage–finally granted in 1952–professionals conceived of women primarily as mothers and wives.  Doctors and politicians often portrayed women who chose not to be mothers, especially those of indigenous ancestry, as linked with a variety of social “ills,” including abortion and prostitution.  Thus, male professionals’ concerns with women gaining the vote and becoming more active in Bolivia’s political sphere–which might take time away from their “duties” as mothers–often translated in this period into general anxieties about “womanhood/motherhood-gone-awry,” ie., prostitution and abortion.

In other words, women’s history, and so-called “private” issues such as reproduction and relaciones de pareja, can and do have a bearing on national economic and political processes, such as debates over suffrage and citizenship.  In more colloquial terms, and as feminists have been insisting since the 1970s, “the personal is political.”

Even recognizing the importance of the study of women and gender, however, many authors have struggled to find sources capable of shedding light on these issues–particularly for historical research.  The fact is, many of the documents that we read to understand historical processes were written by men who may not have been interested in telling us about women’s feelings or activities, at least not in a straight-forward manner.  Fortunately, historians are adaptable creatures and have become adept, by necessity, at reading between the lines.  Innovative historians and other academics have made use of records as diverse as court cases, maps, drawings, photographs, pamphlets, and letters, among others, to learn about women’s past activities and experiences.  For those capable of reading Spanish who are interested in the history of reproduction, this week’s article in the La Razón “Memorias” series explains in detail how a collection of medical records may be used to gauge the opinions of medical personnel about phenomena such as abortion or having “many” children.  If we are committed to knowing more about women’s role in shaping large-scale economic and political processes, we must learn to make use of the sources that we have, and read the gendered subtext that may be hidden there.

This image was taken at a ceremony commemorating an official holiday in Sucre, Bolivia.  In every, single block of military-, police-, and fire-women and men present, the women stood behind their male counterparts–literally and figuratively in the background.


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