Women's Place in the Andes: Engaging Decolonial Feminist Anthropology

Women's Place in the Andes: Engaging Decolonial Feminist Anthropology

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In Women’s Place in the Andes Florence E. Babb draws on four decades of anthropological research to reexamine the complex interworkings of gender, race, and indigeneity in Peru and beyond.  She deftly interweaves five new analytical chapters with six of her previously published works that exemplify currents in feminist anthropology and activism. Babb argues that decolonizing feminism and engaging more fully with interlocutors from the South will lead to a deeper understanding of the iconic Andean women who are subjects of both national pride and everyday scorn. This book’s novel approach goes on to set forth a collaborative methodology for rethinking gender and race in the Americas.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520298170
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 05/25/2018
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 1,010,258
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Florence E. Babb is the Anthony Harrington Distinguished Professor in Anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is the author of The Tourism Encounter: Fashioning Latin American Nations and Histories.

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Women and Men in Vicos, Peru


The following appeared as a chapter in a book edited by my graduate school advisor, William W. Stein, Peruvian Contexts of Change (Transaction Books, 1985). Earlier versions came out as working papers (Babb 1976, 1980a), and, much later, the work was translated into Spanish and published in Lima in a feminist series on gender and development (Babb 1999).

* * *

Over the decade 1952–62, the Andean community of Vicos in Peru was the location of one of the largest and best-known projects in applied anthropology in the world. It won international attention especially because of its success in guiding Vicos through a transition from feudal hacienda to autonomous community. While the abolition of the servile mode of production must be viewed as progressive for the community as a whole, this essay shows that some important changes brought about in Vicos, which were intended to assist in the transition to greater participation in the dominant capitalist economy, had very different consequences for men and women.

The Peru-Cornell Project began in Vicos in 1952 as the cooperative effort of Cornell University and the Peruvian Indian Institute. The late professor Allan R. Holmberg took the opportunity to lease the Hacienda Vicos in order to direct and study social change, and many social scientists and technical personnel worked with the project over the next ten years. My study draws heavily on unpublished field data of members of the Peru-Cornell Project, as well as the published literature on Vicos, to document the changing conditions in women's and men's lives. Vicos is not unique in Peru, for much of the country underwent similar land reform a few years later, but it is unique in the conscious way that many changes were introduced and reported by researchers. This makes Vicos particularly appropriate for a study that traces the effect of capitalist development on the fabric of human relations.

The last few years have seen a growing body of research concerning the differential effects of capitalist development on women and men, and this has aided me in taking a critical approach to the subject. Much of this essay shows that women were not integrated in the development of Vicos in the 1950s, and this is what we may expect of capitalist development. More accurately, women are and always have been integrated in society, but often in ways oppressive to them. I do not mean to idealize the past in contrasting the community under the hacienda system and after its abolition. Feudalism was oppressive to both men and women, and women, as throughout class societies, were subordinated to men. If I emphasize the strengths of the traditional Andean family under feudalism, it is not to deny that there were inequalities between women and men but to show the relatively greater inequalities that came with the historical changes in Vicos.

In this essay I first describe women's and men's lives under the hacienda system. Then I consider the changes brought about by the project in the transition to community autonomy, including the commercialization of agriculture, leadership and skill development, and improved education. The next few sections focus on how women's role has been devalued in the areas of production, socialization, and sexual relations. Next, I discuss resistance to change in the contexts of the family under the hacienda and of women after its abolition. Finally, I place the unequal effects of capitalist development on women and men in Vicos in a broader perspective.


From 1952 until 1957 the hacienda system remained intact in Vicos under Cornell's management, and changes were introduced in the areas of agriculture, leadership, and education. Between 1957 and 1962 the Vicosinos rented the estate themselves and attained self-government, and in 1963 Vicos was permanently expropriated and sold to the Vicosinos with a twenty-year government loan. Here the routine of life under the hacienda system is discussed, as reported by Peru-Cornell Project field-workers; the changes are considered in the next section.

Located in north-central Peru 250 miles from Lima, Vicos lies in the valley of the Santa River, the Callejón de Huaylas. In 1952, the population of Vicos was slightly less than two thousand Quechua-speaking people (it has since increased to over four thousand). Vicosinos are peasants (country people), but they have frequent contact with mestizos (townspeople) surrounding Vicos. Their relations with mestizos, who are bilingual Spanish-Quechua speakers of the Andean middle class, have often been exploitative, since the Vicosinos are part of a subordinated social class. This essay refers particularly to the relationship of Vicos to the nearest mestizo town, Marcará.

Traditionally, the Vicos estate was leased every five or ten years to the highest bidder by the Public Welfare Society of Huaraz. Heads of households were required to work three days per week for the patrón (lessee), and in return, their families were allotted small plots of land to farm. When Cornell took over the operation of the hacienda in 1952, there were 252 registered colonos, or peons (Barnett 1960: 28). Almost all were men, with the exception of several women, mainly widows and deserted wives. However, other women substituted for their husbands and sons. Barnett (1960: 30) writes that there were sometimes up to one hundred women and children in the fields, particularly before fiestas. Their work generally consisted of planting, weeding, and harvesting.

While men had the major responsibility to work in the fields, women carried out most household tasks, and this division of labor still exists. Women prepare and serve food, launder clothes, tend household gardens and small animals, fetch water and firewood, and care for their children. When older children are not available to herd larger animals on the puna (high grasslands), women perform that task as well. And whenever they are not otherwise occupied, women busy themselves with their spinning.

In addition to these everyday activities, men and women carry out a number of occasional or specialized activities. Many men perform wage labor outside Vicos. Most men weave, and some specialize in making baskets, rope, adobes, and a number of other goods. Women card and wash wool, brew chicha (corn beer), and carry on most of the weekly trade in the town of Marcará, six kilometers below Vicos in the main valley. Tintoreros, or specialists in dying cloth blue, are found among both women and men, but in 1950 women outnumbered men seven to three among principal tintoreros (PCP: Vázquez 3/50). A person of either sex may specialize as a curandero (curer), but here, too, women are in a majority. Women with this skill are highly respected and often sought out: "Curanderas can treat anything the doctor can, and witchcraft and related ills besides" (PCP: Blanchard 2/3/56). Although most women know how to assist in childbirth, some women, often curanderas, are skilled parteras (midwives). All these specializations carry prestige in Vicos, although many people believe that mestizos in Marcará are better at performing these services.

The division of labor by sex in Vicos is fairly rigid. Men's and women's tasks are clearly defined and are for the most part carried out in different spheres, the public, or social, sphere and the domestic sphere, respectively. The fieldnotes show that if a man does "women's work" he may be ridiculed (PCP: Vázquez 4/22/49). Despite the reluctance of many men to carry out tasks customarily done by women, there are exceptions. Some men regularly fetch water, wash eating utensils, prepare the bed, and perform other such jobs (PCP: Pava 6/27/52).

Women's role appears to be more flexible than men's. As already mentioned, women were required to work on the hacienda fields when no men were available, and when there was extra work to do. Women's familiarity with agricultural work makes them in some ways less dependent on men than vice versa. When there are no women in a family, a man often needs to hire community women to produce goods or perform household tasks that men are not trained to do.

It is probably best to regard sex roles in Vicos as interdependent or complementary (Stein 1975a), for unattached adults of both sexes have difficulties in providing for themselves. Most Vicosinos without spouses are elderly, and most of the elderly are women; William Mangin (1954: II-3) counted forty-two men and eighty-six women over sixty in 1952. The problems of these Vicosinos in supplying themselves with food are increased, and unless they are lucky enough to be cared for by their children, they may be reduced to begging from neighbors (PCP: Pava 2/17/52). A number of cases of elderly widows in the fieldnotes indicate their insecure and impoverished condition.

The importance of the male-female unit in community life is revealed in Vicosinos' attitudes toward marriage. As Richard Price (1965: 319) writes, the marriage ceremony "marks the entrance of a Vicosino couple into the adult world." A man can become a varayoq (traditional official) or sponsor a fiesta or work party only if he has a wife. Women occasionally sponsor fiestas and work parties, and they, too, are usually married, although a widow may organize a work party (PCP: Barnett 12/17/53). In general, women are cosponsors with their husbands.

Whether or not a wife acts as cosponsor of a fiesta or work party with her husband, it is a joint effort. Daisy Irene Núñez del Prado Béjar (1975a: 395), who did fieldwork in southern Peru, points out that there are two requirements for an ayni (reciprocal labor party): the male sponsor must fulfill his obligations in the labor exchange and his wife must provide food of good quality. This means organizing a work group of her own, and both her own status and her husband's will increase if she manages well and is a good cook. It is largely through a couple's success in organizing fiestas and labor exchanges that the husband, as the formal representative of the family, derives political power. The wife's cooperation is essential for his advancement, since she controls the household's economic distribution — that is, the means for gaining political power (Núñez del Prado Béjar 1975b: 626–27).

Women in Vicos hold considerable power in the family. It is clear that their collaboration is required in all important matters concerning the family, and their opinions are sought before any major decisions are announced by their husbands. For example, when Cornell introduced new seed potatoes, many of those men who agreed to try planting them indicated that their wives encouraged them to do so (PCP: Vázquez 4/27/54). One man who was thinking of sharecropping with the hacienda's new seeds reported that some Vicosinos were afraid since it was not the custom, but that his wife was encouraging him: "In married life it is good to talk everything over. If she said it would be bad, I wouldn't sow" (PCP: Barnett 1/5/54). Women also seem to have been influential in the community's decision to rent Vicos (PCP: Vázquez 4/23/56, 4/25/56). In one case, when a man neglected to consult his wife before accepting an office, she was very angry since it would mean that they would be unable to pay their share of rent for the hacienda (PCP: Vázquez 10/5/56).

Men in Vicos generally own more land and animals than women do, but women's role in the household gives them considerable economic control over the family property. Property in Vicos is theoretically passed down from parents to sons and daughters equally. However, sons appear to be the preferred inheritors — Mario Vázquez (1952: 44) writes that sons and unmarried daughters inherit chacras (fields) — and sometimes, when there are no male heirs, other male relatives claim chacras (PCP: Pava 8/17/52). Under the hacienda system, land and homes belong to the estate, but they are held by families for generations. Cattle are the only valuable property that can be sold, and they constitute the measure of wealth in Vicos (Vázquez 1965: 414). Land, animals, and other property are cared for without regard to ownership, but along the lines of the sexual division of labor. However, all goods are individually owned. The fieldnotes offer conflicting views on the control of buying and selling of property. One view states that the owner has control over his or her property (PCP: Pava 5/17/52), while another states that, regardless of ownership, women control small property and men control cattle and other large property (PCP: Vázquez 4/28/49). Most likely there is flexibility. When one man was asked if husbands and wives could sell each other's property without permission, he said that it was possible, but that if there was love between them they would not (PCP: Pava 2/17/53). Nevertheless, women's central role in the household and in marketing gives them greater leverage than men over the family economy.

The family in Vicos is not only a good economic arrangement but also a close-knit social group. Men and women express love and respect for one another and great affection for their children. This closeness is not displayed publicly, where those of different sex and age do not so readily mix, but at home: as one Vicosino said, "We do everything together." While all agree that the man is "head of the house," this appears to reflect his role as public representative for the family rather than his position in the household. When pressed, one man added that while he was "head" of work in the fields, the women in the households were "heads" of the kitchen and the animals (PCP: Pava 2/17/53).

A number of men and women in Vicos were asked what is expected of a wife or a husband, and nearly all responded that it is most important that they be good workers. Those few who do not meet their family obligations are criticized; they are not "real men" or "good women." Love between spouses is considered important and fidelity is generally expected, although men have a little more leeway. In their sexual activity, women and men seem to be equal participants, neither sex playing a dominant or submissive role (PCP: Pava 2/17/53). The only exception to the general pattern of mutual respect of the sexes appears to be when there is drinking, especially by young men after fiestas. At such times men may become sexually aggressive, but their intoxication sometimes enables women to overpower them, as several cases in the fieldnotes show (Vázquez 1952). The contrast between private and public sex is part of the cultural convention that women act as subordinates in the public sphere.

In traditional Vicos, women were not fully equal with men. The publicly held view that women were "worth less" was expressed to field-workers by both sexes. However, women's public status was less important than their position in the household, where they had something very near equality with men. The complementarity of women's and men's roles derived from the recognition of the equal importance of their activities. As I will show, women's position in Vicos is deteriorating as a result of the devaluation of the household sphere of activity.


When the Peru-Cornell Project came to Vicos, there were several focal areas in which the organizers planned to introduce change. Improvements in agriculture and skills, development of community leadership, and better schooling were the major goals. Men were the targets of modernization, and women were affected only indirectly in ways that have been largely ignored in the Vicos literature. Although some consequences of development in Vicos have had adverse effects on women, this does not reflect the intentions of the project, whose members clearly desired to improve the lives of all Vicosinos. However, the male bias of Western social science and community development programs is clear in the Vicos Project.

One of the first agricultural innovations Cornell introduced in Vicos was a new type of seed potato. A recent blight made this timely, and it was hoped that production would increase sufficiently to make potatoes commercially profitable for the community. Since men made up the majority of peons and performed most work on both the hacienda and their own fields, it is not surprising that agricultural items were introduced to them and not to their wives. What was not realized, however, was the degree to which decision making was traditionally a family affair. The weight of women's opinions in the decision to plant new seed potatoes was discussed in the previous section. Women do not necessarily reach agreement with men once they are included in the decision-making process; I take up women's opposition to changes unfavorable to them later in the chapter.


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix
Acknowledgments xi
Foreword xvii

Introduction: Rethinking Gender, Race, and Indigeneity in Andean Peru 1
Commentary 35
1. Women and Men in Vicos, Peru: A Case of Unequal Development 55
Commentary 89
2. Women in the Marketplace: Petty Commerce in Peru 107
3. Producers and Reproducers: Andean Market
Women in the Economy 123
4. Market/Places as Gendered Spaces: Market/Women’s Studies over Two Decades 133
Commentary 145
5. Women’s Work: Engendering Economic Anthropology 165
6. Theorizing Gender, Race, and Cultural Tourism in Latin America: A View from Peru and Mexico 183
Conclusion: Toward a Decolonial Feminist Anthropology 200

Notes 223
References 239
Index 265

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