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Women in control of an Empire? The 'women's council' and the Council of the Indies, ~156

Men ran the Council of the Indies, so says every book and almost every document we know about it. Little wonder; during the Habsburg era all of its 458 officials and ministers were men. But in the late 1560s word on the street in Madrid was that the wives of important ministers ran a sort of shadow Council under the nose of the King.

There was Licenciate Muñatones' sister in law doña Gerónima de Carvajal, privy to the contents of the Pizarro dynasty's top-secret court cases.

Even more powerful was doña Catalina de Otálora, whose favor petitioners and litigants in Madrid relied on to "soften the condition" of the constantly rude and insufferable Licenciate Muñoz. Doña Catalina accepted gifts - fine handkerchiefs, a parrot made of gold, an entire barrel of anchovies in escabeche, and "certain moneys." She could resolve court cases, or secure privileges, even while her husband gambled and frequently ignored vassals' business.

Códice de Trajes - 'In Spania die Bvrgerin'

A pair of middle-class women from Spain in a 1547 German Trachtenbuch or Códice de trajes. Online at the National Library of Spain (BNE).

At the apex of this secret power was President Vásquez's wife doña María de Luna. Vassals could seek to influence the President through María de Lizcano, who was doña María de Luna's servant-dependent (criada). María de Lizcano was a "public and notorious...route" to a positive ruling from the President, one source reported. But one might also go straight to Doña María de Luna, who could often be found picnicking in the royal gardens, and was particularly responsive if a vassal entreated her with fine foods; she and Licenciate Muñatones' daughter were frequently visible from Madrid's windows seeking "great friendship" with Indies vassals. Those looking to keep their shoes clean could also catch her at the cathedral door after evening mass. She and her husband must have been skilled; the President's house was nicknamed the "Puerta de Oro" - the golden door - for the illicit gold ingots that supposedly were piling up inside.

Inquisitor Juan de Ovando discovered these not-so-secret activities between 1567 and 1569 and took control of the Council in 1571. He specifically barred women, along with family members, dependents, and friends from attempting to sway ministers' minds on important imperial decisions.

No further such complains survive for the 1500s. Perhaps Ovando had his way, and had actually managed to bar women from decision-making. Nonetheless, all this power in women's hands might have given a certain poetess some ideas.

The daughter of Licenciate Muñatones, Doña Francisca de Briviesca y Arellano - maybe the very same daughter who trafficked in power in Madrid's gardens - would publish a proto-feminist tract Miscelanea austral y defensa de las damas in Lima, Peru under the pen name Cilena in 1603:

"And it is also known," she wrote, "that Justinian wrote in his corpus of imperial law, that he had been much helped and aided with great utility, from the counsel of his wife in the government of empire. And Aristotle and Pliny say, that women have governed advantageously in many cities, naming in particular Athens, and in Lacedemonia...and so as they governed in these cities, they must have governed in many other parts of the world...All this concerts with what Plato had said, that public and government office be given partly to women, having found in them abundant capacity to exercise them" (218r).

By 1603, the 'women's council' was likely no longer a powerful force in Spanish imperial affairs. Ovando had triumphed. Nonetheless, Doña Francisca de Briviesca y Arellano's literary work kept the secret memory of the women of the Golden Door alive.


Inquisitor Ovando's findings on the 'council of women' are located in the British Library Mss. Add. 33893. Unfortunately they are not online.

The 1571 Ordinances of Ovando were printed in 1585 and are online.

A copy of the Miscelanea austral is online at the National Library of Spain.

The 1547 Códice de trajes is also online at the National Library of Spain.

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