The Voyages of Christine Columbus

Print this page
beginning of content:

Authored by

  • Merry Wiesner-Hanks
    University of Wisconsin
    Milwaukee, Wisconsin

I am taking as my inspiration in this column two fictional characters. In a famous segment of Three Guineas, Virginia Woolf imagines what life would have been like for Shakespeare's sister, and in Canterbury Tales, Chaucer has the Wife of Bath declare:


My God, had women written histories

Like cloistered scholars in oratories . . .1

What I would like to do is imagine what the reports by European explorers and early settlers in North America might have looked like had they been written by women, had Christopher Columbus instead been Christine. That is, what if European women—in the same way that European men did—used their own life experiences as a baseline of what was "normal" in order to judge what was strange, exotic, "other," and therefore worth commenting on? Though we can't know if they would have focused primarily on Native American women the way European men did on men, because this is counterfactual fantasy we are free to imagine that they would have. So what might Christine Columbus have reported about her encounters?

First a quick look at what a few of her non-mythical male counterparts did say. In Columbus's first official letter to Ferdinand and Isabella, written while stopping in the Azores on the way home after his first voyage, he goes on at great length about the vegetation, natural products, and people he has encountered, and comments about other things he is disappointed not to have encountered, such as cannibals, but makes only one separate mention of women: "As far as I have learned, every man throughout these islands is united to but one wife, with the exception of the kings and princes, who are allowed to have twenty; the women seem to work more than the men."2 Though we might have wished for more than this off-hand comment, particularly given the influence of Columbus's letter, this one remark is telling, and is repeated often by other observers. Jacques Cartier, in describing the Iroquois that he had met along the St. Lawrence in 1536, noted, "The women work without comparison more than the men."3 Recollet Gabriel Sagard commented about Huron women in 1623, "The women do all the servile tasks, working ordinarily harder than the men, though they are neither forced nor constrained to do so."4 Would Christine Columbus or Jacqueline Cartier have made the same remarks?

I don't think so. Despite European men's blindness to the fact, European as well as Native American women performed hard manual labor, including many agricultural tasks. European women were used to both performing and seeing other women of their households in Europe perform strenuous physical tasks. The most physically taxing of European women's tasks, such as laundering at a riverside or carrying water, were generally female-specific, with few men even around as observers, and certainly very few men of the social class of those who became the first explorers. Men like Cartier were used to seeing European women engaged in some agricultural tasks, such as binding sheaves or gleaning in a field, but these had been culturally defined as "easier" than the typically male agricultural tasks such as cutting with a scythe, and also fit with the standard view that women's work should be assisting men in their tasks. It is the fact that Iroquois women did all agricultural work that made it so remarkable for Cartier. (Contemporary studies of the comparative physical efforts of upper-body work such as that required to use a scythe and the constant bending and stooping required in gleaning have found the latter to be much more exhausting and certainly no easier; no similar studies were carried out in early modern Europe, of course.)

My speculations on this receive some confirmation in the writings of Marie Guyart de l'Incarnation, who established the first Ursuline house in Montreal in the 1670s. Neither in her autobiography nor in her voluminous correspondence does she comment on women's work among the Iroquois or Hurons, though she does mention other customs that have been described to her by the Native American women who came into her convent. Perhaps the Native American women never talked about hard work, but Marie's own adolescence in a waggoner's household where she did everything from grooming horses and cleaning slops to keeping the accounts would have certainly made her accustomed to hard physical labor.5

What else might have appeared unremarkable to our mythical female explorers? Male French and English explorers—and their modern counterparts, anthropologists—comment on menstrual taboos, noting that though women had some religious functions, they were generally barred from handling sacred shamanic objects such as rattles and bundles because of ritual defilement brought on by menstruation.6 Menstrual taboos grounded in religion would have been familiar territory for early modern European women, however. The Old Testament held that menstruation made a woman ritually impure, so that everything she touched was unclean and her presence was to be avoided by all. By the early modern period in Jewish communities, this taboo was limited to sexual relations and a few other contacts between wife and husband for the seven days of her period and the seven days after.7 At the end of this time, a woman was expected to take a ritual bath (mikvah) before beginning sexual relations again. Christian and Jewish women in many parts of Europe—especially in Ferdinand and Isabella's Spain before 1492—lived in close contact with one another, trading goods and services, so that Christine Columbus might have been quite familiar with what were the strictest menstrual taboos in Western Europe. The religious taboos regarding menstruation were a bit milder for Christian women, though canon lawyers and other Catholic commentators still advised against sexual relations during menstruation (as did Protestant reformers). This was originally based strictly on the religious notion that women were unclean during this period, though during the sixteenth century the idea spread that this was medically unwise as it would result in deformed or leprous children.8

For early modern European women, menstruation was not simply a religious matter, however, but was also viewed medically. For physicians and medical writers, menstruation was regarded either as a process which purifies women's blood or which removed excess blood from their bodies. The humoral theory regarded all bodily fluids as related, with doctors recommending bloodletting as a treatment for disease in both men and women. Because of this, menstruation was not clearly separated from other types of bleeding in people's minds, and was often compared to male nosebleeds or hemorrhoids or other examples of spontaneous bleeding. In fact, during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, physicians and medical writers matter-of-factly described men who bled regularly as "vicariously menstruating."9 Menstrual blood was thought to nourish the fetus during pregnancy, and, because the body was regarded as capable of transforming one sort of fluid into another, it was thought to become milk during lactation. (In the same way, male blood was held to become semen during intercourse.) Semen and milk were not viewed as gender-specific fluids, however, for "virile" women who had more bodily heat than normal were seen as capable of producing semen, and effeminate men who lacked normal masculine heat were thought to lactate, that is, to produce milk.

The cessation of menstruation (amenorrhea) was regarded as extremely dangerous for a woman, either because it left impure blood in her which might harden into an abnormal growth, or because it would allow excess blood to run to her brain, which would become overheated. (The opposite idea, of course, would be cited as a reason for barring women from higher education in the nineteenth century; education would cause all their blood to remain in their brains, which would halt menstruation and eventually cause the uterus to shrivel away.) Thus doctors recommended hot baths, medicines, pessaries placed in the vagina, and, for married women, frequent intercourse, to bring on a late menstrual period.

Learned medical opinion in early modern Europe thus regarded menstruation as at least to some degree beneficial, which in its removal of impurities from the female—and very occasionally the male—body served as an example of the healing power of nature, but most popular beliefs viewed menstruation negatively. Menstruating women could by their touch, glance, or mere presence rust iron, turn wine sour, spoil meat, or dull knives. They hastened natural processes along, so could not engage in any food preservation such as salting or curing—a practice that continued in some parts of France until the twentieth century. Red-haired women were especially dangerous, for it was believed that people with red hair had been conceived during their mother 's menstrual period. Thus a red-haired woman was a "child of the monthlies" whose breath could prevent the scabbing of wounds and infect newly delivered women with puerperal fever.10

Women's own concept of menstruation is difficult to ascertain. One of the few direct comments by a woman comes from the autobiography of Isabella de Moerloose, published in Amsterdam in l695, in which she writes that she asked her husband to sleep separately while she was menstruating because "the stink will cause thee to feel aversion for me." He would not allow it because he feared people might think they were Jews, though he, too, commented that he was "so terribly disgusted" by the smell.11 Women's handwritten personal medical guides, small books in which they recorded recipes for cures and other household hints, include recipes for mixtures to bring on a late menses or to stop overly-strong flow.

Thus, though Christine Columbus might have been surprised at how explicit Native American menstrual taboos were—in European learned culture by this time they were regarded as to some degree "superstitious"—she would not have been at all surprised at their existence. This seems one of those depressingly cross-cultural problems for women. It would be lovely to find a society where menstruation was a source of power rather than exclusion, but we will probably only find that when we find one where, as Gloria Steinem suggested years ago, all men can menstruate.12

How else might the reports of Christine Columbus or Jacqueline Cartier have differed from those of their brothers? Perhaps they would have described fewer of the women they met as "Indian princesses," a tendency which continues in the encounters of European men with Native American groups into the nineteenth century. Beginning in the late fifteenth century in Europe, dynastic "accidents" led to women serving as advisers to child rulers or ruling in their own right. Columbus experienced this directly with Isabella, of course, but so did English explorers with Mary and Elizabeth Tudor and Mary Stuart, and French with Catherine de Medici and Anne of Austria. Male explorers' familiarity with female rulers and ideas about genealogical patrilineality—that rank might at times outweigh gender—no doubt shaped their encounters with, or at least descriptions of, Native American women, for they are fascinated by "Indian princesses" and describe unusual numbers of women as such. These princesses did not rule, however. There are a few examples of female chiefs reported in Massachusetts in the colonial period and among central North American tribes later, but the Europeans who encounter them don't comment further and we know very little about the circumstances in which their leadership emerged.13 The abundance of princesses in male reports, however, is one of those fascinating examples of the clear intersection of notions of race, sexuality, class, and gender. There are many fewer "chiefs" or "princes," but then most European explorers and colonists were not engaged in sexual relations or contemplating marriage with Amerindian men, a prospect that could be made more acceptable if the woman's race was outweighed by her class status.

In terms of judging what our female explorers might have said, we have almost nothing to go on. Reports coming from New France, from the convent schools of the Congregation de Notre-Dames and the Ursulines in Montreal, do not report an unusual number of "princesses" among their Native American pupils, but then these orders were dedicated to the teaching of girls of all social classes so that one wouldn't expect remarks about status. In Mexico City, on the other hand, the first convent for Native American women—Corpus Christi—was limited to the daughters of caciques (indigenous aristocrats) but this simply replicates the situation of most Spanish convents, and the six European founders were all male. The sisters of Corpus Christi themselves, however, were very conscious of their own social class, and used this along with their strict adherence to vows of obedience, asceticism, and silence to successfully prevent the admission of Spanish, Creole, or mestizo nuns. They thus used class and religion to maintain a reversal of the usual Spanish notion of "purity of the blood," requiring novices to prove that they had no European blood before they were admitted, that their racial and class status was as pure as their religious allegiance.14

If Native American women in Mexico City could have so fully internalized the values of their Spanish conquerors, are my speculations about Christine Columbus and Jacqueline Cartier at all justified? Wouldn't they have shared more with their brothers than differed from them? Yes, in many ways I suspect that European women's reports would have paralleled their brothers', particularly in regard to things that fit with their experience as women back home.

For example, except for a few queens and noblewomen, both European and Native American women were generally excluded from formal political institutions, with women's political influence remaining informal in nature. Because European explorers and colonists expected this, they commented only when the principle was broken; during a severe epidemic in 1640, for example, an elderly Huron woman is reported to have blamed the Jesuits in a formal meeting for the outbreak of the disease.15

Saying that New World as well as Old World women did not have formal political authority is not saying that they did not speak out publicly on important matters. When they did, however, women in both worlds often used religion as their justification. Khionrea the Huron, for example, brought by her parents to the Ursuline convent of Marie de l'Incarnation in Montreal in 1640, learned to speak French and Algonquin and to write. She was given the name Therese by Marie de l'Incarnation after her favorite saint, who later reported about her preaching:


Two Huron men from her village came to the convent two years later and she preached to them through the grill. They listened to this young woman with unrivalled attention, and one day, when they were on the point of being baptized, one of them pretended no longer to believe in God and so she need no longer speak to him of faith or baptism. Our fervent Therese . . . became disturbed and said, "What are you talking about? I see the Devil has overturned all your thoughts so that you will be lost. Know you well that if you died today, you would go to Hell where you would burn with Devils, who would make you suffer terrible torments." The good man laughed at everything she said, which made her think that he spoke with a spirit of contempt. She redoubled her exhortations to combat him, but failing, she came to us in tears. "Ah," she said, "he is lost; he's left the faith; he will not be baptized. It hurt me so to see him speak against God that if there had not been a grill between us, I would have thrown myself on him to beat him." We went to find out the truth . . . and the man affirmed that he had done this only to test her faith and zeal.16

Khionrea fits well with women in early modern Europe who also used religion as a justification for public speech or writings. She was not alone among Huron women, either, for the Sisters of the Quebec Hospital described the activities of another Huron woman, Cecline Gannendaris, who died in the hospital in 1669, as follows: "She was so solidly instructed in our mysteries and so eloquent in explaining them that she was sent foreign Savages, who were asking to embrace the faith. In a few days she had them ready for baptism, and had reduced the opinionated ones beyond defense by her good reasoning."17 Giving Gannendaris the ultimate compliment, the sisters reported that her clarity of expression and judgment "had nothing in it of the savage; we might better say that these traits showed the habits of lucid male discussion around the Huron council fire transferred to and transformed in a new realm of action."18

Like most educated early modern European men (and women), the sisters of the Quebec hospital regarded the highest praise they could give a woman to be the assertion that she spoke like a man—not a European man, of course, for that would be too big a gap to cross, but at least a respected and honorable man of her own culture. These sisters—and it is they and other Catholic female religious and semi-religious who provide the closest real equivalents to our mythical Christine Columbus—show no departure from the standard valuation of masculinity and femininity. This despite the fact that they were trying to carve out a role for themselves in what was widely regarded by church authorities as a male realm in a place far from home.

Along with areas where New World notions of the proper roles for men and women did not significantly differ from those of the Old World—and so would have occasioned as little comment from our mythical female explorers as they did from the real male ones—there were also points where the traditions were sharply different. Some of these were in large cultural metaphors that we have only recently begun to examine for what they tell us about gender.

In many Native American traditions, for example, birth metaphors are central, in contrast to the European tradition of creation without birth or of rebirth experienced as a distinctly mental transformation. A blinding light on the road to Damascus, a voice saying "take and read," or a tower experience, is much different than falling through a hole into an alternate world, to use one Iroquois legend. This is not to say that powerful birth metaphors are necessarily positive for women, but they do suggest a very different valuation of the body and physical processes than that held in early modern Europe.

The highly intellectualized notion of "rebirth" that emerges in the European Renaissance not only has roots in a long Christian tradition, of course, but also reflects a preoccupation with both genealogical and intellectual patrilineage, with which man begot which man (to put it in Old Testament terms) or which thinker's ideas were seminal. Things as well as people could be "reborn" for Europeans—language, art—but perhaps such a process had to be vieweddifferently by Native Americans, who were not as preoccupied with lineage.

Another striking difference emerges in founding myths. In Iroquois tradition and in the founding myths or other stories of many Midwestern tribes, such as that of the Wapasha woman We-no-nah, the chief's daughter dies. European founding myths, on the contrary, seem more likely to involve the rape of a wife such as Lucretia, a story that became increasingly popular in the Renaissance, and linked politics, rhetoric, female honor, and the good of the state.19 I don't know what to make of this difference, for neither tradition—the death of a daughter or the rape of a wife—is particularly appealing, but it is certainly one to ponder.

These issues travel the seas of speculation, just as do the voyages of Christine Columbus. Though much of the excitement in the study of women's history over the last quarter-century has revolved around the discovery of new texts, I think it is highly unlikely that there is a non-mythical female counterpart to Christopher whose journals lie moldering in some Spanish or Portuguese archives. The one exception to this is the autobiography of Catalina de Erauso, a Basque nun who apparently left her convent, dressed in men's clothing, travelled to South America, and engaged in a variety of adventures, including murdering her own brother.20 The study of women's role in the creation and representation of non-European "others" has focused—and probably must continue to focus—on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, on the published and unpublished writings of female travelers, missionaries, and anthropologists. Judging by these later writings, however, it is probably good that we never find the logs of Christine's voyages, for they might turn out to be a great disappointment. In searching for female heroes of the past, we usually turn to women whose actions went against culturally imposed restrictions and norms and we find inspiration in their independence. When we turn to their words, however, we often find less to be thrilled at, for they are neither advocates for women's rights nor show any more understanding for other cultures than do their brothers. Catalina de Erauso, for example, describes with glee how she and her fellow soldiers met a crowd of Indians "ten thousand strong. We fell on them again with such spirit, and butchered so many of them, that blood ran like a river across the plaza, and we chased them to the Dorado River and beyond, slaughtering all the way."21 Because she exists only in our imagination, however, we are free to imagine that Christine Columbus would have said and done something else.


  1. Geoffrey Chaucer, Canterbury Tales, ed. Robert A. Pratt (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1963), 207.

  2. R. H. Major, ed. and trans., Select Letters of Christopher Columbus (London: Hakluyt Society, 1847), 14.

  3. Jacques Cartier, "Deuxième voyage de Jacques Cartier (1535-1536)," in Charles A. Julien, René Herval, and Théodore Beauchesne, eds., Les Français en Ameríque pendant la première moitié duu XVIe siècle (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1946), Vol. 1, 159.

  4. Gabriel Sagard, Le Grand Voyage du pays des Hurons (1632), ed. Réal Ouellet (Québec: Bibliothèque Québécoise, 1990), part 1, ch. 7, 172.

  5. Natalie Zemon Davis, Women on the Margins: Three Seventeenth Century Lives (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995), 88.

  6. Denise Lardner Carmody and John Tully Carmody, Native American Religions: An Introduction (New York: Paulist Press, 1993), 32, 44.

  7. Rachel Biale, Women in Jewish Law: An Exploration of Women's Issues in Halakhic Sources (New York: Schocken, 1984).

  8. Patricia Crawford, "Menstruation in Seventeenth-Century England," Past and Present 91 (1981): 65-79.

  9. Gianna Pomata, "Menstruating Men: Similarity and Difference of the Sexes in Early Modern Medicine," in Valeria Finucci and Kevin Brownlee, eds., Generation and Degeneration: Tropes of Reproduction in Literature and History from Antiquity through Early Modern Europe (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2001), 109-152.

  10. Jacques Gélis, History of Childbirth: Fertility, Pregnancy and Birth in Early Modern Europe (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1991), 10-15.

  11. Isabella de Moerloose, Gegeven van den Hemel door Vrouuwen Zaet . . . (Amsterdam, 1695), quoted in Herman W. Roodenbuerg, "The Autobiography of Isabella de Moerloose: Sex, Childrearing and Popular Beliefs in Seventeenth-Century Holland," Journal of Social History 18 (1985), 529.

  12. Gloria Steinem, "If Men Could Menstruate: A Political Fantasy," Ms. Magazine, August 1978.

  13. Judith K. Brown, "Economic Organization and the Position of Women Among the Iroquois," in W. G. Spittal, ed., Iroquois Women: An Anthology (Ohsweken: Iroqrafts, 1990), 182-98.

  14. Ann Miriam Gallagher, RSM, "The Indian Nuns of Mexico City's Monasterio of Corpus Christi, 1724-1821" in Asuncion Lavrin, ed., Latin American Women: Historical Perspectives (Westport: Greenwood, 1978), 150-172.

  15. Marie de l'Incarnation, Correspondence, ed. Dom Guy Oury (Solesmes: Abbaye Saint-Pierre, 1971), no. 50. Several analyses, most prominently Karen Anderson's Chain Her By One Foot: The Subjugation of Women in Seventeenth-Century New France (New York: Praeger, 1980) have argued that women did hold formal political power in some seventeenth-century Amerindian tribes. In my opinion and that of several reviewers, this reads too much into the fact that these cultures were matrilineal and matrilocal.

  16. Marie de l'Incarnation, Correspondence, no. 65. Quoted and translated in Natalie Zemon Davis, "Iroquois Women: European Women," in Margo Hendricks and Patricia Parker, eds., Women, "Race" and Writing in the Early Modern Period (London: Routledge, 1994), 255.

  17. Ibid., 255-6.

  18. Ibid., 256.

  19. Stephanie H. Jed, Chaste Thinking: The Rape of Lucretia and the Birth of Humanism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989).

  20. Lieutenant Nun: Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World, trans. Michele and Gabriel Stepto (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996).

  21. Lieutenant Nun, 34.

This article was originally presented online at World History Connected Vol. 3, Issue 3. The online journal World History Connected is partially supported by the College Board and published in association with the History Cooperative. Copyright © 2006 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Reproduced here with permission.
World History Connected
History Cooperative

Merry Wiesner-Hanks is a professor at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. She is active as a teacher and scholar in the fields of World and European History, and has written a number of books on both subjects. Recently, she authored Gender in History (Blackwell, 2001).