7 Famous Women in the History of Latin America

Never mind the machismo, these women changed their world

From Evita Peron to Empress Maria Leopoldina, women have always played key roles in the history of Latin America. Here are a few of the more important ones, in no particular order.

Malinali 'Malinche'

Malinche with Cortés
Malinche with Cortés.

Jujomx / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

Hernan Cortes, in his audacious conquest of the Aztec Empire, had cannons, horses, guns, crossbows, and even a fleet of ships on Lake Texcoco. His secret weapon, however, was a teenage girl he enslaved early in his expedition. "Malinche," as she came to be known, interpreted for Cortes and his men, but she was much more than that. She advised Cortes on the intricacies of Mexican politics, allowing him to bring down the greatest empire Mesoamerica had ever seen.

Evita Peron, Argentina's Greatest First Lady

Portrait of Argentine actress Eva Duarte, by Annemarie Heinrich, 1944

Annemarie Heinrich / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain 

You've may have seen the musical and the History Channel Special, but what do you really know about "Evita"? Wife of President Juan Peron, Eva Peron was the most powerful woman in Argentina during her short life. Her legacy is such that, even now, decades after her death, the citizens of Buenos Aires leave flowers at her tomb.

Manuela Saenz, Heroine of Independence

Manuela Saenz

Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Manuela Saenz, best known for being the mistress of the great Simón Bolívar, liberator of South America, was a heroine in her own right. She fought and served as a nurse in battles and was even promoted to colonel. On one occasion, she stood up to a group of assassins sent to kill Bolivar while he escaped.

Rigoberta Menchu, Guatemala's Nobel Prize Winner

Rigoberta Menchu

Carlos Rodriguez / ANDES / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0

Rigoberta Menchu is a Guatemalan activist who gained fame when she won the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize. Her story is told in a biography of questionable accuracy but indubitable emotional power. Today she is still an activist and attends Native rights conventions.

Anne Bonny, Ruthless Pirate

Anne Bonny

Anushka.Holding / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

Anne Bonny was a female pirate who sailed between 1718 and 1720 with John "Calico Jack" Rackham. Along with fellow female pirate and shipmate Mary Read, she made headlines in 1720 at her sensational trial, at which it was revealed that both women were pregnant. Anne Bonny disappeared after she gave birth, and no one really knows for sure what became of her. 

Mary Read, Another Ruthless Pirate

Mary Read

Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Like her fellow pirate Anne Bonny, Mary Read sailed with the colorful "Calico Jack" Rackham around 1719. Mary Read was a fearsome pirate: according to legend, she once killed a man in a duel because he had threatened a young pirate she had taken a fancy to. Read, Bonny, and the rest of the crew were captured with Rackham, and although the men were hanged, Read and Bonny were spared because they were both pregnant. Read died in prison shortly thereafter.

Empress Maria Leopoldina of Brazil

Sessão do Conselho de Estado painting by Georgina de Albuquerque

Senate of Brazil / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Maria Leopoldina was the wife of Dom Pedro I, the first Emperor of Brazil. Well-educated and bright, she was much beloved by the people of Brazil. Leopoldina was much better at statecraft than Pedro and the people of Brazil loved her. She died young of complications from a miscarriage.

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Minster, Christopher. "7 Famous Women in the History of Latin America." ThoughtCo, Sep. 10, 2020, thoughtco.com/women-in-latin-american-history-2136477. Minster, Christopher. (2020, September 10). 7 Famous Women in the History of Latin America. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/women-in-latin-american-history-2136477 Minster, Christopher. "7 Famous Women in the History of Latin America." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/women-in-latin-american-history-2136477 (accessed June 10, 2023).