Modest Expectations: Gender and Property Rights in Urban Mexico


Varley, Ann. 2010. “Modest Expectations: Gender and Property Rights in Urban Mexico.” Law and Society Review 44 (1): 67-100.

Author: Ann Varley


This article examines gender and property in Guadalajara, Mexico, in the light of debates that oppose formal title to the social embeddedness of rights in customary law and assert that titling is bad for women. The article focuses on urban homes, private property, and civil law but finds that qualities regarded as characterizing customary property relations also shape popular understandings of property in urban Mexico. Discussion groups and social surveys in four low-income neighborhoods addressed two aspects of family law and property: whose name should appear on titles, and who should inherit the home. The results show that women, as wives, sisters, and daughters, have a secondary relationship to property. They also suggest that the opposition of individual title to socially embedded rights is a false dichotomy and that generalizing arguments about formalization and especially the negative gender implications of titling risks replicating the universalizing tendencies of Western property models.

Keywords: titling, gender, customary law, gender relations, Property Rights


  • Most research on gender and land rights has a geographical focus on rural Africa.  There is less information on gender and land rights in Latin America, and very little work on gender and land rights in urban areas. It also approaches the topic from a different focus—property relations within the family, rather than community—to investigate the gendered aspects of property rights. Therefore, this resource is critical to a thorough understanding of the field and adds new insight into the scope and complexity of gender and land rights issues.  It is argued that relationships between individuals within families and households needs to be the focus; consider how some members may be disadvantaged in comparison to others and the complexity of property relations within the home.  
  • The author reviews family law, property and inheritance rights in Mexico: the nineteenth century individualization reforms deprived women of protection, 1917 Law of Family Relations gave women right to manage property and made separation of property mandatory; 1928- ability to choose community or separate property was reintroduced; 2000 community property and joint administration default.
  • When people die intestate, the widower is at a disadvantage compared to counterparts elsewhere in Latin America: They are only entitled to the same amount as each child.
  • In rural areas, this bias arises out of idea that agriculture is men’s work (an interesting contrast to the African view that agriculture is primarily women’s work, therefore, African women’s ‘secondary’ rights to land cannot be because of agriculture because they are often the primary agriculturalists).
  • When examining inheritance rights, the author noted that similar findings from rural Mexico could be seen in urban Mexico. The author also discusses property rights as a way of securing care in old age and “how best to use the home as a bargaining counter to ensure care in old age.” (86)
  • This is not something that is frequently discussed in the literature on gender and land rights, but has significant weight in terms of who inherits property. She also importantly notes the differences in opinion between younger and older women about inheritance preferences, noting that older women tend to think about who will care for them: “older women’s responses may reflect a sense of daughters’ vulnerability that is not shared by younger women.” (88)
  • Younger women are more likely to subscribe the discourse of equality—and perhaps equality of opportunity—between their children, regardless of sex. Women’s inheritance preferences are often lumped together and viewed as consistent, despite frequently varying opinions about who should inherit land. Asserts that “formalizing home ownership rarely creates truly individual property” because of the social embeddedness of property rights. “Formalization produces a freeze-frame image of property holdings at a particular time but cannot prevent life, death, and property relations moving on. It does not, therefore, offer the definitive resolution of tenure that some assume.” (92)
  • What are the potential costs of focussing exclusively on the local when trying to secure women’s property rights? What is the relationship between age and inheritance preferences? What are the similarities in gender and land rights problems across urban and rural settings?
  • Key question : Why might formalization in Mexico be favourable to women if it is unfavourable in customary tenure systems in sub-Saharan Africa?
  • Legality is not enough to guarantee wives’ security of tenure;  joint titling should be instituted.


“The individual continues to be implicitly opposed to the community in recommendations that rights be registered ‘in the names of groups rather than individuals’ and that this undermines the ability to predict the outcome of formalization." (70)

“How, if women’s property rights are secondary rights both in customary systems and in popular understandings of family property in Mexico, can formalization strengthen those rights in Mexico while it may extinguish them in sub-Saharan Africa?" (70)

“Women in low-income neighbourhoods of urban Mexico are less likely than men to be recognized as freely acting subjects in relation to property: Their ability to ‘own’ a home is to a significant extent conditioned on their status as wives and mothers.” (70)

“Widows inherit primarily as a bridge in the transmission of land between generations or caretakers of the family patrimony… Their rights to land are therefore lesser, insecure, temporary.” (85-86)

“This explanation clearly cannot apply to the urban home, yet the conclusions about women’s secondary relationship to property still resonate with people’s views about rights to the home in Guadalajara.” (86)

“[The] father-son relationship seemed to dominate the men’s thinking about property, while women focused on the marital relationship. Men talked about protecting their wives and children; women, about being protected. Women’s relationship with property is, then, a more indirect, passive one, contrasting with the agency assumed by men.” (80)

“Many women do not assert their rights to property for fear of being seen as less than fully committed to a relationship." (91)

“The legal context in Mexico means that formalization does not normally entail the collapse of overlapping rights in property into full ownership rights for a male head of household. The community property regime under which most couples marry means that the property is generally jointly owned.” (93)

Topics: Gender, Women, Girls, Gendered Power Relations, Land Tenure, Governance, Rights, Land Rights, Property Rights, Women's Rights Regions: Americas, North America Countries: Mexico

Year: 2010

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