Radical History Review 85 (2003) 265-271
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The Politics of Sex and Gender in Latin American History:
Stephanie J. Smith
Sueann Caulfield, In Defense of Honor: Sexual Morality, Modernity, and Nation in Early-Twentieth-Century Brazil. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000.
Eileen J. Suárez Findlay, Imposing Decency: The Politics of Sexuality and Race in Puerto Rico, 1870-1920. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999.
Katherine Elaine Bliss, Compromised Positions: Prostitution, Public Health, and Gender Politics in Revolutionary Mexico City. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001.
In Imposing Decency: The Politics of Sexuality and Race in Puerto Rico, 1870- 1920, Eileen J. Suárez Findlay writes of the feminist Luisa Capetillo, who claimed that "in no uncertain terms. . . sexuality was political, indeed central to a revolutionary agenda" (161). Indeed, Findlay, Sueann Caulfield in In Defense of Honor: Sexual Morality, Modernity, and Nation in Early-Twentieth-Century Brazil, and Katherine Elaine Bliss in Compromised Positions: Prostitution, Public Health, and Gender Politics in Revolutionary Mexico City, all make similar arguments in their important new contributions to the field of Latin American history. Positioning gender as central to their analyses of state formation, these three scholars offer exciting [End Page 265] and pathbreaking interpretations of the importance of honor, sexuality, and race within processes of modernity and nation building.
Caulfield, Findlay, and Bliss engage with recent innovative approaches that utilize gender analysis to rethink the history of Latin America. Reinterpreting histories that emphasize the importance of political actors at the forefront of change over "private" issues—such as family, sexuality, honor, and morality—these recent studies have opened the doors to exciting and powerful new ways of conceptualizing notions of race, honor, sexuality, labor, medicine, and modernity. (For example, see the works of Elizabeth Quay Hutchison, Thomas Miller Klubock, Karin Alejandra Rosemblatt, and Heidi Tinsman, among many others.) Seeing history through the lens of gender also allows these scholars to understand differently such processes as state formation and nation building by closely examining the interactions and tensions between ordinary people and state policies. In the process of engaging gender as a critical approach, these recent historical analyses have galvanized the field. Certainly Caulfield, Findlay, and Bliss do so as well with their important new work.
Sueann Caulfield examines gender, honor, and nation in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Caulfield draws on a rich source of impeccably researched and fascinating documents, including hundreds of judicial records of sexual offenses, dating from the period beginning with the end of World War I and ending in the early years of the Estado Novo dictatorship of President Getúlio Vargas (1937-45). Tracing the concept of sexual honor over this time period, Caulfield examines the manners in which people employed honor in their everyday lives, as well as the ways in which politicians and intellectuals incorporated the idea to build a "modern" national identity. In fact, Caulfield argues that these nation-builders linked "women's sexual purity, defended through patriarchal authority, to the advancement of civilization, social order, and state power" (8). Notions of race also figured prominently within concepts of honor and state building, even as officials denied racial and class differences in legal practice.
Caulfield begins her study with an analysis of the legal debates that surrounded sexual honor. As such, Caulfield traces the progression of discussions and conflicts over notions of honor in different branches of the law as well as by professional experts. Highlighted in these negotiations over family honor were struggles to define the meanings of ambiguous and slippery legal terms, such as deflowering, seduction, and honest woman. Around the turn of the century, a new generation of penal law professionals turned to the writings of various European positivist legal and medical specialists for inspiration in such matters—and to supply Brazil with more modern methods of justice. Caulfield's discussion of the growing numbers of these legal-medical experts, and their obsession with the state of the hymen (seeking to define more precisely what constituted a virgin under the law) is fascinating to read. Such...