- Gender and the Rhetoric of Modernity in Spanish America, 1850–1910 by Lee Skinner
In this thought-provoking volume, Lee Skinner aims to chart out the relationship between gender discourses and the projects of modernity of the second half of the nineteenth century. Starting from a vision of modernity as a “malleable” discursive construct, Skinner investigates the ways in which “gender affected responses to and creations of discourses of modernity” (11). The author’s main thesis is that the rhetoric of modernity was used and appropriated strategically by both female and male writers to further a vision of national progress that was inclusive of women and incorporated them more fully into public life (14). Gender discourses in Skinner’s narrative become not only constitutive of but also crucial to the projects of social and intellectual modernization articulated by intellectuals throughout the region. Skinner divides her study into five chapters that deal with the following topics from a transnational perspective: a general introduction on the intersection of modernity and gender discourses in Latin America; the use and occupation of public and private spaces by female characters in fiction; the discourse of female domesticity in fiction and journalism; conflicting positions in the debate around female education; and the representation of women’s incorporation into the urban workforce at the turn of the century.
Like the recent work of Nancy LaGreca and Nathalie Bouzaglo, Skinner’s research can be viewed as part of a new wave of criticism in Latin American studies that revisits key concepts and historical narratives from the perspective of gender and sexuality.1 Skinner’s project is characterized by its conceptual and geographic ambition. The author attempts to construct an all-comprising regional narrative of gender discourses, discussing authors and intellectuals from across Latin America—from Guatemala and Mexico to Peru, Argentina, and Chile (although the Caribbean is mostly left out of her account). Besides analyzing the work of canonical authors like Clorinda Matto de Turner, Soledad Acosta de Samper, Juan Manuela Gorriti, and Federico Gamboa, Skinner also deals with lesser-known writers and intellectuals like Eligio Ancona, Ignacio Manuel Altamirano, Rosa Guerra, and Juana Manso de Noronha, and with journalistic articles published in numerous magazines and periodicals. This ability to incorporate lesser-known archival materials into her analysis is undoubtedly one of Skinner’s strongest contributions to the field.
The author’s command of such a diverse array of materials results in informed and sophisticated readings. The second and third chapters explore the representation of private spaces occupied by women, showing how apparently traditional discourses are often reinterpreted to unveil the potentiality for female agency within patriarchal societies. Skinner discusses the confinement of women to the private sphere and how many canonical novels such as Jorge Isaacs’s María, Matto de Turner’s Aves sin nido, and Blest Gana’s Martín Rivas explore the impossibility of maintaining the divide between public and private spheres. One of the most interesting points raised in this chapter is the projection of bourgeois ideals of domesticity and the separation between public and private space onto the representation of the poor and working classes. In dialogue with Doris Sommer’s work, the third chapter vindicates both the importance of domesticity as [End Page 421] a key component of the construction of the female characters in novels from the period, and the importance of these characters’ roles in contemporaneous narratives of modernity (70–72). Through an excellent analysis of Acosta de Samper’s Laura and Una holandesa en América in particular, Skinner demonstrates how, by providing women some agency within the confines of the home, liberal writers from the period could incorporate the that agency into national narratives of progress. Female writers of the period adopted contemporary stereotypical representations of women as domestic angels in order to subvert those narratives and show the ability of women to assert control from within their domestic role (95–96).
In the fourth chapter, Skinner analyzes different positions regarding the education of women, emphasizing...