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Hispanic American Historical Review 82.1 (2002) 175-176

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Book Review

Puerto Rican Women's History: New Perspectives

Puerto Rican Women's History: New Perspectives. Edited by FÉLIX V. MATOS RODRIGUEZ and LINDA C. DELGADO. Perspectives on Latin America and the Caribbean. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1998 . Tables. Figures. Notes. Index. x, 260 pp. Cloth, $62 .95 . Paper, $24 .95 .

This valuable anthology comprises two historiographical essays and nine historical essays by contributors writing from both the Puerto Rican and United States academies. Altagracia Ortiz's historiographical essay, which identifies the main themes in the scholarship on twentieth-century working women, is based on the introduction to her 1996 anthology, and Félix Matos Rodríguez's historical essay was previously published in Spanish, but the collection as a whole is an original set of perspectives on the post-1870 history of Puerto Rican women and gender relations. Matos Rodríguez's historiographical essay finds that the field's emphasis since the 1970 s on working-class women's history reflects the enduring influence of marxist and feminist labor history methods. His questions about the possibilities for a more diverse methodology are answered less through an explicit theoretical agenda than through fresh insights the contributors bring to subjects ranging from prostitution to party politics. They suggest that the field is broadening to include histories of elite women and of gender's centrality to the reproduction and contestation of class, colonial, and--to a lesser extent--racial relations of power in Puerto Rico. Certainly what Matos Rodríguez sees as hesitancy by most scholars in the field to engage gender, cultural, or subaltern studies is not determined by their focus on working-class women. Gladys Jiménez-Muñoz, a contributor, and Eileen Suárez Findlay whom he cites as among the most theoretically adventurous are deeply interested in working women and class relations among women.

Jiménez-Muñoz's and María Barceló-Miller's essays revise the view that a strong cross-class women's suffrage movement developed in the 1920 s, but differ on how wide the class divide was. For Barceló-Miller elite suffragists split along party lines, one faction promoting literacy-restricted suffrage, the other paying lip service to womanhood suffrage. For Jiménez-Muñoz, criticisms of the latter faction were propaganda produced by partisan "sycophants of patrician culture." Barceló-Miller's evidence is stronger, but Jiménez-Muñoz performs a deeper cultural [End Page 175] analysis of elite fears of womanhood suffrage. Apprehensive of the social disorder of modernization, the liberal male elite opposed women's suffrage in order to reassert its own fitness to rule. It relented under pressure from Washington and from its feminist allies for whom restricted suffrage would preserve class respectability. These essays on elite feminists' gendered class attitudes are suggestive of broader elite and colonial anxieties about working women, which other work has shown were deeply racialized.

Anxieties over shifts in women's labor are explored by Matos Rodríguez, Juan José Baldrich, and Félix Muñiz-Mas who deal respectively with the freeing of urban domestic slaves in the 1870 s, the influx of women into cigar making in 1900-30, and the 1940 s' transition toward industrialization. Baldrich provides solid quantitative data for analyzing working-class masculinity, and strengthens Findlay's argument that male labor leaders developed ambivalent gender politics, by showing skilled male cigar makers' reactions to the simultaneous feminization, mechanization, and deskilling of their industry. Matos Rodríguez and Muñiz-Mas show the liberal elite's long-term concern with the dangers of necessary female employment. Abolitionists soothed fears of race war by pointing to the supposed paternal authority of urban masters over female slaves as a postemancipation model of labor discipline. In the 1940 s the Popular Democratic Party deployed female social workers to ensure a smooth transition to cheap female factory labor, a lynchpin of industrialization. Their nineteenth-century predecessors were lady volunteers who founded asilos to train female domestics. In both periods, liberal autonomism...


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pp. 175-176
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Archived 2004
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