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Reviewed by:
  • The City of Women
  • Susan K. Besse
Landes, Ruth . The City of Women. 2d ed. Introduction Sally Cole. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1994. Glossary. xxxvi + 251 pp.

The second edition of Ruth Landes' classic 1947 study of candomblé in Salvador, Bahia, published by the University of New Mexico Press in 1994, was reprinted in 2005. Landes would be pleased that finally The City of Women—which she considered to be her best work—is appreciated as the pioneering ethnography it was.

In the informative introduction, anthropologist Sally Cole contrasts Landes' work with that of her peers. Although she was trained by Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict and funded by Columbia University in 1938–39 to study race relations in Bahia, Landes charted new territory that placed her on the margins of the profession. Rejecting "scientific" ethnographic description based on evidence collected though formal interviews and second-hand reports, Landes opted for an experiential participant observation approach, immersed herself in the lives of Bahia's poor, and integrated the voices of her informants into her writing. Rather than looking for survivals of African culture (as did Raymundo Nina Rodrigues, Artur Ramos, Donald Pierson, and Melville Herskovits, among others), Landes focused on the ways in which candomblé emerged from local histories and material realities and sustained Bahia's poor urban communities, thus constituting a vibrant, syncretic, and changing religion. Struck by the centrality of women to candomblé practice and the high number of male homosexuals among candomblé priests, she placed gender and sexuality at the heart of her study. Only Roger Bastide lauded Landes' ethnography, and Landes published The City of [End Page 181] Women as a trade book after academic presses rejected her manuscript. Refusing to accommodate her unorthodox voice to the intellectual fashions of her times, Landes did not gain an academic position until 1965, and then at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.

The City of Women would not exist had it not been for Landes' collaboration with Edison Carneiro, a Bahian-born mulatto, radical journalist, folklorist, and ogan (honorary male lay protector of candomblé). As informant, companion, and lover, Carneiro provided Landes with introductions to key intellectuals and leading figures in Bahian cult life as well as the escort that a "respectable" white woman needed to travel into poor black Bahian neighborhoods and participate in all-night candomblé rituals. They become central personages in the book, and their relationship and conversations shed fascinating light on the gender, race, and class dynamics of Bahian society. In one revealing incident, Landes proposes to Carneiro that they join the dancing at a birthday party attended by candomblé practitioners. Carneiro (an excellent and normally enthusiastic dancer) declines, explaining: "They will talk about us . . . Then the other men will come over and invite you—and there will be confusion! They will think you are staring at them for a purpose! You must act like a lady!"(199–200).

Gender and sexuality are at the center of The City of Women. Treating candomblé as a social and economic institution as much as a religious one, Landes describes these female-centered communities as vital sites where poor women created tight bonds of mutual assistance and affection and led independent lives. Priestesses—who "belonged" to their orixás (spirits or gods), not to husbands—lived with their biological daughters as well as female spirit medium initiates and their children in the candomblé terreiros (sites or temples). Common law marriage was preferred over legal marriage; husbands visited the terreiros and sometimes lived in separate huts on the same property. Women typically supported their households through street vending, sewing, washing, and administering religious rites, while husbands and ogans contributed cash and other forms of support, including drumming for candomblé ceremonies and slaughtering animals.

Landes quotes Carneiro's explanation of the prominence of women in candomblé ritual as related to the manner in which a priestess becomes possessed by a spirit or god who "descends into her head and rides her [as a horse]"(37). Only in the more modern "caboclo candomblés" did some men consent to be "mounted" by a god; these men were sometimes referred to as "wives" of the spirits or gods...


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