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Journal of Women's History 15.1 (2003) 28-42

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Making the Private Public
A Brazilian Perspective

Sandra Lauderdale Graham

A former slave woman worried about her reputation, a middle-class woman frightened about the spread of syphilis, a wealthy woman who dramatized her plight by selling sweets—these Brazilian women demonstrate that the categories of public and private, or house and street as I characterized them elsewhere, remain instructive in revealing and interpreting the workings of nineteenth-century private life. 1 Each of these women thought to remedy distressing or harmful situations by making deeply personal matters public. Their strategies qualify any expectation we might have of nineteenth-century female discretion, silence, or indecision.

Their choices for action must be read within a framework of local assumptions and understandings. In the vocabulary of nineteenth-century Brazilians, house and street designated contrasting zones of daily domestic life. House signified safe and private spaces, while street summoned up crowded, noisy, dirty, smelly, and potentially dangerous public places. House sheltered the known and trusted ties of family and kinship from the anonymous, coarse, and disorderly society that supposedly belonged to the street. And if patriarchal authority governed the household, then fear of the street required its own regulation enforced by civil authority. The commerce of the street was a daytime matter when persons of all classes might legitimately transact business, earn their livelihood, pass the time with their fellows, or simply come and go. After dark, however, those still on the street were viewed with suspicion. Until as late as 1878, the ringing of church bells at ten o'clock (an hour earlier in winter) summoned people home. After that time those "on the street without clear reason, or at taverns, bars, or gambling houses" were subject to jail or fines. Slaves carried written notes from their masters to explain their presence, and cortiços (the collective slums of the poor) locked their gates against runaway slaves, unruly intruders, and to keep their own tenants inside. The tools an artisan casually carried during daytime working hours became arms after the evening ringing of the "Ave Maria" and were forbidden. 2

The two zones further correspond roughly, and never exclusively, to male and female. Public street life was principally and comfortably a male domain; as one historian put it, men enjoyed the "easy fellowship of the street and plaza . . . where they discussed politics . . . and transacted business." 3 [End Page 28] Nonetheless, drawings and photographs make abundantly clear that women, too, were out and about. They strolled in the gardens of the Passeio Público overlooking the bay, shopped on the fashionable streets, and called on friends. But a woman of good family ventured out cautiously, perhaps in the seclusion of a carriage or, earlier, in a curtained sedan chair, or in the company of another woman. Protection was more symbolic than actual when supplied by a black maid who was no more than a young girl herself or when a woman took her children with her as companions, but they were enough to project the protecting aura of the house onto the street. In contrast, the interior quarters of the house were properly a woman's domain where she cared for the children, oversaw kitchen work, marketing, laundry, sewing, cleaning, or directed servants, sometimes an entire staff, sometimes only one, in the endlessly repeating cycles of household work.

These conventional constructions begin as categories of opposition but quickly dissolve into less tidy, more complex, and more illuminating zones of action, strategy, or negotiation where more choices existed than we might suppose, and the boundaries frequently were blurred or crossed. Households, in fact, distinguished between servant women who "did not go out on the street," the favored ones—slave women, for example, who were born and raised within a household and reserved for "indoor work"—and those for whom the risks were discounted—older, more experienced women who knew their way around or the less valued younger ones. Belmira, a young slave woman, had only to be sent by her master to fetch...


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