In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Historicizing Gender, Medicine, and Biopolitics
  • Okezi T. Otovo (bio)
Juanita De Barros. Reproducing the British Caribbean: Sex, Gender, and Population Politics after Slavery. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014. xi + 279 pp. ISBN 978-1-4696-1605-6 (pb).
A. Kim Clark. Gender, State, and Medicine in Highland Ecuador: Modernizing Women, Modernizing the State, 1895–1950. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012. vii + 255 pp. ISBN 978-0-8229-6209-0 (pb).
Liat Kozma. Policing Egyptian Women: Sex, Law, and Medicine in Khedival Egypt. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2011. ix + 174 pp; ill. ISBN 978-0-8156-3281-8 (cl).

As historians of many areas of the world continue to confirm, the seemingly private dynamics of family life have long been absolutely essential to the directives of imperial regimes and consolidating nation states. All three of the compelling texts examined for this review further reinforce the inextricability of reproduction, sexuality, and gender politics to “modernizing” states. De Barros and Kozma tackle colonial adventures in population management and state consolidation in the nineteenth-century British Caribbean and Khedival Egypt, respectively. Clark, however, analyzes Ecuadorian nation building and the liberal-inspired politics that expanded women and children’s services and policies during the early to mid-twentieth century. Across the three, and in diverse geographical and political contexts, the authors remind their readers that healthy reproduction, family stability, and “proper” sexuality—in all their gendered complexity—have never been far removed from the administration of the state. The authors show myriad ways that political leaders and state agencies, when facing critical historical junctures, turn to monitoring and managing families. They uncover the contexts that bring state attention to, and often policing of, women’s reproductive and childrearing choices, gendered familial roles, and sexual activities within and beyond the confines of the home. And, most importantly, these scholars bring into focus the complex negotiations, constraints, and opportunities engendered when states designate their populations as a key site for making politics.

Of the three books, De Barros’s Reproducing the British Caribbean best develops the transnational context in which reproduction and infant [End Page 149] mortality emerged as central to postcolonial politics and economic policy in three colonies. According to De Barros, one significant strain of early nineteenth-century British abolitionism held that the inability of enslaved populations to reproduce themselves laid bare the gross inhumanity and inefficiency of slavery. This “demographic abolitionism” labeled slave societies like Jamaica, Barbados, and Guyana as places marked by a failure of women of reproductive age to birth healthy infants and by high mortality rates among enslaved children. De Barros investigates all three geographic contexts, as well as Trinidad and Tobago to a lesser extent, although the regional approach of the body of her study often loses the nuanced differentiation between these sites promised in the introduction. Seen through the lens of “demographic abolitionism,” the great promise of emancipation would be an immediate and measurable increase in population size and a rapid decline in infant mortality. When slavery was abolished across the British empire in 1834 and there was no population boom in the Caribbean, colonial officials accused the formerly enslaved of being careless with their children, unwilling to attend to family health and hygiene, and reluctant to pay for medical care. Even the cholera epidemics of 1849 and 1854 and the depressed sugar prices of the 1870s and 1880s did little to silence the critics who proclaimed that black populations failed to take advantage of the “gift” of emancipation. Most of De Barros’s text traces local attempts to respond to the “failed experiment” of emancipation through public health and social programs aimed at women and children (9). The responses also included immigration schemes that brought Chinese and South Asian laborers to the British Caribbean and circulated adults seeking work between islands, Panama, and the United States. In the British Caribbean of the nineteenth century, De Barros argues that colonial administration in the post-abolition period was mainly understood as a riddle of demographic manipulation and population engineering.

The regional approach of this study successfully elucidates the post-abolition global economic forces and labor anxieties that reverberated throughout the British Empire and on the poorest...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 149-155
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.