Advanced Topic: Reproductive Histories

By: Dr. Cassia Roth, Associate Professor, University of Georgia

 With this collection of sources, we hope to bring to a wider audience the history of reproduction and fertility control in Latin American history by focusing on nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Mexico and Brazil. The sources are wide ranging – including handwritten notes from post-abortive women to their midwives, to institutional reports on alternative obstetric training, to criminal cases of abortion. They involve a variety of actors. The most obvious are the women who became pregnant, gave birth, or sought to control their fertility. Women also appear as midwives, less often as obstetricians, and always as family members. But men are not absent. Of course, the most obvious place we see men are in positions of authority: as police officers investigating abortion-related deaths, as judges condemning women for infanticide, as obstetricians delivering babies, or as husbands and fathers dismayed at their “wayward” women in their lives. Women may have borne the bodily burden of reproduction, but men were most certainly involved.

The experiences of the people who appear in these sources were not only marked by gender. Race and class were also salient facets of their identities. Poor women, often of African or indigenous descent, bore the brunt of state efforts to control women’s reproductive capabilities, both because they held less privacy than their white, middle-class counterparts and because authorities often viewed them as inherently “dangerous.” But strictures were not simply top-down. Intra-class denunciations of fertility control show how normative views on gender and sexuality circulated far beyond the hospitals and courtrooms. How did race and class affect women’s experiences with healthcare, in relation to access and quality? How did it affect patterns of the criminalization of fertility control? Whose voices are lost to the historical record? What were the worldviews of those voices to which we do have access?

With these sources, readers will see that women’s experiences with healthcare could be both traumatizing and dangerous. They will explore how the institutional structures of healthcare themselves were built, contested, and even destroyed over time. Alternative forms of training were built and rebuilt, often in response to small and large forms of resistance. Friction between midwives and obstetricians was sometimes heated in the early twentieth century. How were health care providers trained? How did gendered understandings of proper social roles play into this? How did it affect the delivery of healthcare services?

Many scholars have addressed the questions posed above, and the history of reproduction in Latin America is a growing field. Yet the term is broad – reproduction can refer to the reproduction of anything, from babies to social mores to factory goods. Marx, for example, defined reproduction as the reproduction of the entire capitalist system. Clarifying what we mean when we say “the history of reproduction” is thus crucial. Biological reproduction—the activities that encompass the conception, carrying, and birth of a new human being—includes sexual intercourse, miscarriage, childbirth, and breastfeeding, among others. Biological reproduction requires both male and female bodies, but it is the female-bodied person who is more tethered to its exigencies. Although today we know that not all people who are pregnant identify as women, these more fluid gender identities are a modern phenomenon, and before the twenty-first century they were not firmly established (and, as we know, are still contested today). We also know that modern medicine played a large role in producing (and naturalizing) what we understand as categories of womanhood. Thus, when we speak of women, we refer to womanhood as a category, not only as relating to individual women. For these reasons we can say that, historically, women have borne the burden of biological reproduction more acutely than men have. This burden spanned legal, interpersonal, and economic realms as well as biological ones. Women were not only corporealized as mothers. Their reproductive experiences were also extrapolated from private contexts to convey moralized judgements about their behavior, rationality, and worth.

Biological reproduction, of course, does not end with the weaning of an infant. Feminists have expanded upon the biological by using the term “social reproduction,” which refers to, in the words of Evelyn Nakano Glenn, “the array of activities and relationships involved in maintaining people both on a daily basis and intergenerationally.” This includes household chores such as cooking and cleaning and “maintaining kin and community ties.” This feminist critique of Marxist understandings of production, centered solely on the “economic” or “productive” spheres, reframes the unpaid labor of the home as central to the functioning of society. Clearly, biological and social reproduction are not mutually exclusive or disconnected, and historical sources that focus on the biological often touch on the social: a woman who sought out an abortion in early twentieth-century Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for example, brought her two-and-a-half-year-old son with her to the procedure that eventually killed her. Before her death, she told police she couldn’t afford to have another child.

Over the last thirty years, historians of Latin America have emphasized varying aspects of the history of biological reproduction without necessarily defining it as such. Studies of sexual (dis)honor have dominated the historiography of both the colonial and modern periods, with emphasis on gendered double standards, religious prescriptions, and shifting meanings of social and racial status. In the modern period, scholars also have focused on prostitution, the most “dishonorable” profession. But what is sex if not the first act in reproduction? The history of sex work is the history of reproduction, whether or not it is specifically framed as such.

More recently, historians of medicine have turned toward the history of childbirth, exploring it on its own terms and in relation to much larger themes including slavery, nation-building, and religion. Another, crucial area of growth has been the history of fertility control, often defined in its negative sense. Both historically and contemporarily, to “control” one’s fertility can have both “negative” and “positive” connotations. To be clear, with these terms we are not passing any moral judgements in relation to the reproductive practice in question. An abortion, for example, can be a “positive” act for a woman who doesn’t want a child even though it is a “negative” aspect of reproduction in that it impedes it. The popular and scholarly understanding of “fertility control” most often references its negative aspects, perhaps better described as “anti-conception”, including contraception – in all its forms – abortion, and infanticide, a practice that was much more common until the early twentieth century. But it can also include “positive” or pro-conception facets, with fertility treatments and prayers to support conception.

In Latin America, scholars have focused on the negative aspect, often because the historical sources available tend to overrepresent them by presenting them as “problems” rather than normal activities. When abortion and infanticide were criminalized, as they were (and continue to be) in many places in Latin America, the historical record overemphasizes the “criminal” aspects of these histories. As such, we only get the sensational cases – the abortions and sometimes childbirths that led to maternal death. Those that occurred without problems are lost to the historical record.

To be clear, abortion and infanticide are not the same crime, and we do not define them as such. Infanticide has always been criminalized as a variant of homicide, a crime “apart” from abortion, but one women commonly resorted to throughout the colonial and modern periods. Abortion was also criminalized (and continues to be in most parts of Latin America), but it had more caveats and leniency within its legal parameters. But legal and medical practitioners, as well as the public at large, often confused the two.

This collection will bring you into the reproductive worlds of the men and women of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Mexico and Brazil. Their stories and struggles shaped the modern formation of their respective nations. We hope these sources give them the historical attention they deserve.

This work has received support from the Lilly Teaching Fellowship from the Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of Georgia.

Further Reading:

Bhattacharya, Tithi. ed., Social Reproduction Theory: Remapping Class, Recentering Oppression. Pluto Press, 2017.

Bliss, Katherine Elaine. Compromised Positions: Prostitution, Public Health, and Gender Politics in Revolutionary Mexico City. Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001.

Bourbonnais, Nicole. Birth Control in the Decolonizing Caribbean: Reproductive Politics and Practice on Four Islands, 1930–1970. Cambridge University Press, 2016.

Caulfield, Sueann. In Defense of Honor: Sexual Morality, Modernity, and Nation in Early-Twentieth Century Brazil. Duke University Press, 2000.

De Barros, Juanita. Reproducing the British Caribbean: Sex, Gender, and Population Politics after Slavery. University of North Carolina Press, 2014.

Fissell, Mary. Vernacular Bodies: The Politics of Reproduction in Early Modern England. Oxford University Press, 2004.

Flemming, Rebecca. “Fertility Control in Ancient Rome.” Women’s History Review 30, no. 6 (2021): 896–914.

Glenn, Evelyn Nakano. “From Servitude to Service Work: Historical Continuities in the Racial Division of Paid Reproductive Labor,” Signs 18, no. 1 (1992): 1 – 43.

Guy, Donna J. Sex and Danger in Buenos Airs: Prostitution, Family, and Nation in Argentina. University of Nebraska Press, 1990.

Jaffary, Nora E. Reproduction and Its Discontents in Mexico: Childbirth and Contraception from 1750 to 1905. University of North Carolina Press, 2016.

Kimball, Natalie L. An Open Secret: The History of Unwanted Pregnancy and Abortion in Modern Bolivia. Rutgers University Press, 2020.

Moscucci, Ornella. The Science of Woman: Gynaecology and Gender in England, 1800–1929. Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Necochea López, Raúl. A History of Family Planning in Twentieth Century Peru. University of North Carolina Press, 2014.

O’Brien, Elizabeth. “Intimate Interventions: The Cultural Politics of Reproductive Surgery in Mexico, 1790–1940.” PhD Diss., University of Texas at Austin, 2019.

Roth, Cassia. A Miscarriage of Justice: Women’s Reproductive Lives and the Law in Early Twentieth-Century Brazil. Stanford University Press, 2020.

Suárez Findlay, Eileen J. Imposing Decency: The Politics of Sexuality and Race in Puerto Rico, 1870-1920. Duke University Press, 1999.

Turner, Sasha. Contested Bodies: Pregnancy, Childrearing, and Slavery in Jamaica. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017.

Twinam, Ann. Public Lives, Private Secrets: Gender, Honor, Sexuality, and Illegitimacy in Colonial Spanish America. Stanford University Press, 1999.

Von Germeten, Nicole. Profit and Passion: Transactinal Sex in Colonial Mexico. University of California Press, 2018.

Vosne Martins, Ana Paula. Visões do feminino: a medicina da mulher nos séculos XIX e XX. Editora Fiocruz, 2004.

Yarfitz, Mir. Impure Migration: Jews and Sew Work in Golden Age Argentina. Rutgers University Press, 2019.

Zárate Campos, María Soledad. Dar a luz en Chile, siglo XIX: De la ‘ciencia de hembra’ a la ciencia obstétrica. Ediciones Universidade Alberto Hurtado, 2007.