Ouvi Dizer [Heard Said]: Abortion Rumors and Male Power in Turn-of-the-Century Rio de Janeiro

Friday, January 8, 2016: 8:50 AM
Room M101 (Atlanta Marriott Marquis)
Cassia Roth, University of California, Los Angeles
Gossip on abortion in late-nineteenth-century Brazil represented the circulation of sexual morals that judged a woman based on her chastity, as abortion represented illicit sex in the public imagination. But it was not only women’s honor that was at stake. Men—in their roles as husband, brother, and father—denounced healers and midwives who performed abortions to counterattack what they perceived as assaults on their patriarchal authority. Scholars of fertility control have argued that popular notions of sexual morality, crystallized in abortion and infanticide rumors, worked to control women’s behavior. Yet scholarship has not focused on the role men played in facilitating the spread of gossip surrounding female sexuality.

This paper fills this gap by looking at male gossip and rumor in abortion cases in late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. I argue that women were not the only ones who had to “defend their honor” in response to reproductive-related gossip. Men employed denunciation and the police to defend their own social honor, threatened by female sexual independence evidenced through the clandestine practice of fertility control. Fathers denounced deflowerers who took their daughter’s virginity and husbands denounced midwives who performed abortions on their wives. At a time when women’s honor was moving from the control of the family to that of the state, fertility control threatened men’s eroding patriarchal authority. Men denouncing the people who facilitated women’s access to fertility control was an attempt to reassert their patriarchal clout. In the end, male denunciations relating to female sexual honor worked to uphold the bourgeois family, facilitating the transition of patriarchal authority from the family to the state.