Giving Birth in the Marvelous City: Women’s Embodied Experiences of Childbirth in Early 20th-Century Rio de Janeiro

Saturday, January 7, 2017: 4:10 PM
Room 201 (Colorado Convention Center)
Cassia Roth, University of California, Los Angeles
In the first half of the twentieth century, physicians across Latin America began to hospitalize the process of childbirth. In Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the obstetric profession worked tirelessly to institutionalize pregnancy and delivery during the century’s first four decades. Yet they remained unsuccessful in their goals, and women of all classes continued to give birth at home to varying degrees of medical attention. Historians of Brazil have demonstrated the medical profession constructed maternity hospitals in an attempt to take control of the birthing process. Scholarship has also analyzed how obstetric reformers were forced to rely on philanthropic support, as maternal and infant health only became a platform of the federal government with Getúlio Vargas’s Estado Novo (1937-1945). Yet scholarship has neither understood the quantitative realities of the home-to-hospital process nor analyzed women’s lived experiences of childbirth. This paper remedies this gap by situating women’s embodied experiences of giving birth within a quantitative understanding of these changes.

Employing women’s descriptions of pregnancy and childbirth culled from judicial records, I argue that women’s embodied understandings of pregnancy and birth as familial, non-medical events stymied the medicalization of childbirth. I position women’s understandings within quantitative health data that demonstrate that most births continued to occur at home throughout this period. While physicians began a concerted effort to move births from a home to hospital setting during this time period, the lack of state support was not the only reason they failed in their attempts. Rather, physicians faced the formidable task of dismantling the deeply-rooted tradition of female agency and control over the birthing process.

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