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Durham University

School of Modern Languages & Cultures

Events in Modern Languages & Cultures

Transnationalism Research Group seminar - Cassia Roth (UCLA): “He Said, She Said: Abortion Rumours and Power in Early-Twentieth-Century Rio de Janeiro, Brazil”.

3rd May 2016, 17:00, History Department, 43 North Bailey, Seminar Room 2.

Abstract: Did you hear about that girl who had an abortion? Gossip like this represents the circulation of ideas on proper female sexuality. In early-twentieth-century Brazil, society judged a woman based on her chastity outside of marriage and her fidelity within it. Gossip on abortion—associated with clandestine sex—demarcated these moral boundaries. Social scientists have long addressed how gossip creates and maintains socially acceptable moral boundaries. More recently, historians of Latin America have begun to approach gossip as an important historical source that demonstrates the values of any given society. Yet scholarship has not explored how the sexual mores expressed in abortion gossip both built upon and facilitated its official criminalization. This talk remedies this gap by looking at the function of gossip and rumor surrounding abortion in early-twentieth-century Rio de Janeiro. These “informal” controlling speech forms exerted power because they interacted with a “formal” police and judicial system ready to act. However, while the state pushed to strengthen institutions of social control in the first several decades of the twentieth century, the police and judicial systems were plagued with bureaucratic inefficiencies that weakened their ability to act as a strict enforcer. Thus, I argue that gossip relied on formal institutions to create scandal, but the social shame rarely came from official punishment such as jail time. The informal and formal interacted to create a web of punishment that transcended this binary and created a culture of social shame surrounding fertility control that proved far more enduring than any jail sentence.

Contact zoe.roth@durham.ac.uk for more information about this event.