On Poverty, Morality, and Mothering

On Poverty, Morality, and Mothering

In 1930, nineteen-year-old black (preta) Jovelina Pereira dos Santos, a live-in domestic servant in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, hid her pregnancy from her family and employers, gave birth in secret, and asphyxiated her newborn immediately after delivery. Santos already had a young son named Ernesto who was a little over one year of age. Santos told the police that she was “embarrassed” because the child had been conceived out-of-wedlock (Santos was married, but the father of her most recent child was another man), and that was why she killed her newborn.1

In 1984, twenty-two-year-old Leonor Ferreira became pregnant with her second child in Northeast Brazil.2 Ferreira was single, and the father of both her first son, around two years of age, and the one that she was carrying, was unwilling to support her. Ferreira first took herbs to abort. When those failed, she carried the pregnancy to term and tried, unsuccessfully, to give her newborn son up for informal adoption. Throughout her son’s life, she physically and mentally abused him. She threatened to kill him with a knife and forced him to eat his own vomit. At one point, when he was around nine years old, he ran away from home and lived on the streets of Rio de Janeiro — where the family had moved — to get away from his mother.

Landscape black and white photo of an alleyway in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Young people sit on the curb, a motorcycle is at the fore.
Kids play on the street in Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro on May 9, 2008. (Gardi/Flickr)

Despite the nearly fifty-five years that separate these women, their stories are similar. Young, poor women have out-of-wedlock pregnancies. The fathers of their children are absent from their lives. They lack access to safe and effective contraception or abortion services. They have children they don’t want and who they subsequently kill or severely abuse. It seems they have little agency within the oppressive structural inequalities that dictate their lives.

As a historian of gender, however, I believe it imperative that I give both women “agency” in my telling of the past. Yet I feel very differently towards each story. The first case is a woman for whom I feel empathy; she faced an untenable situation and did perhaps what she felt was her only option, to commit infanticide. Here, oppression has the upper hand in my understanding of the past. It — and not her individual actions — dictated the morality of the situation. I engage in a form of historical cultural relativism. We can’t really judge this woman for strangling her newborn. It occurred in a different time and place, with different social mores. The oppression was stifling.

The woman in the second case, however, is someone I loathe and with whom I cannot empathize. How could you abuse your child in such a brutal manner? You don’t deserve to be his mother. Here, I elide the oppressive circumstances of poverty and gender inequality, shifting the morality of the situation onto her individual choices. I am judgmental and harsh, engaging in the reactionary politics of personal responsibility. If you can’t take care of your child, you shouldn’t have one! Why do I have such different reactions? Part of the reason could be that the second woman happens to be my mother-in-law. Her son was my husband.

I have been thinking a lot lately of the disconnect between how I professionally write the history of women who commit infanticide or abuse their children and how I personally feel about women I know who neglect their children. For me, experiencing the consequences of that abuse — seeing the trauma it left behind in my partner — made glaring the divide between my historical practice and my lived experience. How can I allege to understand one woman but not the other? As a feminist historian, I found agency in both women’s actions. But I hold only one woman morally accountable.

To theorize this hypocrisy, I have found Nancy Scheper-Hughes’s anthropological work helpful. In her study of late twentieth-century shantytown mothers in Northeast Brazil, Scheper-Hughes confronted moral and ethical questions when discussing what she found to be the rational decisions of impoverished mothers.

A crowded landscape of houses built from corrugated metal and scrap lumber.
Shanty town. (BBC World Service/Flickr)

In the face of extreme poverty, chronic hunger, and abject health conditions, many of the mothers in the community in which Scheper-Hughes conducted ethnographic fieldwork fatally neglected sickly infants whom they felt would not survive even if “properly” cared for (within the limits of the material scarcity that enveloped these families). Writes Scheper-Hughes:

[gblockquote]I have stumbled on a situation in which shantytown mothers appear to have ‘suspended the ethical’ — compassion, empathic love, and care — toward some of their weak and sickly infants. The ‘reasonableness’ and the ‘inner logic’ of their actions are patently obvious and are not up for question. But the moral and ethical dimensions of the practices disturb, give reason to pause…and to doubt.3[/gblockquote]

Larger structural inequalities highlight the rationality of these women’s actions. Within the context of an economic and political system that has “suspended the ethical in their relations towards these same women,” conserving scarce resources for healthy children is a logical way to ensure survival of at least some family members.4

But, as Scheper-Hughes argues, we still must evaluate these actions within both their unethical structural context (state neglect) and their amoral personal actions (motherly negligence). Starving a child because you don’t have enough food for your entire family is rational, but it may not be “right.”

For Jovelina Pereira dos Santos, I find it easy to reconcile these two sides: structure and individual agency. Santos’s actions were rational when considered within the extreme structural inequalities that governed her life. But on an individual level, acknowledging that infanticide was a logical response to scarcity and violence did not make it the “right” thing to do. Despite my understanding of the state neglect towards my mother-in-law, a neglect that resulted in extreme poverty, I still want to elide the structure in my fixation on the individual. What my mother-in-law did was not only “wrong” but also unacceptable.

I don’t have an answer to these professional and personal issues. But as historians, a romanticization of the past is never good praxis. Of course, neither is an ahistorical and isolated approach to the present. From conversations with colleagues and friends, many of whom had similar reactions to these stories without knowing my personal connection, it appears that this is a larger methodological issue in gender history. How do we explain historical agency and oppression? How do we make moral judgments about some people and not others? How can we feel one way about the past and a contradictory way towards the present? The challenge continues…

Further Reading

Tobias Hecht, At Home in the Street: Street Children of Northeast Brazil (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

S.P. Mohanty, “Us and Them: On the Philosophical Bases of Political Criticism,” The Yale Journalism of Criticism 2, no. 2 (1989): 1-31.


  1. Tribunal de Justiça do Estado do Rio de Janeiro, hereafter (TJRJ) Parte, Jovelina Pereira dos Santos (1930). Return to text.
  2. Name changed to protect identity. Return to text.
  3. Nancy Scheper-Hughes, Death Without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1992), 22. Return to text.
  4. Ibid. Return to text.

Featured image caption: São Paulo. (Wienke/Flickr)

Cassia received her PhD in Latin American History with a Concentration in Gender Studies from the University of California, Los Angeles. Her book manuscript, titled A Miscarriage of Justice: Reproduction, Medicine, and the Law in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (1890-1940), examines reproductive health in relation to legal and medical policy in turn-of-the-century Rio de Janeiro. Cassia’s research has been supported by the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, the Coordinating Council for Women in History, the Fulbright IIE, and the National Science Foundation.