Intertwined Histories and Embodied Lives: An Interview with Cassia Roth

Intertwined Histories and Embodied Lives: An Interview with Cassia Roth

Elizabeth O’Brien

In A Miscarriage of Justice: Women’s Reproductive Lives and the Law in Early Twentieth-Century Brazil, Cassia Roth offers an innovative approach to the intertwined histories of honor, reproduction, maternity, and medicine in modern Brazilian history. With deep archival research, nuanced argumentation, and sensitivity toward historical actors — their suffering and their agency — Roth traces Brazilian women’s “negotiation of [their] reproductive lives against all odds” (220). Drawing on legal mandates and legislative codes, medical treatises, public health reports, and more than 260 extensively-documented court cases, Roth contributes a fresh, exciting, embodied history of reproduction to the rich extant literature on gender, honor, the law, and the Brazilian state.

Elizabeth: Cassia, first of all, I wanted to congratulate you on this eloquent and original monograph. It forges an innovative methodological path for young scholars working on reproduction, medicine, law, and Latin American history. The first thing that struck me is how you manage to read legal histories of abortion and infanticide alongside medical histories of obstetrics. I found myself wondering: did you set out to combine these bodies of primary sources into one book? Or was this a methodology that arose from the archives?

Cassia Roth, Assistant Professor in History & Latin American and Caribbean Studies Institute, University of Georgia.

Cassia: When I started the project I was particularly interested in abortion and infanticide, and so I turned towards legal sources, specifically court cases and police investigations. In the process, I noticed somewhat of a surprise: there is a whole history of medicine in these cases. In an infanticide trial, a woman will narrate her reproductive history, her experience with pregnancy, etc. Of course these are mediated sources, but I realized that historians can get reproductive histories from “the patient’s point of view” from court cases. After I realized this, I knew I was dealing with both a legal and medical history of reproduction, rather than just a legal history of fertility control, so I expanded my research to also look at medical sources.

Elizabeth: And you make powerful arguments by combining these histories. You demonstrate, for example, that “the state allocates unequal citizenship through women’s bodies, and thus a study of women’s own reproductive experiences is key to understanding the institutionalization of inequality in twentieth-century Brazil” (19).

Cassia: Well, I had a lightbulb moment. I realized: when studying the early twentieth century, when women’s reproductive health outcomes were poor, historians cannot disentangle abortion and miscarriage. And that’s one of the main things I wanted to say with the book: historians of gender and medicine often divide histories of abortion or infanticide from those of women’s reproductive lives in general or obstetrics. I don’t think we can do that before the mid-twentieth century. I also think about not separating the history of fertility control from that of women’s experiences with motherhood. Let me give you an example: chapter four relates the tragic story of Maria Vieira da Silva, who died from an illegal abortion. But here’s the detail that struck me. Maria’s child was in the room when the abortion was performed, and so a historian must not write her maternity out of the story. In other words, here the history of abortion is also the history of motherhood. Because again, it’s not that either you committed infanticide or you were a mother. Many women [did] both.

Elizabeth: I noticed that you identify as a feminist historian in the introduction to your book. When and how did you make this decision? Could you talk a little more about what embodied feminist scholarship means in practice? Where do you hope to go with this line of inquiry?

Cassia: I felt that I had to. I do believe that women should have access to reproductive healthcare without risking their lives; that women should have access to abortions; and that abortion is not the antithesis of maternity. I didn’t want to hide those beliefs. Some could have been concerned that these stances biased the book, and so I decided that I simply had to state my position as a feminist historian, and situate my scholarship as such.

Feminist theory made me determined to center the body however I could. Reproduction is fundamentally about the body, and I don’t think that we can write it from a sterile point of view. I remember reading Emily Martin’s The Woman in the Body, and thinking: “anthropologists are allowed to critique patriarchal interventions on women’s bodies.” I decided to take the stance that historians can also situate themselves as feminists, and that it is more than appropriate for them to do so in their work about reproduction.

My new project is looking at new approaches to writing about pain in history. I started to notice that I read these sources — about infanticide, especially — so closely, and for so long, that I had started to dissociate and distance myself from them, emotionally. I would be jarred back into feeling when I would present my findings, when people would grimace in the audience. I started to think of the embodiment question in a different way: “how do we pay attention to how we read these stories?” Our own embodiment is just one more tool in the historian’s toolbox. Here, I’m drawing on a whole range of feminist scholarship on embodiment that encourages us to try to feel, to imagine, and to write the history of reproduction with attention to women’s experiences in their bodies.

Elizabeth: Women’s honor is a well-established topic of inquiry in Latin American history. How does your work take this scholarship in new directions?

Cassia: Anyone who knows the field of Brazilian history knows that my research is deeply indebted to Sueann Caulfield’s work on honor. But I think looking at abortion and infanticide pushes us to think about the gray areas of honor even more. I wanted to connect conversations about honor to the bitter end of sex — to what happens when you have the wrong kind of sex (outside of wedlock or forced, for example). Sometimes (or often) you get pregnant. I found that it was dishonorable to have a child out of wedlock, yes — but here’s the surprise: I argue that even a “fallen woman” had the potential to earn maternal honor. If you had sex before marriage, you lost your sexual honor, yes, but you still had the opportunity to repair that — to some extent — by becoming a mother. Abortion and infanticide blows that all up, because the perception is that women are denying the consequences of having become “fallen women.” Perhaps it’s a double sin. So I really wanted to push the conversation about honor by taking us to the embodied history of those sexual encounters, which so often ended in pregnancy.

Cover of A Miscarriage of Justice:
Women’s Reproductive Lives and the Law in Early Twentieth-Century Brazil
by Cassia Roth. (Courtesy Stanford University Press)

Elizabeth: That’s a really powerful observation. It resonates with me, and I hope you don’t mind if I speak anecdotally here, because I’ve seen people interrogate women about the circumstances of their pregnancy, marriage, and their children’s births. I always got the sense that they were trying to decide what level of honor those women deserved. Sometimes people would shake their heads and say, “Well, at least she kept her baby,” and I never knew what to make of that. Now I can see that they were saying “at least she has maternal honor, and deserves some respect for that.” Sorry for the digression, but this is hitting me really hard.

Cassia: I think that demonstrates the continued resonance of these trends in Latin America and the United States. Thank you for sharing. It’s always interesting to think about how we assign moral value to other peoples’ reproductive decisions, and how this history of emotions is historically contingent at the same time that it continues to affect our treatment of others, even today.

Elizabeth: Yes. I really like your approach to this in chapter five, which takes a ground-level approach by analyzing rumors about race, sex, and honor. You convincingly argue that nothing about reproduction, maternity, pain, or violence is black and white — and this book honors this history by giving its readers a sophisticated portrait of the shades of gray. I think this gray area continues today, and I was hoping you could speak more about the criminalization of poor women’s health in Brazil today.

Cassia: The legal and medical practices forged in the early twentieth century continue to structure women’s lives today. Then, as now, the state most often prosecuted the abortion provider (and not the woman), because legal and medical officials saw (and see) women as unable to make rational decisions about their reproductive lives. Meanwhile, skin color absolutely continues to dictate poor health outcomes. In 1988, Brazil enshrined healthcare as a human right, and they have done a lot to work towards that goal; and yet, social conditions and ideologies still structure how people receive healthcare. Opposition to abortion has grown slowly in the last decade. I think a lot of this has to do with a growing evangelical movement and the rise of right-wing figures like Bolsonaro (the neo-fascist, racist, and sexist current president of Brazil). There is a strong and militant feminist movement in Brazil, but a lot of people see those movements as disconnected from their lives. Unfortunately I don’t predict a successful movement to decriminalize abortion anytime soon in Brazil. But, as I saw in the book, women will continue to negotiate their reproductive lives, no matter the cost. Let’s just hope that all women, regardless of class or color, have the better options in the future.

Featured image caption: Detail from the cover of A Miscarriage of Justice Women’s Reproductive Lives and the Law in Early Twentieth-Century Brazil by Cassia Roth. (Courtesy Stanford University Press)

Elizabeth O’Brien is an Assistant Professor in the Department of the History of Medicine at Johns Hopkins University. Her first book project, Intimate Interventions: The Cultural Politics of Reproductive Surgery in Mexico, 1790–1940, uses archival as well as published theological and medical sources to examine how philosophical changes concerning fetal ensoulment, racial heredity, and surgical ethics played out under religious, republican, and revolutionary governments, thereby contributing to the formation of the Mexican state. She is also working on a collaborative project, which will offer the first Italian-English translation of Francesco Emanuele Cangiamila’s Embriología Sacra (1751). O’Brien’s research has been published in Endeavour and Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos, and is under review with The Journal of Women’s History. Her scholarship has been supported by the American Council of Learned Societies/The Andrew Mellon Foundation, the National Science Foundation, the Fulbright Program, the History of Science Society, the American Historical Association, and the Tinker Foundation.