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Free wombs: a study on the representations of African and African-American women in 19th century Brazil and Cuba

Grant number: 23/03063-5
Support Opportunities:Scholarships abroad - Research Internship - Doctorate
Effective date (Start): September 01, 2024
Effective date (End): January 31, 2025
Field of knowledge:Humanities - History - History of America
Principal Investigator:Maria Helena Pereira Toledo Machado
Grantee:Caroline Passarini Sousa
Supervisor: Barbara Sue Weinstein
Host Institution: Faculdade de Filosofia, Letras e Ciências Humanas (FFLCH). Universidade de São Paulo (USP). São Paulo , SP, Brazil
Research place: New York University, United States  
Associated to the scholarship:22/01200-2 - Free wombs: study on the representations of African and African-American women in Brazil and Cuba in the 19th century, BP.DR


The womb of enslaved women played a fundamental role in the establishment of slavery in the Americas. Through the roman principle partus sequitur ventrem, it was defined that a person's condition of slavery would be linked to the status of his mother. The matrilineal nature of slavery made enslaved women and their bodies play central roles as producers and reproducers of slave wealth throughout the Atlantic World. In the 1780s, the nascent abolitionist movement sought to prove that slavery not only physically harmed enslaved women, but also weakened their morals. The moral degradation suffered prevented them from fulfilling their "feminine" roles, also harming their fertility. In this way, they proposed the improvement of medical and material conditions of young enslaved women to promote biological reproduction in some colonies. The main objective of these projects was to solve the problem of female fertility and the low birth rate in specific regions. In some ways, abolitionism raised enslaved black women to the center of a colonial policy, aiming for the gradual abolition of slavery.At the same time, other nations in the Americas chose to forward the end of slavery through policies that also had a direct impact on the body of black women. In line with the debates about the end of slavery developed at the end of the 18th century and throughout the 19th, Brazil and Cuba implemented their Free Womb Laws in the 1870s, both responsible for derogating the structuring principle of slavery. These laws freed children born from enslaved wombs, who had to render services to their mothers' masters, and prohibited the separation of slave mothers and young children.By freeing the wombs of enslaved women, these laws also interfered with their bodies, reproduction and maternity. Therefore, based on a vast national and international documentation - especially the Brazilian Chamber and Senate annals and debates in the Spanish courts - the objective of this research project is to follow all the formulations and opinions placed around the Free Womb Laws related to enslaved women in Brazil and Cuba. We intend to examine how the figure of this woman is being evaluated in terms of her performance, her body, sexuality, and reproductive capacity. Analyzing the historical role attributed to these women in the exercise of motherhood. Therefore we propose an investigation of the construction of representations about black women - enslaved, freed and freed to be - from an intersectional, transnational and gender perspective. (AU)

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