A legal history of women in colonial Brazil

Volume 15 of our Open Access book series ›Global Perspectives on Legal History‹ is out now!

April 08, 2021

In her Portuguese-language monograph, Luisa Stella de Oliveira Coutinho Silva presents a legal history of women in colonial Paraíba, a captaincy located on the northeast coast of Brazil. The study draws on traditional legal sources and other normative traditions for the period from the end of the Dutch occupation (1661) to Brazilian independence in 1822; furthermore, dozens of cases from Portuguese and Brazilian archives are analysed.

Tarsila do Amaral, Composition (Lonely Figure), 1930, Photo: Eduardo Ortega

The book focuses on the daily life situations of women in relation to both secular and religious jurisdictions. The issues touched upon include marriage and other family formations, single parenthood, different experiences of motherhood (eg in cases of rape), widowhood, bigamy, adultery and divorce. The legal and normative experiences of married women are also compared with those of women living in monasteries, houses of retreat (recolhimentos) or prisons, and with those of prostitutes. In addition, the book examines questions of women’s ownership of goods and land, and whether belonging to a particular religion influenced their room for manoeuvre in normative contexts.

The author vividly demonstrates that law on the ground was dynamic and that the interplay of multiple normativities offered women various possibilities depending on their condition, status, religion and sexual options / sexuality. This study of legal practices in colonial Paraíba thus challenges the immutability of sex and gender categories, stressing instead how flexible these categories could be.

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