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Progressive Mothers, Better Babies

Progressive Mothers, Better Babies
Race, Public Health, and the State in Brazil, 1850–1945

This illuminating study explores the social and cultural history of Brazilian family health and welfare policies—particularly the effect of the reform-minded maternalist movement on impoverished women and children and on the uneven integration of Afro-Brazilians into the modern welfare state

Series: Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Endowment in Latin American and Latino Art and Culture

May 2016
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288 pages | 6 x 9 | Hardcover has a printed case, no dust jacket | 15 b&w photos |

In Bahia, Brazil, the decades following emancipation saw the rise of reformers who sought to reshape the citizenry by educating Bahian women in methods for raising “better babies.” The idealized Brazilian would be better equipped to contribute to the labor and organizational needs of a modern nation. Backed by many physicians, politicians, and intellectuals, the resulting welfare programs for mothers and children mirrored complex debates about Brazilian nationality. Examining the local and national contours of this movement, Progressive Mothers, Better Babies investigates families, medical institutions, state-building, and social stratification to trace the resulting policies, which gathered momentum in the aftermath of abolition (1888) and the declaration of the First Republic (1889), culminating during the administration of President Getúlio Vargas (1930–1945).

Exploring the cultural discourses on race, gender, and poverty that permeated medical knowledge and the public health system for almost a century, Okezi T. Otovo draws on extensive archival research to reconstruct the implications for Bahia, where family patronage politics governed poor women’s labor as the mothers who were the focus of medical interventions were often the nannies and nursemaids of society’s wealthier families. The book reveals key transition points as the state of Bahia transformed from being a place where poor families could expect few social services to becoming the home of numerous programs targeting the poorest mothers and their children. Negotiating crucial questions of identity, this history sheds new light on larger debates about Brazil’s past and future.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Abbreviations
  • Note on Orthography and Currency
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1. Persistence and Change: The "Mulata Velha"
  • Chapter 2. Domestic Health Care: The Mãe Preta
  • Chapter 3. Motherhood as Science: The Curiosa
  • Chapter 4. Foundling Care and Family Welfare: The Mãe Desnaturada
  • Chapter 5. Bahia’s Estado Novo: The Pai dos Pobres
  • Conclusion
  • A Suggestive Epilogue
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

“Otovo stands apart in the ambitious scope of her volume, anchored by a brilliant theoretical framing of shifts across time…an impressive and beautifully written study; I look forward to reading Otovo's work for years to come.”
Bulletin of the History of Medicine

“For those seeking to put a human experience and face to the often top-down institutional histories of public health, this book will be essential reading.”
Hispanic American Historical Review

“An insightful study of the intersections of public health, politics, race, and gender in Brazil from 1850 to 1945.”
Luso-Brazilian Review

“In addition to its substantial historical contributions, Progressive Mothers, Better Babies reminds us that the national level is but one possible level of analysis in scholarly research. This journal's readers…will find much to like in a book that uncovers the consequence and novelty of a specific region in the history of maternalism, and that opens up the possibility of making comparisons between different Afro-American health worlds.”
Journal of Latin American Studies

“Otovo provides a meticulous historical account of the development of maternal and child care in Bahia…The rigorous and detailed historical research, personalised cases and engaging writing style make this book an excellent resource for scholars of history, maternity and infancy in Brazil.”
Bulletin of Latin American Research

“The narrative [of Progressive Mothers, Better Babies] deals comfortably with ambiguity, avoiding the precise cuts that most of the time might exist in theoretical frameworks of analysis, but are scarce in real social and individual life. I see in Otovo's book another significant achievement: Progressive Mothers, Better Babies is not merely a history of discourses about maternalism but a history that delves into the tensions between medical discourses, clinical practices, and women's experiences.”
Latin American Research Review

“An exciting study about the evolution of pregnancy, motherhood, and infancy in Bahia, Brazil, in the century spanning the abolition of slavery. This book will be fundamental to the field of maternity and childhood studies in Latin America.”
Jerry Dávila, University of Illinois, author of Hotel Tropico: Brazil and the Challenge of African Decolonization

“An important book, providing access to neglected archival documentation that brings new light to the lives of poor black and brown women in modern Brazil.”
Anadelia Romo, Texas State University, author of Brazil’s Living Museum: Race, Reform, and Tradition in Bahia


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This book may also be available on the following library platforms; check with your local library:
3M Cloud Library/bibliotheca
UPCC/Project Muse