Imposing Decency

The Politics of Sexuality and Race in Puerto Rico, 1870–1920

Imposing Decency

American Encounters/Global Interactions

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Book Pages: 328 Illustrations: 15 b&w photographs Published: January 2000

Caribbean Studies, Gender and Sexuality > Feminism and Women’s Studies, History > Latin American History

Feminists, socialists, Afro-Puerto Rican activists, and elite politicians join laundresses, prostitutes, and dissatisfied wives in populating the pages of Imposing Decency. Through her analyses of Puerto Rican anti-prostitution campaigns, attempts at reforming marriage, and working-class ideas about free love, Eileen J. Suárez Findlay exposes the race-related double standards of sexual norms and practices in Puerto Rico between 1870 and 1920, the period that witnessed Puerto Rico’s shift from Spanish to U.S. colonialism.
In showing how political projects and alliances in Puerto Rico were affected by racially contingent definitions of “decency” and “disreputability,” Findlay argues that attempts at moral reform and the state’s repression of “sexually dangerous” women were weapons used in batttles between elite and popular, American and Puerto Rican, and black and white. Based on a thorough analysis of popular and elite discourses found in both literature and official archives, Findlay contends that racialized sexual norms and practices were consistently a central component in the construction of social and political orders. The campaigns she analyzes include an attempt at moral reform by elite male liberals and a movement designed to enhance the family and cleanse urban space that ultimately translated into repression against symbollically darkened prostitutes. Findlay also explores how U.S. officials strove to construct a new colonial order by legalizing divorce and how feminist, labor, and Afro-Puerto Rican political demands escalated after World War I, often focusing on the rehabilitation and defense of prostitutes.
Imposing Decency forces us to rethink previous interpretations of political chronologies as well as reigning conceptualizations of both liberalism and the early working-class in Puerto Rico. Her work will appeal to scholars with an interest in Puerto Rican or Latin American studies, sexuality and national identity, women in Latin America, and general women’s studies.


“[A] welcome addition to the emerging field of gender studies in Latin American societies and to the recent studies challenging the presentation of these societies as racial democracies. . . . Findlay has produced a challenging work on the moral values and struggles of working women and men.” — Aline Helg, American Historical Review

“[P]athbreaking . . . . Its publication is the cause of celebration not only for historians of Puerto Rico in search of empirical knowledge. . . but for those who might be seeking useful comparative perspectives and innovative theoretical tools to apply to their own work. . . . Here is a book that will change the way Puerto Ricans think about themselves and the way that historians perceive their objects of study.” — Teresita Martínez Vergne, Hispanic American Historical Review

“Findlay proceeds by undertaking a penetrating look at Puerto Rican campaigns to reform marriage, anti-prostitution crusades, and working-class attempts to forge an alternative to the Liberal consensus of the time. . . . What may be most interesting about Imposing Decency is Suárez Findlay’s willingness to go beyond the dual proposition of resistance and accommodation. . . . The time frame of Imposing Decency is also significant. By straddling the last years of Spanish colonial rule and the first two decades of U.S. hegemony, Findlay opens a window into a social and cultural clash whose ramifications extended throughout twentieth-century Puerto Rico and reshaped the Puerto Rican domestic sphere in new and dramatic ways.” — José O. Díaz, Latin American Research Review

"[A] vivid example of the best historical scholarship on gender and culture in early twentieth-century U.S. overseas imperialism. . . . [R]aise[s] important theoretical questions about the relationship between culture and power that historians must continue to examine. . . . Findlay tells a fascinating story whose insights into agency and resistance, and into the inseparability of gender, class, and race, offer vital lessons for all historians. Her careful readings of the politics of everyday life effectively convey the power that women had to control their own lives under colonial regimes and make Imposing Decency the culmination of a line of scholarly inquiry in women’s history."

— Christopher Capozzola, Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era

"Findlay cogently argues that the legacy of racializing practices and sexual norms in the formation of the colonial state persisted in complex, sometimes subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle ways, despite emergent ideological and political shifts in early twentieth-century Puerto Rico."
— Arlene Torres, New West Indian Guide

"What distinguishes Imposing Decency from other studies of gender and class in the nineteenth-century Caribbean and Latin America is the author’s attention to sources that reveal the perspectives of working and poor men and women.” — Solsiree del Moral, Radical History Review

“Placing working people—their values, interests, and struggles—at the center of history, Findlay elucidates the intersections of the public and the private, of moralizing discourses, class relations, and political visions and provides new perspectives on the political meanings of divorce, prostitution, and respectability in Puerto Rico. An imaginative, pathbreaking book.” — Catherine Le Grand, McGill University

“The dynamics of racism, class prejudice, and sexism work differently and only reveal how they gear in with each other at specific historical moments. Findlay has addressed these issues with confidence and éclat; the result is both careful and passionate.” — Sidney W. Mintz, author of Caribbean Transformations and Sweetness and Power


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Price: $27.95

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