In Defense of Honor

Sexual Morality, Modernity, and Nation in Early-Twentieth-Century Brazil

In Defense of Honor

Book Pages: 328 Illustrations: 1 b&w photograph Published: March 2000

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

In this book Sueann Caulfield explores the changing meanings of honor in early-twentieth-century Brazil, a period that saw an extraordinary proliferation of public debates that linked morality, modernity, honor, and national progress. With a close examination of legal theory on sexual offenses and case law in Rio de Janeiro from the end of World War I to the early years of the Estado Novo dictatorship, Caulfield reveals how everyday interpretations of honor influenced official attitudes and even the law itself as Brazil attempted to modernize.
While some Brazilian elites used the issue of sexual purity to boast of their country’s moral superiority, others claimed that the veneration of such concepts as virginity actually frustrated efforts at modernization. Moreover, although individuals of all social classes invoked values they considered “traditional,” such as the confinement of women’s sexuality within marriage, these values were at odds with social practices—such as premarital sex, cohabitation, divorce, and female-headed households—that had been common throughout Brazil’s history. The persistence of these practices, together with post-World War I changes in both official and popular moral ideals, presented formidable obstacles to the Estado Novo’s renewed drive to define and enforce public morality and private family values in the late 1930s.
With sophisticated theoretical underpinnings, In Defense of Honor is written in a clear and lively manner, making it accessible to students and scholars in a variety of disciplines, including Brazilian and Latin American studies, gender studies, and legal history.


“[E]ngaging. . . . Caulfield demonstrate[s] the complexities of legal and cultural change that took place during Brazil’s rapid modernization in the early twentieth century, and crucially, she has listened creatively to the way ordinary people struggled to make sense of a shadowy corner of human relations.” — Brian P. Owensby , TLS

“[E]ntertaining and outstanding. . . . Exhaustively researched, citing extensive primary and secondary sources, this is destined to be the definitive work on this subject for a long time. Enthusiastically recommended.” — W. M. Weis , Choice

“[O]ne of the great strengths of In Defense of Honor is the tremendous breadth and depth of research that went into it. Caulfield’s grasp of very different types of documentation and integration of methods is impressive. Better yet, she carefully grounds her central concerns in the general history of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Brazil. This helpful contextualization, along with the author’s entertaining writing style, will make the book accessible to undergraduates. The analytical ambitiousness of the work will make it of interest not only to specialists in Brazil or Latin America but also to scholars of gendered relations of power in any setting.” — Roger A. Kittleson , H-Net Reviews

“Sueann Caulfield’s detailed social and legal history illuminates the many ideological strands that shaped the legal and academic debates of this period. . . . Her book does an admirable job of orienting the reader quickly and smoothly to the scene in Rio de Janeiro right after World War I . . . Her history of this period has great relevance for contemporary issues of gender, race, and class and the legal contexts that help shape them.” — John Michael Norvell , Law and Politics Book Review

"[A] fine monograph. . . . [T]his book opens fruitful paths for further research. . . ."
— John D. French , American Historical Review

"Caulfield . . . weaves the periodization of regime change skillfully into the heart of the book, joining it seamlessly with her analysis of how such transitions were expressed and experienced in gendered terms. In the process, Caulfield also offers insightful commentary and reinterpretation of key themes in Brazilian historiography. . . ." — Elizabeth Quay Hutchison , Latin American Research Review

"Caulfield’s study provides a rich and fascinating portrait of changes in urban life in Rio de Janeiro while making contributions to debates about gender, biology, virginity, the body, race, class and culture. . . . I have used Defending Honor to good effect in both undergraduate and graduate seminars on gender and state building, and I am confident that many other instructors and scholars will profit from reading and assigning this book."

— Peter M. Beattie , Journal of Latin American Studies

“The author is to be applauded for asking hard questions about the ways in which sexual activity, or the lack thereof, are used to make statements about race and class.” — Jeffrey Lesser, author of Negotiating National Identity: Immigrants, Minorities, and the Struggle for Ethnicity in Brazil

“This is an outstanding work both in terms of its highly original research and its very sophisticated interpretation.” — Barbara Weinstein, author of For Social Peace in Brazil: Industrialists and the Remaking of the Working Class in São Paulo, 1920–


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Sueann Caulfield is Associate Professor of History at the University of Michigan.

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Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-2398-3 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-2377-8
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