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Disappearance of the Dowry: Women, Families, and Social Change in Sao Paulo, Brazil, 1600-1900.

For several centuries, and in many parts of the western world, dowries were a essential signifier of womanhood. The transition from single to married life was marked by an economic evaluation of the bride which meant as much a form of protection for her, as it meant a means of advancement for the groom and a source of pride and status for the family. Customs and laws surrounding the institution of marriage were carried by the settlers from Europe to America as part of a broader cultural transfer, and the concept of the dowry was no exception. However, the economic and social circumstances of the new world altered the practice of the dowry -- as they would change other human institutions.

The southern Brazilian city of Sao Paulo is the scenario chosen by Muriel Nazzari to study the development and transformations of the dowry in the Brazilian context. Using a select number of dowries for each century, Nazzari surveys their evolution between the first half of the seventeenth century and the first half of the nineteenth century. There was a remarkable change throughout those three hundred years. While in the seventeenth century all propertied families endowed their daughters with sums much greater than those given to sons, by the early nineteenth century the number of families carrying out that practice had declined by two-thirds, and the sums given as dowries were drastically reduced.

The seventeenth-century lop-sided arrangement in favour of the women of the family was "peculiar" for the times as it, apparently, favoured women over men. And yet, because the dowry was incorporated into the communal property of both spouses, the chances of a woman losing her financial backing were small, and the dowry achieved its purpose of offering financial protection to the female sex and an incentive to the prospective husband, whose qualities for strengthening the family's finances and social standing received careful consideration. The fact that men were willing to incorporate themselves for economic purposes into their wives' families remained a verifiable pattern through the nineteenth-century.

To explain the gradual evolution of the dowry, Nazzari proposes that the predominatly land-owning seventeenth-century family began to have strong competition from a commercial class in the eighteenth century. Merchants accumulated capital that allowed men to gain a different foothold on marriage. This changed the terms of the marriage game, allowing them to marry their choice of women and gaining the upper hand in the contract. The nineteenth-century growth in agricultural exports and a strong market economy favoured a family type which was no longer the locus of business, a situation ratified by new commercial codes. For Nazzari, the dowry represented a form of property, the dowry reflected those changes. The network of interests created by family connections through marriage lost their relevance as a result of the growing strength of capitalism and the state. This process was reinforced by a widening of choices in male occupations that allowed men to support wives without a dowry. They acquired a greater negotiating power in the marriage process, while the bride's family power declined. Male ability to support their family by themselves reinforced their authority and power.

Nazzari also indicates an important change in the sensibility of nineteenth-century people towards marriage and love. This change was not an unmixed blessing for women. While the trend-setters of the period encouraged women to feel they merited to be loved for themselves and not for their dowries, the legal option offered to married women put them in a greater dependency from husbands. The power women had yielded as carriers of dowries declined as the dowry disappeared.

This is a solidly researched monograph which tackles an interesting social and economic problem: the changing perception of what are the sound bases for marriage and the ensuing change in the nature of gender relations. The thesis that the evolution towards a more personal choice was also an evolution toward greater male control within the family should be noted by historians of women and the family in other areas for comparative purposes. At the same time, we should note that the trends here analyzed in great and careful detail apply only to the ruling elite, and that the forms of marital bonding were different among the larger non-elite. As well, Sao Paulo was not a typical Brazilian city. Its social fabric, its business interests, and its transformation into a coffee-growing area in the nineteenth century gave it a special character. There is no certainty that the process of change observed by Nazzari applied to other urban areas as yet not studied. On the other hand, her research has helped to discern the significant differences between the Portuguese and the Spanish dowry systems. This work is a carefully crafted and valuable contribution to the social history of Brazilian elites, and puts the study of marriage and the family on sounder grounds.
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Author:Lavrin, Asuncion
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1992
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