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

Disappearance of the Dowry: Women, Families, and Social Change in Sao Paulo, Brazil, 1600-1900. By Muriel Nazzari (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1991. xx plus 245 pp. $35.00).

In colonial Brazil, according to Portuguese law, not only did daughters have rights to family property equal to those of sons, but wives were entitled to half of the community property acquired in marriage. Moreover, custom in Silo Paulo at least, awarded daughters with large dowries that often exceeded their brother's shares of family property. In nineteenth-century Brazil, however, the dowry virtually disappeared and women lost their favored place in the family. These fascinating issues, and their impact on women, are explored in this work by Muriel Nazzari. Using samples of property inventories (conducted in Brazil after the deaths of husbands and wives), Nazzari describes the use of the dowry in each century and, on this foundation, argues that profound changes took place in marriage and family life.

Nazzari's findings may be summarized as follows: In the seventeenth century when Sao Paulo was a remote and highly independent outpost of the Portuguese empire, wealthy families provided large dowries to attract sons-in-law to marry into their families. These handsome dowries, which included extensive productive property such as land and slaves, greatly diminished the inheritances of sons, who not only rarely questioned the practice, but themselves helped to carry it out. Ninety-one percent of families in the sample granted their daughters dowries. The eighteenth century was a time of continuity and change. Families continued to endow their daughters (81 percent did so), but men brought more property into the marriage. By the nineteenth century however, the practice of granting dowries had declined so dramatically that 73 percent of the families did not grant dowries to their daughters. Thus it was the grooms, rather than the brides, who were expected to provide the ,capital or the expertise (in the form of a profession) that supported the family.

Nazzari argues that this change in the use of the dowry is an indicator of a sweeping transformation in family life. In the seventeenth century, families were productive units, at the center of the economy. The family itself provided the structure for lending money, developing farms, and mounting Indian slaving raids into the wilderness. The patriarch of the extended family clan, whose authority was rarely questioned, viewed marriage as an event so significant that it could hardly be left to chance. Therefore, he carefully selected his sons-in-law (favoring men with noble blood or of Portuguese birth) and lured them into his family with large dowries. (1) In the nineteenth century, however, the line between family and business was being drawn. Partnerships sealed with contracts replaced informal understandings between kin, banks now loaned money, and joint stock companies protected family fortunes once held liable for business failures. In such a climate, the authority of the patriarch diminished and individualism increased. Families became units of consumption rather than production. Marriage had less of an impact on the family fortune, and thus did not need to be as carefully controlled. Love could be seen as a viable criterion for selecting a mate. Grooms now held the upper hand, for they had the resources in the form of a profession that allowed them to make their marriage choice. Clearly, this is the best book available in any language on the mechanisms of marriage in Brazil. It is a valuable addition to the literature on women in Latin American society. Nazzari is to be complimented for her painstaking analysis of the complex process of marriage and inheritance followed in Brazil. Moreover, her careful analysis of economic change in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries allows her to evaluate the interaction between family life and the broader society. I also admire her attention to change over time. The methodology adopted allows her to show the family as a dynamic actor, changing and adapting to external and internal forces.

Nazzari's methodology does, however, possess a bias which must be carefully weighed and understood. As Nazzari herself notes, the seventeenth century sample of 48 inventories clearly represents the wealthy rural families of Sao Paulo, 56 percent of whom owned more than 20 Indian slaves. Her analysis of their dowry granting practices thus reflects the behavior of a slaveowning agricultural elite in an expanding frontier society. In the eighteenth century sample of 68 inventories, some wealthy merchants appear, but small slaveowners dominate, most (64%) owning ten or fewer slaves. Of the 178 inventories in the nineteenth century sample, Nazzari indicates that while a few very wealthy families are represented, the majority of the families granting dowries are living in the immediate vicinity of the city of Sao Paulo and are of small means (38 percent owned no slaves; 65 percent owned three or fewer). Thus, not only do the samples reveal very different environments--the agricultural frontier of the seventeenth century vs. the city of Sao Paulo and its hinterland in the nineteenth century--but distinct social classes as well. Nazzari's seventeenth century sample clearly depicts the family strategies of the wealthy elite, but her nineteenth-century sample does not. Similarly, her nineteenth-century sample represents well the characteristics of the free population of Sao Paulo, but her seventeenth-century sample does not. The samples do accurately show how many families granted dowries during the years studied, and do faithfully reflect the changes in Sao Paulo's population and economy. Nevertheless, they tend to obscure the behaviors of the different social classes. For example, did the free poor grant dowries in the seventeenth century? Are their dowry granting practices similar to those of the free poor in the nineteenth century? How did the wealthy elite of nineteenth-century Sao Paulo, in particular the coffee planters of the far western frontier, grant dowries? Are their marriage strategies at all similar to those used by the seventeenth-century planters? (2) The larger question is this: how much of the variation in family life observed between the seventeenth and nineteenth century can be explained by class? Since class is not held constant in the sample, the possibility exists that the transformation in family life described by Nazzari is in fact the difference between the family lives of an agricultural elite and an urban middle class. More careful attention to the influence of class on family life may qualify Nazzari's account of why the dowry declined and may modify her portrayal of the transformation of Brazilian family life from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century.

Alida C. Metcalf Trinity University


(1.) Nazzari suggests that sons then made equally good marriages by becoming favored sons-in-law in other families while I would argue that this practice forced them to migrate to the frontier.

(2.) Nazzari appears to have only two cases in her nineteenth-century sample of families of coffee planters, see pp. 118-119.
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Author:Metcalfe, Alida C.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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