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The Family in Bahia, Brazil: 1870-1945.

Its title to the contrary, this book is not about "the Bahian family" as such. Its coverage is limited to the families of the upper and middle classes: an estimated 10 percent of the state's population in 1870, and perhaps somewhat more in 1920. Borges thus addresses a series of issues first raised by Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre, who found the origins of "the Brazilian family" in the patriarchal "clans" of the colonial elite: large extended families--and their slaves, retainers, and clients--under the leadership of powerful rural lords. Over the course of the 1800s, Freyre argued, and in response primarily to urbanization, this clan structure began to erode. By the twentieth century it was being replaced by a "conjugal" model of family organization founded on nuclear families, smaller numbers of offspring, and marriages founded on partners' choices rather than parental arrangement.

Borges proposes to study this process of transformation in the Northeastern state of Bahia. Much of his book is spent discussing the efforts of major institutions--the medical establishment, the Church, the national government--to "reform" the patriarchal family and promote a more "modern" form of family organization. Pursuing goals of public health and hygiene, doctors opposed the consanguineous marriages (cousins with cousins, uncles with nieces, etc.) which were a commonplace of Bahian upper-class life. They also discouraged the use of slaves and domestic servants to raise the children of elite families and urged mothers to take a more active role in their children's upbringing. The Catholic church agreed that women's place was in the home, and during the early 1900s preached a traditionalist family agenda which opposed divorce, feminism, women's suffrage, and the entry of women into the professions. This conservative campaign was counterbalanced, however--and in large measure provoked--by the Republic's disestablishment of Catholicism as the state religion in 1889. Federal social welfare programs of the 1930s and 1940s further undercut the traditional family, Borges argues, as did the populist political movements of those years, which over time displaced the powerful families as patrons and protectors of the poor. These political changes were exemplified by the enactment of women's suffrage in 1932, a clear sign of the waning of the old order.

After surveying these institutional and political factors, however, Borges concludes that, for various reasons, their impact on the elite families was in fact quite limited. Rather, he argues in the penultimate chapter, the major reason for the decline of the clans was the economic crisis which swept Bahia between 1880 and 1910. Declining sugar prices, combined with the uncompensated abolition of slavery in 1888, produced a severe downturn in Bahia's agro-export economy. Numerous elite families, heavily indebted, either lost their land to creditors or were forced to sell out. At this point they moved to the state capital (or on to Rio de Janeiro or Sao Paulo), seeking employment in the public sector or in commercial or financial firms. The result was an expansion of the state's urban middle class, not as a result of economic growth and upward mobility, but rather as a consequence of economic decline and downward mobility (pp. 39, 70, 265, 275).

As former landed families entered the urban middle class, their behavior changed in predictable ways: they had fewer children, their women were more likely to become educated and to work, and their children now chose their own marriage partners, usually from outside the clan, in preference to arranged betrothals with relatives. Among families who retained their landholdings and remained in the countryside, "patriarchal" behavior persisted longer; but the increasing dominance of urban-based economic and political elites over the course of the 1900s further undermined the clans and ensured the eventual triumph of newer models of elite family organization. Thus "the families of the Bahian upper classes, through a series of small steps, transformed their patriarchal family values to those of the conjugal family".

This is a coherent story, clearly told, based on considerable research. But at least for this reader, the book would have benefitted from a more compact treatment of the institutional factors which, Borges concludes, failed to have much impact on family structure. Three lengthy chapter on unsuccessful efforts to "reform" Bahian families dilute the focus of the book and lend an air of anticlimax to the proceedings.

This sense of anticlimax is reinforced by the book's repeated characterization of the 1870-1945 period as one of slow, evolutionary change, which left intact "the old bedrock of patriarchal norms ... ". Of course it is important--indeed, essential--for us to study and know about such periods; but inevitably they offer less historical drama to hold readers' attention. I found myself thinking about the years after 1950, when, Borges suggests, the pace of change accelerated and Bahian families were transformed by rapid urbanization, widespread female employment, the sexual revolution, and the legalization of divorce. Couldn't we have heard a little less about the changes that didn't take place, and a little more about the changes that did? Dissertation writers, take heed: don't cut off your story just as it starts to get interesting!

George Reid Andrews University of Pittsburgh
COPYRIGHT 1994 Journal of Social History
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Author:Andrews, George Reid
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1994
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