Virginal obsessions

Reproduction and Its Discontents in Mexico: Childbirth and Contraception from 1750 to 1905
Nora E Jaffary
2016, University of North Carolina Press
302 pages, plates, paperback

PRIESTS in Mexico just cannot keep their minds off virgins. That is because of the complex religious and social connotations virginity have had since the colonial era in a society that has retained some deeply conservative features yet dispensed with others. In a brilliant chapter on “The Evolution of Virginity”, Nora Jaffary explores the role of female virginity in establishing ideas about women’s value and honour. As she suggests, Mexican ideas about what it means to be a virgin have evolved – while the subject of male virginity has stood still in the sense that it has never been the subject of social scrutiny and still isn’t. The author points out that such factors as honour, class and Christianity played key roles in establishing what might be called women’s “social” virginity. “In other words,” she writes, “although physicians and jurists introduced new empirical discourses of virginity in the late nineteenth century, across time, female virginity was in fact always socially constructed.” It is fascinating to learn that in pre-Columbian and early post-contact indigenous society, there appears to have been little or no fetishising about female virginity, although scholars are divided. But there seems to be little disagreement that the policing of female sexuality really begins with the arrival of Catholicism, and that the importance attributed to maintaining virginity existed in a close relationship with a woman’s social class. The cult of the Virgin Mary and the immaculate conception took this to new levels, regulated carefully by the Church and such doctrinal mechanisms as the Inquisition, although as Jaffary notes so perceptively the practices that this Marianism inspired were in fact essential to the functioning of colonial Mexican society in more prosaic terms. New Spain, with its thoroughly racialised social hierarchy, required virginal brides and policed reproduction oppressively because claims to blood purity and civil legitimacy could only be absolutely established through the maternal line. However, virginity is only one of the themes that are discussed within Reproduction and Its Discontents in Mexico, which takes a much broader and informed look at the whole question of motherhood, from conception, pregnancy and childbirth to contraception, abortion and infanticide. It is a fascinating book well worth reading because this theme arguably straddles many disciplines, touching on social, economic, medical and scientific history, gender studies, political ideas and nationalism. The author demonstrates the central role played by reproduction in shaping ideas about female sexuality and virtue, in the development of modern Mexico, and in the evolution of modern medicine in Latin America. Jaffary also considers in a thoughtful and sensitive chapter the understudied issue of aberrant births and how society depicted and understood “monstrous” babies. In doing so, she makes quite brilliant observations about how the ways these births were interpreted can be associated with the ways – especially in the late colonial era, as scrutiny in Europe of New Spain was growing – that the colonial population itself was becoming preoccupied with Mexico’s own standing as a nation, not unlike the obsession with eugenics in late nineteenth-century Europe. – EC