Women who broke their chains

MAY conceiving freedom B5Conceiving Freedom: Women of Color, Gender, and the Abolition of Slavery in Havana and Rio de Janeiro
Camillia Cowling
2013, University of North Carolina Press
344 pages, paperback, plates


THE remarkable role played by enslaved women in Cuba and Brazil in the process that led to abolition has until now largely been an untold story. Camillia Cowling’s pioneering book takes an important step towards correcting this, and at the same time reveals a new form of popular politics in these two countries – the last in the Americas to abolish slavery – that was both bold and inspiring. Cowling’s excellent and beautifully written social history shows the role of gender in the processes of gradual emancipation in these countries. She demonstrates that far from remaining in the shadows as victims of dual discrimination – colour and gender – women in fact played a dominant role in carving out freedom for themselves and their children through the courts. Often illiterate and burdened also by the need to raise children, these women can only inspire – instigating myriad successful petitions for emancipation using laws such as “free womb” legislation. By doing so, they connected to the broader movement for emancipation in Havana and Rio but also in the wider world. In the process, a new form of struggle was forged that can offer inspiration in the present. Cowling writes: “While antislavery mobilisation in Brazil and in the Spanish colonial world did not directly produce calls for women’s suffrage, nonetheless it did constitute a new form of popular politics, bringing new groups into the public arena to influence an issue of national importance, and these groups included women from different social sectors … Defending their rights, space, property, families, and bodily integrity, they sought their ‘rightful share’ in postabolition society. In this sense, they staked a claim to a citizenship that, formally, they would continue to be denied.”