Paraguay has attracted the attention of few historians outside the platine region. That neglect, however, has in no way affected the quality of work produced by North American and European students of the Upper Plata, some of which has been strikingly significant. Barbara Potthast-Jutkeit’s brilliant study of women and the family in nineteenth-century Paraguay is destined to join the latter category.
Among the many themes addressed in this monograph, the discussion of women in community and family is particularly strong. Feminine honor, as well as criminality, is analyzed in relation to Paraguayan society and custom. Women of the various classes, as one might expect, possessed different views of their role in society; here the authors treatment of the campesina deserves attention. The author discusses work, family, marriage (or the lack of it), households headed by single women, and illegitimacy—all those common facets of womens country life—and in so doing, portrays a lively and vital rural society.
A surprising observation is the large degree of personal liberty, even initiative, these women possessed. Colonial social and labor patterns endured far into the early national era; part of that inheritance was the existence of the single campesina, heading a household and playing an active, often independent role in the peasant economy. The strong-willed, self-reliant woman was a common figure. As for the well-known imbalance of the sexes in Paraguayan villages, it did not originate in the massive death of males in the Paraguayan War (1864-70) but rather was a logical outcome of the absence of men as they labored in the extractive yerba industry—a practice that had its roots in the colonial period and in one way or another continued well into the nineteenth century.
Neither Dr. José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia (1814-40) nor Carlos Antonio López (1842-62) felt any strong desire to disturb women’s traditional role in the new republic. One observable social survivor of the colonial period, however, was the large number of illegitimate children whose fathers were, at best, casual visitors to the household. This also was accepted by Paraguayans as a normal state of affairs. Indeed, Francia, by his assaults on the church and provincial elites, actually reinforced the common acceptance of illegitimacy at all levels of society. Don Carlos, on achieving power, attempted to strengthen the institution of marriage. He failed. Social custom proved stronger than decreed law.
While the “kill-off” of Paraguay’s population during the War of the Triple Alliance is not a primary theme here, the author touches on it while investigating family size, fertility, mortality, and gender distribution. Through the use of parish records, informes, and the censuses of the era, she presents convincing microstudies of Paraguay’s demographic situation. All her research strengthens the traditional view of at least a 40 percent population loss between 1864 and 1870. As for the war itself, Potthast-Jutkeit narrates the role and contribution of women in tragic detail.
The faults of this study are minor. Originally it was a Habilitationschrift, and as such betrays its origin; the detail presented often overwhelms the reader. On the other hand, that very thoroughness, in both text and notes, makes it an extremely valuable contribution to historical literature. Some 60 pages of tables are a boon to historians of Paraguay. The research is meticulous; the author exhausted archives throughout the Río de la Plata and Europe. An edition of this work will soon appear in Spanish; it or this one should be purchased by all libraries and individuals with an interest in women’s studies and the social history of Latin America.