Gendered Metaphors: Historicizing Female Professionals in Early Twentieth-Century Brazil

Cristina Mehrtens 


     In an interview, the Brazilian painter Tarsila do Amaral remarked that her father once advised her to save for 30 years anything that might seem not important in the present.1 It is on those pieces of evidence from the past (interviews, data, artifacts) that biographers build their interpretations and reinterpretations of people's lives. Commentaries about Tarsila's work have been widely published and there is a solid critical and historical literature constructed around the artist.2 Historical identity is an intricate part of this cultural construct, which is continuously reinterpreted in the light of new social and political moments. Scholars from different disciplines have struggled to interpret the experience of modernity, a story of progress, rationality, science, and development that, nevertheless, has always been subject to contradictions, conflict, and reversals.3 In Latin America, modernity also has been marked by a colonial legacy of uneven development that has produced the simultaneous combination of modern and pre-modern ways of life.4 In this context, two conflictive perspectives have emerged in relation to the interpretation of Brazilian modern art: one that views Brazilian art as derivative of the hegemonic lineage of European modernism and another that tends to privilege one artist or movement as the prime embodiment of the national ethos. This tendency of favoring individual expressions as a means to situate the origins of movements and styles in Brazil permeated most references to the history of Brazilian women artists throughout the twentieth century.5 This essay turns to women and the historical space they occupy in the construction of national identity by focusing on the lives of two modern Brazilian women painters: Tarsila do Amaral (1884–1973) and Anita Malfatti (1889–1964).6 It analyses the conflictive ideas, contradictory realities, yet common discourse of national identity resulting from the interplay between the ideals of nation and gender. It examines how perceptions of social difference intertwined with national ideas in female professionals' works played an important part in the way the media, scholars, and biographers addressed their professional contribution over time. It also explores the cultural network contemporary to these women and how female professionals had an impact on our understanding of twentieth-century Brazilian history. Those women's life experiences were immersed and shaped by a dynamic male international professional network, a gendered-determined power structure, which contingently waved their way throughout women's personal and professional lives. This article explores how perceptions of social difference intertwined with national ideas in these artists' works, as well as how the media, scholars, and biographers explained those perceptions over time. First, I will delineate the historical trajectory common to Brazilian women artists in the early twentieth century; second, I will explore women's role in the creation of Brazilian symbols and myths of modernity; and I will conclude with an assessment of these women's role in the creation of a gendered discourse of Brazilian national identity. Drawing on their professional world and the conflictive ideas, contradictory realities, and cultural discourse, I analyze how the interplay between the ideals of nation and gender permeated their personal and professional trajectories.

Benjamin Franklin and the Ends of Empire.

Book Review


Carla J. Mulford, Benjamin Franklin and the Ends of Empire. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. Pp. ix + 426. $65.00 (cloth).


     Benjamin Franklin is known as America's eldest founding father to both students and scholars of history. His vast experience set him apart from the other founders that he worked with as America forged its independence. Benjamin Franklin and the Ends of Empire delves deep into this iconic figure of American history in a way that scholars of both American history and world history will find intriguing and enjoyable. This book presents a literary biography of Benjamin Franklin, and in doing so looks at early modern liberalism in Franklin's own life, how for him common good and personal liberty were very much intertwined. Not only will the reader walk away with a greater understanding of Franklin but also of how his beliefs were shaped by political events of the eighteenth century on both sides of the Atlantic.

     Carla Mulford, editor of The Cambridge Companion to Benjamin Franklin and the founding president of the Society of Early Americanists, is well versed to complete what is not an easy task. With so much published already about this era and its history makers, Mulford brings a fresh perspective to the life of Benjamin Franklin, showing that there is even greater complexity to the man so many grow up learning about. Those familiar with him already will see common highlights from the era, but Mulford uses Franklin's writings to provide readers an inside look into the thoughts of one of America's founding fathers. Specifically, the book focuses on trade, economics, and political theory, which the author intertwines with Franklin's writings on populations, impacts on land use, and imperialist attitudes. In the chapters on the colonial era, notably on Franklin's work during the French and Indian War and the American Revolution, Mulford delivers the depth of analysis that other books have failed to provide. Mulford goes beyond the Benjamin Franklin that so many are familiar with and reveals the complex layers to Franklin's life starting with his family's life and struggles in Britain through a thorough examination of his writings and interactions with other influential men, some within the American colonies and others across the Atlantic Ocean.

     The book is organized in a rough chronological fashion. The biography opens with the Franklin family in England and the religious and political turmoil in their homeland that led to their eventual migration to America. The early chapters also elaborate on Franklin's intellectual, liberal, and humanist roots. Mulford keeps a steady pace, moving through Franklin's youth, to Pennsylvania politics and problems with supporting Britain's empire, onto the time he spent abroad, through the American Revolution, and finally, his later years. Selected excerpts of writings from Franklin and his contemporaries still ring as powerfully today as they ever did back then. This only furthers the argument that Franklin understood the problems of politics, society, and the economy of a growing colony and new nation in the midst of the global scene.

     The middle of the book examines Franklin's early adulthood venture into Pennsylvania politics and his thoughts on trade, imperialism, and negotiations of rights in the colonies. It was in Pennsylvania that he began to consider, as Mulford's title states, the ends of empire in relation to people toiling in the empire's lands and participating in its network of trade. Mulford shows Franklin's concern over the restrictive attitude toward paper currency and the negative impact it had on the working class. While wealthier people may not have cared to see more paper money in circulation, Franklin argued it was important in order for greater economic exchanges to take place.

     The book then moves on to Franklin's work in London and his growing frustration with the actions of British ministry that ended up hurting their fellow North Americans and Franklin's eventual break with Britain. The last two chapters cover the American Revolution and Franklin's final years, which show that age did not slow down his continued examinations of social issues and politics in America and abroad. Examples of Franklin's writing and related works throughout the book illuminate the themes of the chapters in which they are included; the few images visually enhance the publication.

     Mulford's analysis and presentation of Franklin's writing shows a deep awareness of the situations both in Pennsylvania and other colonies, as well as on the larger world scale. Her biography displays the perceptive interest Franklin held in the era's colonial and global economy and politics. Her writing draws out Franklin's understanding of the complexity of these issues and his long-term impact on colonial and British history. Mulford's global perspective of Franklin will intrigue those of a world history persuasion, helping them to see how Britain's colonial interest in America and around the globe fit together. Since the book focuses largely on Franklin's thoughts on British imperial politics, economics, and transatlantic trade with multiple colonies of Britain, it helps us understand the subsequent era of industrialization and interregional and global integration. Mulford uses Franklin's writings to place the events in America and his life experiences across both sides of the Atlantic in a global context in which they belong. Franklin's trip to Ireland and his observations regarding absentee landlords versus those who toiled the land impacted his views of the straining relationship between the British colonists in North America and the Crown. It also provides an interesting point of view to some of Britain's economic and political policies within that country and toward its colonies. Franklin's writings to Ireland and Scotland also show that he was not only concerned with the political and economic fate of Britons in North America but about overall health of the British Empire itself. Franklin understood that the British Empire could not continue in the manner it had without considering the impact local economic and political policies had on its imperial subjects. Those interested in American history will appreciate this book's complex treatment of the relationship between Britain and her colony as the struggle for independence in America developed, as well as its more complete biographical picture of America's eldest founding father. Franklin continued to champion for the success of the British Empire, but over time, as evident in the Franklin-Shirley letters of 1750, he came to argue that Britons in North America could remain a part of the British Empire but could also thrive without it. Mulford does a good job of using Franklin's writings to fulfill her task of helping us understand the global context of North American colonial discord with Britain and struggle for American independence. Reading Mulford's biography of Franklin, with her keen use of his political and economic writings, can only deepen one's appreciation for this historical figure and the vision he had for the colonies. One gains a greater sense of his tireless work for the betterment of a land he loved dearly.


Illustrating Empire: A Soldier's Life and Trans-imperial Encounters in the Eighteenth Century

Laura J. Mitchell
Cambridge University

     From Paris to Pondicherry, from Sumatra to Nantes, the French empire—like its maritime counterparts—provided means and structure for individuals to travel great distances in the eighteenth century. Most of the details of such crossings and the lives they punctuated are lost to posterity, however. So when we find records of such lives the delight is palpable: flesh and bones and human emotions suddenly animate the theoretical models and large-scale processes prominent in world history scholarship and textbooks. But can one life, however ordinary or remarkable, tell us anything important about world history, bound as that life is to finite geographical points and a limited time span?

     Historians have long wrestled with this existential question: how can the unique, idiosyncratic details of a single life illuminate the broad patterns of daily experience, the regular thrum of economic exchanges, the structures of governance, or the sinews of affinity that hold society together? Social, economic, political, and cultural historians alike struggle to situate the revealing, intriguing, singular details that bring the past to life within the larger currents of change and continuity that help us make sense of history. Despite the sustained popularity of biography (for "famous" people) and increasing attention to life histories (for ordinary folk), many scholars remain skeptical about how much one person's experience can tell us about the "big picture" questions that tend to drive world history—for example, how rulers managed the flow of information and circulation of people that was crucial to the governance of maritime empires in the eighteenth century.