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“Imposing Decency” by Eileen Suarez Findlay

Introduction

The book “Imposing Decency: The Politics of Sexuality and Race in Puerto Rico between early 1870 to around 1920” clearly illustrates that a close relationship existed between race, class, and sexuality in Puerto Rico in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In this book, there is description of decency, including how it shapes the state of conceptualisation. This is in addition to a discussion on various viewpoints on women’s sexuality, class as well as their roles and duties in the society.1 Furthermore, the book explains and describes concepts and other considerations on working-class and middle-class women in the 20th century. Finally, there is an elaborate discussion related to women and gender expectations in the Spanish colonial period, the Liberal national project, and the era of United States reign.

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How “Decency” Shapes the State’s Conceptualization of Women’s Role in the Society

In this book, Eileen Suarez Findlay talks of decency and how it shaped the state’s conceptualization of women’s role in the society. Decency in a woman’s behavior was one of the most important determinants that would earn one reputation or rebuke. The book talks about decent women who were from the middle or wealthy class and had stable jobs. They are seen as women whose role is not only to bear children, but also play part in the general economic development of the state. Eileen says, “Poor women did the cooking, cleaning, and caring that sustained this expensive lifestyle.”2 Then there was another section of women who were considered a disgrace to the society. These were prostitutes who were earning their living by offering their body to married men in the society. This act was considered an indecency and a disgrace to the women population.

How Working-Class and Middle-Class Women Challenged or Embraced Gender Expectations during the Spanish Colonial Period

The working-class and middle-class women played a major role in this society as demonstrated in this book. In the Spanish colonial period, women were generally considered a weaker sex, and they embraced this gender expectation in the society. People rarely discussed private issues that affected members of their lives in public. Eileen says, “Historians of Puerto Rico largely ignored or dismissed private issues such as marriage, sexual practices, conflicts within the family, and conception of morality.”

For instance, most of the working-class and middle-class women were aware that their husbands were engaging in illicit affairs with prostitutes, but they never complained.3 Instead, they sympathised with the prostitutes because of what they had to do to earn their living. These women believed that they did not have control over the activities of their husbands, and they did not dare question why they would engage in such behaviour. A clear indication that these women embraced gender expectations is shown when the author notes that women would always consider sexual immorality of their husbands as being normal or beyond their control. The best way they would deal with such cases was to ignore.

How Working-Class and Middle-Class Women Challenged or Embraced Gender Expectations during the Liberal National Project

There was a consistent shift of the view held by working-class and middle-class women about their status in the society during the liberal national project. Eileen says, “Liberal Autonomists, bourgeois feminists, working-class radicals of both sexes, and Afro-Puerto Rican political activists all forged their ever changing senses of themselves.”4 According to this book, this period marked a new generation that looked at various issues in the society from a different angle. The working-class and middle-class women started challenging gender expectations within this society. Although they were still conservative in their push, they started questioning the idea that they are not supposed to question some of the activities of their husbands. This was basically a transition period. It was a period when these women were starting to realize their real worth in the society. They were realizing that some of the principles in the society were actually questionable. However, Eileen notes that these women were still cautious when pushing for their agenda in the society.

How Working-Class and Middle-Class Women Challenged or Embraced Gender Expectations during the Era of U.S. Rule

During the era of U.S. rule between late 1870 and early 1920, there was a great shift in Puerto Rico from Spanish colonialism to United States rule. The working-class and middle class women were developing a completely new view of their role in the society. They radically challenged the gender expectation that always considered them as a weaker sex that should always be led.5 This brought about changes towards moral values and norms as well as repression of sexual matters as women demanded that men had to be sexually responsible. Divorce was on the rise as women stated loathing promiscuity. In this era, women viewed themselves as major stakeholders in the development of the society, a view that is contrary to what they considered themselves of during the Spanish colonial era.

Indeed, the shift from Spanish colonial rule to U.S reign led to the legalisation of divorce, resulting in the increase of feminist movements and even causing political tension in Puerto Rico, especially after the First World War. Nevertheless, this new introduction promoted rehabilitation matters and protection of prostitutes in Puerto Rico.

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It is also important to note that shift from Spanish colonial reign to U.S rule gave working women great sexual honour, resulting into marriage decrease in Puerto Rico. On the other hand, the middle class and the upper class women demonstrated a lot of decency by trying to keep their virginity intact until marriage. In addition, there were some claims and need for honour from other races. Besides, even the white men and women from the lower and middle class who were educated claimed that they should be respected and honoured.6

Conclusion

There was a great relationship between race, class, and sexuality in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries in Puerto Rico. To begin with, this book indicates that racial honour and values affected most of the practices and social values including status quo in Puerto Rico. Secondly, class, especially the elite and the middle working class women also played a key role in the maintenance of respect and social relationships in Puerto Rico. Moreover, class promoted women decency to some extent, as well as led to poor marriages and divorce cases to some degree. Thirdly, sexuality and gender expectation during the US colonial rule led to several movements and campaigns that shaped gender roles between different classes and races in Puerto Rico during the 20th Century. The liberal movements advocated for decency of women and to reduction of prostitution cases and practices. Finally, it is important to note that Spanish and U.S. imperialism have shaped the history of Puerto Rico to a great extent.

Reference

Findlay, Eileen. Imposing Decency: The Politics of Sexuality and Race Puerto Rico, 1870-1920. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003.

Footnotes

  1. Eileen Suarez Findlay. Imposing Decency: The Politics of Sexuality and Race Puerto Rico, 1870-1920 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003).
  2. Eileen Suarez Findlay. Imposing Decency: The Politics of Sexuality and Race Puerto Rico, 1870-1920 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003)
  3. Eileen Suarez Findlay. Imposing Decency: The Politics of Sexuality and Race Puerto Rico, 1870-1920 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003)
  4. Eileen Suarez Findlay. Imposing Decency: The Politics of Sexuality and Race Puerto Rico, 1870-1920 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003)
  5. Eileen Suarez Findlay. Imposing Decency: The Politics of Sexuality and Race Puerto Rico, 1870-1920 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003).
  6. Eileen Suarez Findlay. Imposing Decency: The Politics of Sexuality and Race Puerto Rico, 1870-1920 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003).

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