Imposing Decency: The Politics of Sexuality and Race in Puerto Rico, 1870-1920 by Eileen J. Suárez Findlay highlights the changing politics in Puerto Rico from 1870-1920, focusing on how sexuality and race impacted politics and vice versa. Imposing Decency also looks at how race and social class were indicative of sexuality, or at least perceived sexuality. Findlay shows that politics, sexuality, and race are interdependent and impact history, urging us to look at history through a lens broader than simply looking at political events by themselves or the rise of feminism and instead see their relation.
Eileen Findlay teaches in the Department of History at American University. Professor Findlay also is involved with Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality studies at the University. Imposing Decency: The Politics of Sexuality and Race in Puerto Rico, 1870-1920 was her first book, but since she has written another book and two articles on Puerto Rico’s issues of sexuality and gender. She has numerous other works in progress. Her PhD is in Latin American History, and she is fluent in Spanish. Findlay has won several awards, including the Alice Paul Award for Life-long Achievement in the Advancement for Women, and others recognizing outstanding teaching and involvement in multicultural affairs and international students (American University).
In her book Findlay depicts 50 years of roller-coaster-esque, back and forth change in Puerto Rico, specifically in relation to politics of sexuality and race. According to Findlay, “this book demonstrates that throughout the period in question, race was quite important to Puerto Rican familial, community, and national politics, but often in subtle, shifting ways” and that “ ‘Cultural competencies and sexual practices,’ as well as material resources and physical phenotype, helped create individual and collective racial identities” (Findlay 7). Findlay acknowledges the impact of Spanish rule and later United States political rule on race and sexuality. Specifically, Findlay shows these political changes via the treatment of prostitution during the time as well as the shift to a legal divorce system. Findlay walks through the progression of views on prostitution, beginning with the non-confrontational acceptance of prostitution during the mid 1800’s and Spanish rule. In the 1890’s a “moral panic” emerged and prostitutes were pushed towards poor areas and were required to register as prostitutes as part of “Reglamento de Higiene” (150, 83). Along with registration came rough, embarrassing physical exams every other week to check for venereal disease (89). A positive result would end in confinement in the Hygiene Hospital (89). Then came the influence of the United States and their push towards revamping other areas of politics, so prostitution is momentarily overlooked once again until the U.S. realizes the state of prostitution in the country and begins to work on eliminating that as well. However, prostitution was seen as the fault of the woman, and not the reaction to desires of men (88, 94).
Additionally, Findlay relates race to sexuality. As in many parts of the world, whiteness was the ideal and often denoted the elite. In Puerto Rico during this time, there did exist “plebian white(s)” as well (32). Whiteness was the ideal, and as such people of color strived to achieve whiteness through action as well as physical change of color (23). Since there were many people of mixed-race, the lighter a person was, the better (23). One could “whiten” themselves through dress, marriage, respectability, manners, money, and more (23). On the other hand, “blackness” was seen as dirty and as such linked to sexual promiscuity, especially by women, and poverty (168). In terms of race and class, lower class people tended to live with their sexual partners in consensual unions (121). The lower in class and the “blacker” a person, the less likely that virginity was inferred, and the more likely that a rumors of sexual impurity would be understood to be true and have to be disproven rather than proven (25). Additionally, the elite had to worry about reputations and honor being lost due to a loss of virginity, which was not as high of a concern for lower class Puerto Ricans (23). The lower classes and racially inferior for the time were also used by the elite for sexual pleasure both consensually and through rape (147-148).
To make her claims, Findlay relies on past literature as well as personal interviews with Puerto Ricans. Findlay many times references an interview where a person directly commented on an aspect of history or sexuality, many times in relation to the legalization of divorce, as relating to a direct ancestor, such as a grandmother.
In terms of other literature, Findlay references many authors we have looked at so far this semester, including Foucault and Capetillo. Importantly, Findlay recognizes Capetillo’s harsh accusations at other women as potential areas that created enemies and limited her popularity (164). Findlay cites particularly harsh views Capetillo has of other women, including the idea that women who did not leave abusive or unsatisfactory mariages/relationships were “stupid” or “idiots” (162). Findlay would use this statement to bolster her argument that Capetillo was not as popular as she could have been; however, I would point to this to argue Capetillo was a bit hypocritical as well. Capetillo used her children’s father for financial support, allowed herself to be under strict surveillance of him, and knew he was off having sexual relations with other women (159). Only after he left did she begin to work to provide for her family and begin criticizing masculine roles and feminine submission. Though influential and important, I would argue Capetillo not only criticized other women but also hypocritically criticized other women. Findlay certainly is valid in saying Capetillo could have been more popular without the backlash towards other women. She may have been more productive if she had fought her battle and empowered the victims rather than blamed them.
Findlay also acknowledges 19th century feminists’ views that “educated mothers were essential in the creation of a responsible citizenry,” but she also acknowledges views on education that push past simply education for stereotypical female purposes as a mother and wife (67). Interestingly, during around the same time Elizabeth Cady Stanton was arguing for education of women in America for purposes related to raising children and bolstering the current male-centered regime (Stanton 123).
In terms of the book itself, it is well laid-out and flows together nicely. The book’s points are understandable and Findlay does a good job of indicating how the time period, the politics, and society are all connected. However, the book is not as concise as it could have been and often repeats seemingly unnecessary points to the arguments being made. The inclusion of anecdotes and short stories are not only interesting and add dimension and a personal feel to the book, but also solidify information given and arguments made by Findlay.
Imposing Decency: The Politics of Sexuality and Race in Puerto Rico, 1870-1920 was highly informative and caused me to think about race and sexuality in a greater context than simply the United States. Often we get stuck thinking about issues only in terms of the environment we are in, but culture and history around the world plays a large role in influencing issues such as race and sexuality. Not being particularly inclined to history myself, this book surprised me in how engaged I was and how much knowledge I took away from it. Being a psychology major, I enjoyed the anecdotes about real people and what they went through. I also highly enjoyed how Findlay structured the book so that you could clearly see what influenced what and why it was influential. For instance, the changing politics and people in power were important to understanding the changing views and policies relating to prostitution. Findlay also interestingly portrayed the impact of Puerto Rico’s gendered and sexual inequalities on racial discrimination.
**information regarding Eileen J. Suárez Findlay found at http://www.american.edu/cas/faculty/efindla.cfm
Findlay, Eileen J. Suárez Findlay. Imposing Decency: The Politics of Sexuality and Race in Puerto Rico, 1870-1920. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1999. Print.
Stanton, Elizabeth Cady. “The Solitude of Self.” The Essential Feminist Reader 1892: 122-127. Print.