Tanja Christiansen, University of Texas Press, 2004

Reviewed by Jessaca Leinaweaver, graduate student in cultural anthropology,
University of Michigan

Tanja Christiansen’s Disobedience, Slander, Seduction, and Assault, based on her Ph.D. research and dissertation (History, Oxford), tackles themes familiar to feminist scholars. How and why did ordinary men and women painstakingly negotiate their reputations in accordance with prevailing gender codes, and how can a historian explore these questions while bound by the limitations of her sources? The book addresses these two questions through a fine-grained historical analysis of legal transcripts documenting slander, libel, rape, seduction, and abduction trials in nineteenth-century Cajamarca, Peru.

The main argument of the book revolves around women and honor. Christiansen follows the argument, perhaps first made by Engels, wherein marriage, legitimacy, and female virtue are all intimately linked to the transmission of male property (51). Women whose virtue had been impugned (through slander in Chapter 5 and rape or seduction in Chapter 6) thus faced the potential loss of a male breadwinner and partner, and this was what drove them to defend their virtue in the courts. The choice to go to trial did not usually result in conviction or even success (107). However, a woman’s readiness to enter into such onerous proceedings was a public and symbolic demonstration of her innocence, and in this it was often effective in persuading a male partner to return home. It also was a strong message to potential future maligners that she would willingly defend her relationship (186).

Christiansen’s analysis of small discursive changes in these trial transcripts also suggests that honor and upstanding reputation, once linked almost exclusively to wealth and social class, were becoming more and more tied to particular gendered behaviors that – though difficult to attain – were within the reach of the lower classes (103). In particular, the choice to go to trial seemed to mark men and women as belonging to a specific and liminal position. While elite honor was rarely questioned, and honor among the lower classes was typically negotiated in extralegal venues, going to court was a move that ambiguously poised men and women consciously chose in order to strengthen their claim to a higher social standing (113) and to effectively distance themselves from the lower classes (136). Cajamarquiños’ use of the courts thus reified nineteenth-century social hierarchies even while contesting them.

Writing about gender, marriage, and common-law unions (Chapters 3 and 4), Christiansen uses the example of domestic violence to show how the courts prioritized unity in wedlock, but not for couples in common-law relationships. This meant that marriage, while a social ideal of the elite, would often be undesirable for working-class women, who sometimes had to use the relationship’s impermanence to escape violent partners. It also meant that in the event of separation, women who had never married their partners typically maintained rights over any children unless the father had legally recognized the child. These findings show a real shrewdness on the part of lower-class Peruvians who engaged in litigation, knowing the court’s proclivities and using them to their advantage in court cases. This analysis draws a careful distinction between elite Peruvians, who (buttressed by the courts) could not criticize domestic violence, and the popular classes, who often did. (This finding is particularly instructive in light of a persistent belief among elite Peruvians that domestic violence – “amor serrano” – is an accepted facet of romantic relations in the poorer highlands.)

Christiansen begins the discussion on the historical setting of her research (Chapter 2) with the argument that a lack of research in the area has led to the mistaken assumption that Cajamarca shared similar historical processes with the more-studied southern Peruvian highlands (22). It is therefore surprising that her careful analysis of Cajamarquiño society often relies on secondary sources that are not fully contextualized or justified. In the chapter on domestic violence, for example, Christiansen’s use of Hydén and Gayford, without articulating reasons for drawing this cross-cultural and cross-historical comparison, seems to suggest a view of domestic violence as a universal experience. Furthermore, in Chapter 7, on supportive and contested relationships between women, Christiansen draws on social science literature from colonial and contemporary Mexico to make points about slander (144) and rivalry (151-152). Cross-cultural and cross-historical comparisons are a standard social science tool, but without a framework to understand why these diverse literatures are seemingly being equated, or whether colonial and contemporary Mexico can speak to the nineteenth-century Cajamarquiño context in a particularly meaningful way, the comparison loses its forcefulness.

Christiansen’s approach to her primary source material is much more nuanced and incisive. She spends a great deal of time articulating the challenges and possibilities presented by this material. In this, she is addressing critiques that point to the expensive and time-consuming nature of going to trial (thus limiting her subjects to only those who could afford a legal solution and who lived close enough to the courts to make a trial feasible), the over-emphasis on conflict contained within trial transcripts (18), and the privileging of social power struggles over other, less visible kinds of gendered relationships (173). In essence, her claim is that although the sources tell only a very one-sided story, they reveal as much detail as they mask about women’s support networks, survival strategies, and social relationships. Trial transcripts also hint at women’s use of James C. Scott’s “everyday weapons of resistance” – emotional, domestic, and sexual indifference towards their partners (79). The allegations and defenses contained within these documents do show what discourses and examples people drew on to shore up or tear down reputations, in the process painting a picture of nineteenth-century moralities among different Cajamarquiño social classes (135). Christiansen’s very careful analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of her sources is an excellent contribution, and would make this work particularly useful in a course on methodologies of feminist research. The book is also appropriate for undergraduate and graduate courses in history, gender studies, and Latin American studies.

Leinaweaver’s research focuses on childhood, families, and adoption in southern Peru, and shortly, she will defend her dissertation, Familiar Ways: Child Circulation in Andean Peru.

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