Oral histories of women in Brazil

BRAZILIAN WOMEN SPEAK: CONTEMPORARY LIFE STORIES by Daphne Patai

New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press

384 pp. $13.95

FEMINIST scholarship, both in the United States and abroad, has tried to reconstruct women's lives and ways of comprehending reality through the use of oral histories, especially of women whose access to public voice and life has been marginal.

In Latin America, oral history has been a fundamental part of culture, and writers have often used first-person interviews to re-create these histories in works of fiction. Yet the life stories of ordinary women is a fairly unexplored area.

Daphne Patai, a professor of Latin American studies and women's studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, has produced an extraordinary book that recounts the lives of 20 Brazilian women from the northeast region, as well as from Rio de Janeiro. The words of women from different social and political backgrounds are powerful, provocative, and often lyrical.

Patai is an avid listener who allows her subjects to speak freely, re-creating particular moments of their lives. We come to know a poor hairdresser who became very glamorous and prestigious among the well-to-do ladies of Rio de Janeiro; we see the life of a wealthy landowner with her family, her servants, and stories of revolutionaries during Brazil's difficult years under military dictatorship in the '60s and early '70s. Each oral history is documented by Patai. There is also extensive documentation concerning the legal status of Brazilian women.

After reading these 20 oral histories, it is difficult to generalize about the life of Brazilian women. This extraordinary collection shows that the contradictions and hopes of these women are very different from one another and deeply rooted in class rather than gender.

In her introduction, Patai ponders the relationship of the researcher toward her subject, especially when there are educational differences and where the less-educated woman might feel a bit exploited by the interviewer.

``Brazilian Women Speak'' is fascinating reading. Above all, the book forces the reader to revise traditional assumptions about Latin American women.

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