Laura Briggs's work Reproducing Empire: Race, Sex, Science, and U.S. Imperialism in Puerto Rico continues a recent trend in connecting colonial histories to that of domestic issues affecting imperial powers, “colonialism was not something that happened ‘over there,’ with little or no effect on the internal dynamics and culture of the imperial power itself …. On the contrary, colonialism has had a profound effect on the culture and policy of the mainland.” Additionally, Briggs work pushes back against the traditional belief that U.S. colonial policy forced the sterilization of a large segment of the island’s female population. This argument was made famous by the documentary film “La Operacion”.
Sexual regulation of women did not rise and fall with the American Empire. Rather Briggs carefully traces the transnational developments between empires and colonies that provided the foundation of future U.S. policies from the nineteenth century British Contagious Disease Acts passed by Britain to the segregated districts of American cities in the early decades of the 20th century. In fact, Briggs argues that an international policy of prostitution regulation developed in these years. Subsequently, it became very easy for venereal disease to be associated with such occupations and the populations officials believed practiced. Thus, the conflation with disease not only with the visible “other” but also with swamps and tropical locations fed ideas about the promiscuity and diseased nature of native women.
As with Suffragists in the Imperial Age, Briggs locates the influence of women’s groups/associations such as the WTCU and the LNA (Ladies National Association) in Puerto Rico and what that meant not only for natives of the Island but also Americans domestically. This space enabled women to take a visible role in the public sphere domestically and in Puerto Rico but also promoted the interests of Puerto Rican elites as the WCTU allied itself with local ladies clubs of patrician cast. It also sparked debates about citizenship: “As in other empires, U.S. prostitution policy on the island was tremendously important area of debate over the nature of colonial modernity and the struggle over the meaning of Puerto Rican citizenship took place specifically with reference to prostitution.” Critically, Briggs notes that jailing convicted prostitutes began in the colonies such that by 1918, the practice appeared stateside in numerous metropolitan areas. Moreover, the WTCU participated in the incarceration of prostitutes in both the Philippines and Puerto Rico. At the same time, these jails were recast as “hospitals," and several U.S. cities following WWI established similar institutions, notably SF, SD, and New York. “Between 1917 and 1918, then, gender and women’s bodies became a significant idiom in which colonial relations were negotiated. North American politicians, reformers, and missionaries identified the victimization of women, or, conversely, the danger they posed, as an important reason for massive repression and intervention. The increasingly visible poor women of the dislocated rural classes appear in this literature as “loose” women in need of containment.” Puerto Rican elites and the colonial government combined to enact programs of regulation. Such attempts helped to solidify what Briggs argues “would become a constant feature of Puerto Rican politics: from eugenics to population policy to sterilization, the sexuality and reproduction of poor women would become the battleground – symbolic and real – for the meaning of the U.S. presence in Puerto Rico.” What this meant for the domestic U.S. becomes concrete as mainland migrations continued. The colonial government’s utilization of the discourse of gender to intervene in the lives of working class Puerto Ricans provides a “genealogy of the demonization of poor women in the welfare reform debates of 1994-97.” Though Briggs does not make this argument, one can imagine such approaches melding easily with the social science discourse that emerged over the same period stateside.
As the academic discourse came to dominate discussions about the regulation of female bodies, Cold War concerns imposed themselves on U.S. policy. “Third World women’s sexual behavior was rendered dangerous and unreasonable, the cause of poverty and hence of communism and needed to be made known, managed, and regulated.” The language of social science emerged as the new battleground. Briggs certainly suggests that the work of social scientists did as much to obscure issues/individuals while perpetuating negative and often inaccurate conclusions.
Another aspect of Briggs’ argument regards the development of the birth control pill. Tropes regarding Puerto Rico and the Third World generally conflated the global south with overpopulation: “Overpopulation provided a sociological explanation for Third World poverty, one that denied a role for international capitalism or colonialism in producing these conditions.” Similar fears surfaced in Puerto Rico, helping to enable large pharmaceutical companies to invest in and develop the birth control pill. As Briggs argues, fears of overpopulation created the ethical space to justify such experimentation: “Reproductive research produced the pill as a specific technological fix to the Third World problem of overpopulation. In doing so, it rendered the account of overpopulation as more plausible by associating it with science and technological solutions at the height of the Cold War belief in them.”
Finally, Briggs’ work refutes previous arguments that suggest the colonial government imposed “forced sterilization.” Instead, Briggs offers evidence (sociological studies/surveys, financial information as in defunding) that some women requested the operation and few reported complaints. However, Briggs cautions that “it is not an argument that working class women chose to be sterilized, it is an argument that there is no evidence that there was a representative campaign to force them.” In connection with sterilization and larger birth control debates, Briggs points to a fundamental problem that mainland feminists faced. Nationalist pro-independence groups promoted natalism while the colonial government encouraged sterilization. As Briggs notes, despite the best intentions feminists could not escape the “terms of U.S. national, colonial, and racial discourse … when mainland feminists … accepted the nationalist version of the subaltern – the women are victimized – while rejecting or ignoring the perspective of feminists like those in Pro Familia as duped, bourgeois pawns of colonialism, they accepted a pro-natalist anti-feminism because it carried the banner of the subaltern.” U.S. anti-colonialists “demanded that the only ‘authentic natives’ were those that could occupy the position of the ‘people’. Puerto Rican feminists failed to fit the bill because they were middle class professionals and intellectuals who differed with charismatic nationalist leaders.”