The history of childhood and youth in vast early America is a nascent but burgeoning field of inquiry that brings together historians of politics, society, slavery, race, and gender. Over the next three weeks, The Junto will feature a roundtable series with some of the most prominent historians of childhood and youth around the Atlantic as well as emerging scholars in the field. We’ll discuss the challenges and realities of researching and teaching childhood and youth across vast early America.
Today, we are kicking off this roundtable series with an interview of Bianca Premo, a pioneer in the study of children as actors in historical processes. Professor of History at Florida International University in Miami, Dr. Premo is the author of the Enlightenment on Trial: Ordinary Litigants and Colonialism in the Spanish Empire (Oxford University Press, 2017), Children of the Father King, Youth, Adult Authority and Legal Minority in Colonial Lima (University of North Carolina Press, 2005), and co-editor of Raising an Empire: Children in Early Modern Iberia and Colonial Latin America (University of New Mexico, 2007). She has also written various articles and chapters on children in Latin American history. In addition to a longstanding fascination with childhood and the law, she is increasingly interested in twentieth-century notions of medical subjectivity and age.
JUNTO: We often think of “gender” as a category of historical analysis. Do you see “childhood” or “youth” as similar categories? Additionally, a big push at the moment is to include age as an important factor in intersectionality, on par with race, class, and gender. What are your perspectives and how do you methodologically approach this?
BIANCA PREMO: For a long time, I liked to point out that childhood and youth was a kind of natural accompaniment that could deepen and widen our understanding of gender history. In my first book on childhood and legal minority in colonial Lima, I kept pace with my generation by invoking Joan Scott and writing that “if political history was enacted on the field of gender, it was also enacted on the field of age, and these historical terrains were more concentric than contiguous in colonial Lima.” In concrete terms, I wanted to show how age-based hierarchies interacted with those based on gender and race in the colonial setting, shaping political imaginaries, legal possibilities, and social relations. It cannot be said too often that a foundational ideology of colonial rule and a functional legal discourse that translated into a slew of judicial prerogatives and restrictions involved imagining the king, and civil and church officials as “fathers” and cast a range of adults, including indigenous peoples, as “minors.” Beyond that, there were lived practices that relied on cross-generational dependencies even as they reinforced age hierarchies. Native children reared in Spanish households might inherit from their elite patrons, and those same patrons might supervise their choice of marriage partners, even ensuring that they married within similar native ethnic and social groups, reproducing or creating a colonial “Indian” caste. Enslaved women of African descent would nurse orphaned white babies left at a foundling home, even giving them their last names, but then return them to institutional care when they grew older to increase their prospects for marrying Spanish men or entering a convent. Both kinds of women elites would in turn patronize their servants, sometimes even bequeathing them liberty or otherwise engaging in paternalistic or familial exchanges. In this way, cross-caste practices involving children fortified colonial hierarchies in a very tangible way.
In the 20 years since I wrote my dissertation and the 15 years since I published that book, I guess we’ve all continued to refine our approaches to the history of childhood and gender. One way that I’ve refined my own is that I’ve come to reverse my vantage point: if for a long time I was interested in how age acted on gender, creating nested relations of power in households, I am now equally interested in how gender acts on age. More specifically, I am interested in how gender, as a set of biological assumptions about bodies, acts on concepts of chronological age and temporality. I’m now investigating twentieth-century medical and religious ideas about girlhood, puberty and rites of passage in Latin America. My most immediate project involves the “youngest mother in the world,” who was a victim of rape at the age of four years old. This is a heartbreaking story that forces us to confront the ethics of history and how we racially medicalize adolescence and subjectivity itself in the modern world. It is generally accepted (though there are some dissenters in the field of endocrinology) that girls of “Hispanic” and African descent undergo puberty early than girls of European descent. In my future research, I hope to historicize this scientific observation, and I am especially interested in bringing Latin American history into closer dialog with the exciting work being done on gender, medicine and slavery (I’m especially intrigued by Diedre Cooper Owens’s recent book on the slavery and US gynecology). I am keen to put work that alongside the interesting studies being done on black girlhood, which is a field that I’m just learning about (there was a conference at the University of Virginia in 2017 that looks like it was great.) This seems like an exciting terrain for Latin Americanists and one that in turn can profit from a diasporic perspective, and on this count I think of the work of my colleague, Okezi Otovo on babies and mothers in Bahia, Brazil, and of Raul Nechochea and Nora Jaffray, on reproduction in Peru and Mexico, respectively. I think considering age can really add another dimension to the gendered history of medicine, and help us understand how even the passage of time can be experienced differently in different bodies.
JUNTO: Your most recent projects sound fascinating. They also seem to span a large source base. Studying children can be a difficult task for a historian. Children’s own written records are not always well preserved or saved. They’re also not as plentiful as say, adult’s ego documents, government records, or economic transcripts. What types of sources do you use and how have you had to creatively read sources for childhood experience?
PREMO: I’ve always been fascinated by the question of when, precisely, and where, and why children’s voices become privileged historical sources for explaining their own past. In other words, we tend to cherish the words and impressions of young people in the past because they are so rare and thus precious. But sometimes we take children’s impressions or observations to be innocent and truthful and other times we agree that children are prone to exaggeration or flights of imagination. I am endlessly fascinated by adults’ invocation of common sense, moral, or psychological interpretations of children’s veracity. And I’m always alert for how we, as historians of childhood, might unwittingly recycle our own common sense when we privilege documentary evidence left “by” children in the past, as if that evidence is always the best kind of artifact.
JUNTO: How do you incorporate the history of childhood and youth into larger fields of historical inquiry? Childhood and youth studies are strongly aligned to family history and gender history. Do you think it is important to separate childhood/youth from family history and/or gender history or are they offshoots of these well defined disciplines?
PREMO: My early work wedded the history of childhood, legal, political and intellectual history, but my second monograph was more legal history. Now, as I return centrally to the history of childhood, I am struck at how much the field is still gendered “female” and imagined as separate from other domains or approaches, such as political or economic history, at least for the early modern period and Age of Revolutions. This is despite the path-breaking work of so many historians (Holly Brewer’s work on the US American Revolution comes to mind) in showing that knowing what people thought and legislated about age is critical to understanding what have been taken to be the key events in history. I gravitate toward Latin American political, legal and intellectual history than rather economic history, so I feel more certain about my impression in these fields, but I imagine the same could be said for labor history or other fields.
In many ways, historians of childhood and children are continuing the pioneering work of women and feminist historians. That is true of the ground we clear and the obstacles we face. I fear we still labor under the general assumption that the history of childhood is “women’s work.” It is absolutely critical, I think, that we historians of childhood speak openly and clearly to scholars who see our work as “niche” (female) studies with no bearing on presumably “broader” (male) fields. And I hope that more men, scholars of queer history, scholars of intellectual history, of labor, of major events and minor events, and of historical figures known and obscure continue to engage with the historical construction of childhood, historical actors’ experiences of youth, and the question of age. This is not simply to add one more identity to the mix but because it mattered to historical subjects’ experience in every realm—the political, the economic, the epistemological, the intellectual– and it matters to how we think today. Doing the history of childhood and making it count is a political act.
Thank you to Bianca Premo for joining us for this first discussion of how historians research and teach the history of childhood and youth across the Atlantic!
Join us Monday for an interview with Crystal Lynn Webster, Assistant Professor of History at the University of Texas San Antonio whose work focuses on nineteenth-century African American women and children.