Conceiving Freedom

Women of Color, Gender, and the Abolition of Slavery in Havana and Rio de Janeiro

By Camillia Cowling

344 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 14 halftones, notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-1088-7
    Published: December 2013
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-1-4696-1089-4
    Published: November 2013
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-4469-9
    Published: November 2013

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Awards & distinctions

2014 Roberto Reis Book Award, Brazilian Studies Association

Finalist, 2014 Frederick Douglass Book Prize, Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition

In Conceiving Freedom, Camillia Cowling shows how gender shaped urban routes to freedom for the enslaved during the process of gradual emancipation in Cuba and Brazil, which occurred only after the rest of Latin America had abolished slavery and even after the American Civil War. Focusing on late nineteenth-century Havana and Rio de Janeiro, Cowling argues that enslaved women played a dominant role in carving out freedom for themselves and their children through the courts.

Cowling examines how women, typically illiterate but with access to scribes, instigated myriad successful petitions for emancipation, often using "free-womb" laws that declared that the children of enslaved women were legally free. She reveals how enslaved women's struggles connected to abolitionist movements in each city and the broader Atlantic World, mobilizing new notions about enslaved and free womanhood. She shows how women conceived freedom and then taught the "free-womb" generation to understand and shape the meaning of that freedom. Even after emancipation, freed women would continue to use these claims-making tools as they struggled to establish new spaces for themselves and their families in post emancipation society.

About the Author

Camillia Cowling is assistant professor of Latin American history at the University of Warwick.
For more information about Camillia Cowling, visit the Author Page.


“Deeply researched and richly argued."--Journal of Latin American Studies

“Takes an original approach to the vast topic of slavery and its abolition.”--Hispanic American Historical Review

“Compelling, nuanced, and impeccably researched, Conceiving Freedom is the best-gendered account of New World slavery to date.”--Journal of the North Carolina Association of Historians

“The most detailed and nuanced work yet on how women’s struggles for their own and their children’s freedom.”--Luso-Brazilian Review

"A rich social history--beautifully written and deeply researched--of women and the struggle for emancipation during the final years of slavery in Cuba and Brazil."--Christopher Schmidt-Nowara, Tufts University

“In this comparative history, Cowling tells the story of the abolition of slavery in Havana and Rio de Janeiro by examining the lives and actions of slave women. As she explores their understandings of motherhood, citizenship, and freedom, she shows how these women, both enslaved and free, fought for their and their children’s freedom and thereby contributed to the dismantling of slavery in the Atlantic world.”--Keila Grinberg, Universidade Federal do Estado do Rio de Janeiro