Barbara Weinstein Biography

By Teresa A. Meade, Union College
From the General Meeting Booklet, 2008 AHA Annual Meeting

Barbara S. Weinstein, Professor of History at New York University, has earned a reputation as one of the most important senior historians of Latin America in the United States. Her books, pathbreaking articles, insightful critiques, perceptive and nuanced talks, and tireless mentoring of younger scholars are well known and appreciated. In her work on Brazil, she has grappled with some of the key questions facing a whole generation of Latin Americanists who came to history seeking to look deeply and critically into the past for an understanding of the origins of social inequality. When and how have some societies overcome inequalities, while others have not, and is there something to be learned from those experiences? As her long-time friend and colleague, Brooke Larson, put it, “Barbara represents the best of our generation in the ways she has combined politically committed, ‘engaged’ scholarship and activism with the rigorous strictures of archival-based research and interpretive analysis.”

Many Latin Americanists of Barbara’s generation entered graduate school intent on studying imperialism, dependency, the role of women, and the importance of the working class in shaping industrial society. Likewise concerned with these issues, she nonetheless rejected the easy answers. In her first book, The Amazon Rubber Boom, 1850–1920 (Stanford University Press, 1983), Barbara sought to understand the extent to which neocolonialism and imperialism affected the relations of production in a region that exported a single commodity for the international market. Her second book, For Social Peace in Brazil: Industrialists and the Remaking of the Working Class in São Paulo, 1920–1964 (University of North Carolina Press, 1996) and the many articles that came before and after its publication, addressed the issues of labor history in the context of an increasingly sophisticated Brazilian management structure that was plugged into Fordism, Taylorism, and the latest trends in rationalization. Finally, in a remarkably rich set of articles talks and commentaries, Barbara has laid out themes that will be addressed in her forthcoming book on the emergence of racialized and engendered regional and national Brazilian identities. Contrasting São Paulo in the early twentieth century with the north and northeast of Brazil, Race, Region, Nation: São Paulo and the Formation of Brazilian National Identities (to be published by Duke University Press) builds on the regional characteristics she explored in her other books, while constructing a single narrative of Brazil’s history as a modern nation.

Barbara Weinstein was born on May 10, 1952, in the Brownsville/East Flatbush section of Brooklyn, and spent most of her life there until her family moved to Howard Beach, Queens, when she was a junior in high school. In a gutsy move (which resurfaces at other key moments of her career), Barbara refused to transfer from Samuel J. Tilden High School in Brooklyn to the slightly more upscale one in Queens, insisting on commuting for her final two years through Brownsville and East New York to her old high school. Her parents, Lou and Esther (Goldstein) Weinstein, assumed that Barbara would follow the example of her older brother and sister and attend Brooklyn College, but she was determined to go elsewhere. “The problem with Brooklyn College was not the quality of education or the prestige of the institution, but rather that you simply couldn’t live there and I wanted to go where I could live away from home,” explains Barbara. Since neither her father’s income as a salesman nor her mother’s as an EKG technician provided enough for tuition and room and board at a private college (and New York at that time had no state university system), Barbara set her sights on winning a full scholarship to a college outside the city. Encouraged by one of her teachers, she applied to Princeton University for the fall 1969 class, the first that would include women, and was admitted with a full scholarship.

Although less than a hundred miles from her home, Princeton was a foreign experience. Not only was she one of 175 women among 3,200 men, but Barbara also entered a social milieu entirely different from the ethnically mixed neighborhood where she had grown up: “I don’t think I had ever met a White Anglo Saxon Protestant. Everyone I knew who was Protestant was black and everyone I knew who was white was Catholic or Jewish…. I spoke with this very pronounced Brooklyn accent, and people would literally giggle at the way I talked.” If Barbara had known no WASP’s, she soon discovered that in 1969 Princeton had not known many apartment-renting, inner-city, secular Jews whose major high school experiences included the New York teachers’ strike, conflicts over racial integration, and virtually no interaction with families of wealth and privilege.

Despite the shock of difference, her years at Princeton were both personally and intellectually invigorating. Peter Winn’s seminar on the Cuban Revolution sparked her interest in Latin American history, and she began to explore the prospect of traveling to Cuba to contribute first-hand to the revolution as a part of a work brigade (which she eventually was unable to do). She took every class Stanley Stein taught, in addition to devouring a range of history, social science, and humanities courses. Through Arno Mayer’s brilliantly informed lectures on modern European history, she began to understand that history is both fact and theory; that concepts and events only make sense within an interpretive framework. She audited Carl Schorske’s classes, crowding in with other students to hear his famous lectures on Freud or the Frankfurt School. Finally, in Anne (Wood) Douglass’s class, Barbara was opened to the world of women’s literature and the history from which it sprang. Looking back, she recalls taking classes, for credit or not, for the pure pleasure of learning, and writing papers with the intent of discovering answers to pressing personal and political questions ranging from women’s liberation to socialist revolution. As is too often forgotten, those heydays of campus activism were also periods of intense intellectual ferment, including student-initiated study groups and late-night debates (with way too many cigarettes!) over ideas ranging from Marx to Marcuse, from Emma Goldman to Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

In preparation for writing her senior thesis, Barbara earned a small research grant for study in Uruguay during the summer of 1972. With the exception of a visit to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, this was her first trip outside the United States. Uruguay in 1972 had a profound impact on her because she arrived in a country in the throes of internal war between the military and the Tupamaro guerillas, one of the most resourceful and daring of the 1970s urban guerilla movements then punctuating the Latin American political landscape. Her senior thesis could not have been more timely: a study of the collapse of democratic politics in Uruguay, a country long known for its European-style democracy, stability, social welfare system, and prosperous standard of living. Although the encounter was fleeting, she did get the chance to meet one of Latin America’s most celebrated writers, Uruguayan historian Eduardo Galeano, a man who along with nearly every other major intellectual went into exile the next year when Uruguay’s democratic government gave way to one of the most repressive dictatorships in Latin America.

In September 1973, the week the Chilean military overthrew Salvador Allende, Barbara began graduate school at Yale University. Not only did history PhDs face a dismal job market in the early 1970s, but also most of Latin America was under military governments, making access to archival material increasingly precarious. Ultimately, however, her graduate work was less endangered by Latin American military governments than by the paucity of resources available for dissertation research. At Yale, under the tutelage of Emilia Viotti da Costa, the remarkable Brazilian historian of slavery and the nineteenth century, Barbara began to develop a dissertation topic. Originally interested in a study of the São Paulo working class, she shifted to the Amazonian rubber boom, a topic little investigated by historians either in Brazil or outside it. Except for a few anthropologists, no researchers, especially from abroad, ventured to Belém, a medium-sized city of around a million inhabitants at the mouth of the Amazon River. Turned down for a Tinker, Fulbright, Social Science Research Council, and every other grant she applied for (and for a while considering dropping out of graduate school), Barbara set off for Belém with a modest stipend from Yale, hoping to figure out a way to live in Brazil for free. Through various means, including going around to the foreign language schools looking for someone who would exchange a room for English conversation, she eventually ended up staying with an elderly woman who had little interest in learning English but did want companionship. It was the generosity of this aging matriarch, Dona Cecília Gomes de Parry, not the largesse of a prestigious philanthropic foundation that enabled Barbara to complete her dissertation research.

The dissertation (which later became her first book) on the rubber boom examined the effect of prosperity on relations of production and exchange, addressing two major questions: To what extent did merchants make an effort to extend the prosperity of the region, and to what extent were their successes and failures based on their relation with imperialism or with local relations of production? On the other hand, how did the centrality of one commodity to the livelihood of everyone in the region affect the exploitation of the rubber tappers? In a provocative and complicated argument, her work showed that the rubber tappers, while entirely indebted to the landowners and thus unable to strike out on their own, nonetheless maintained a degree of freedom to walk over vast expanses of territory to collect latex. The questions that framed this study were similar to those of many scholars studying the role of imperialism in the oppression of the rural masses. Her conclusions however, arguing that the rubber tappers manipulated their indebtedness to wrest free from the authority of the landowners, conflicted with the prevailing wisdom of dependency theory. She argued that in contrast to the absolute control the landowner typically imposes on the indebted worker, the rubber tappers were tied to the land through a variety of means, including relations of exchange, the need for protection, and debt-based discipline, depending on the age of the trees, the expanse of the land, and whether the tappers were indigenous or mixed-race Brazilians. Although initially some researchers were reluctant to accept Barbara’s conclusions—that landowners would allow the tappers this degree of freedom—the study was eventually lauded as highly innovative. According to Maria Ligia Prado of the University of São Paulo, Brazilian historians now consider this study a classic.

From 1979 to 1982, Barbara was assistant professor at Vanderbilt University. She spent a part of 1983 in Brazil on a combination of NEH and Fulbright fellowships, and then moved to the State University of New York at Stony Brook after her return to the United States. Over the next seventeen years at Stony Brook, her research shifted from the Amazon rubber boom to the social and labor history of São Paulo. In her second book, For Social Peace in Brazil, she interrogated the analyses associated with the Marxist-influenced labor history in the United States and Britain pioneered by E. P. Thompson, Herbert Gutman, David Montgomery, and others. As with her first book, Barbara drew on important studies in labor history while breaking new ground to fit the particularities of a radically different context. In the Brazilian case, and she speculated for other areas of Latin America as well, rather than resisting the forces of modernity and fearing the de-skilling as had their counterparts in the United States and Europe, workers in the São Paulo plants were very interested in new technical processes, even critical of the industrialists for their laxness in adopting modern methods of production. She argued that the extent to which workers adapted to, even embraced, new technology depended very much on their pre-existing circumstances. The contribution here was that Barbara refused to straitjacket the Brazilian workers into a model that may have explained the workers’ struggles in societies with longstanding artisanal and guild traditions, but did not apply to São Paulo’s unskilled laborers. Moreover, even though the forms of industrial motivation varied, the workers were no less exploited, and their resistance to the labor processes no less militant.

Finally, Barbara’s explorations of more recent Brazilian history in many articles and the forthcoming book on regionalism and racial identity serve to strengthen the connection between the Amazon and the working class in São Paulo begun in these first two books.

In the widely anticipated book, Barbara sees Brazil as a whole, with important regional variations, as opposed to the more commonly accepted notion that the Amazon exists as an exotic, transnational, “extra-Brazilian” entity, while São Paulo stands as the national center. Despite regional disparities, it is primarily racial identity, and concomitant racist stereotypes, that have served to fracture the Brazilian whole, positing one part of the nation as more important than another, even as “the” nation. By confronting the force of racially engendered regionalism, Barbara seeks to “decenter the nation” and to fold the disparate parts into a single Brazilian narrative. The book will thus be the culmination of a number of provocative essays addressing the intersection of race and gender, especially, “Making Workers Masculine: The (Re)Construction of Male Worker Identity in Twentieth-Century Brazil,” (2004) in Masculinity in Politics and War, and re-conceptualizing transnationalism, “History without a Cause? Grand Narratives, World History, and the Postcolonial Dilemma” (2005) in the International Review of Social History.

While at Stony Brook (1982–2000), Barbara established her reputation as a tough-minded researcher, prolific contributor in articles and talks on Latin American labor history, and as an incredibly generous colleague and mentor of scholars both in the U.S. and abroad. She continued in this endeavor at the University of Maryland at College Park (2000–07), where, with her colleagues Mary Kay Vaughan and Daryle Williams, she edited the Hispanic American Historical Review, the journal of record of Latin American history. Barbara’s expertise as an editor and critic is apparent in the esteem to which her colleagues have enlisted her membership on editorial boards of numerous journals, including International Labor and Working Class History, Radical History Review, Latin American Research Review, The Americas, Revista de História da Amazônia, and others in the United States and Brazil. She also serves as the series editor, with Daniel J. Walkowitz, of the Radical Perspectives series at Duke University Press. I never cease to marvel at Barbara’s command of Latin American and, especially, Brazilian history, her knowledge of what is being published, and new ideas or theories that are being debated in her own field of research and in the wider world of history and scholarship. If this breadth of knowledge derives from her extensive involvement in the peer-review process for journals, presses, and promotion cases, it is nonetheless the strength of her appraisal that has caused many to seek her advice. Florencia Mallon, a longtime friend from graduate school, sees Barbara’s contributions to professional organizations, journals, and mentoring of graduate students as stemming from both her personal and intellectual strengths, including her flexibility, optimism, and good humor in the face of adversity. Her ability to solve problems, combined with her capacity to see the human—and the absurd—in any situation make her a valuable mentor and reviewer. As Mallon observes, “Wherever Barbara Weinstein goes, a first-rate graduate program is sure to follow.” Moreover, Barbara is generous with her time, even too much so. Known for her perceptive tenure and promotion reviews, Barbara argues: “What’s more important than whether someone gets to keep their job or whether someone gets to be promoted? These are the most important decisions in somebody’s career, so it is very difficult to say that I’m simply too busy, I can’t do this.” Once, having taken on too many requests, including six in one month (!), she wryly speculated whether anyone in the continental United States got tenure without her say-so?

Barbara particularly stresses the importance of close cooperation with scholars outside the United States, especially in Brazil. A fellow historian of Brazil, James Green, remarks “Barbara has been consistently committed to building horizontal and democratic relationships with Brazilian scholars.” She has been cognizant of the power relations embedded in international academia and has consistently worked to dismantle them, to break down the traditional patterns whereby some academics from the United States at times have brought an arrogance or notion of superiority in relationship to the scholars in the countries that they study. She is anxious that U.S. academics continue to build strong reciprocal ties with scholars abroad, possibly as a counterpoint to increasing hostility toward the U.S. government, and encourages international exchange programs. Barbara recalls the semester that she and her husband, noted sociologist Erich Goode, and their children, Sarah (b. 1986) and Danny (b. 1988) spent in Jerusalem, Israel on the Fulbright Program as an invaluable experience. Her modern Brazilian history seminar at Hebrew University enrolled twenty-five students, far more than expected, indicating a surprising amount of interest in Latin America. Although critical of Israeli policy toward the Palestinians, a sentiment strongly echoed among the Latin American Jewish population resident in Israel, Barbara became aware of the importance of Israel as a haven for many Latin Americans who were forced into exile during periods of military dictatorship. Of the stunning landscape of Jerusalem, she remarked, “The only city I think is equally seductive is Rio de Janeiro. Just the sheer beauty.”

As president of the American Historical Association, Barbara has built on the work of her predecessors in promoting academic freedom. Her Perspectives columns have consistently spoken to key political, scholarly, and personal issues, including the current Bush administration’s use of Homeland Security regulations to infringe on academic freedom, restrict the rights of scholars, interfere with the free flow of information, and limit the autonomy of academia. However, the column that received the greatest response by far was “Historians and the Mobility Question,” (February 2007), wherein Barbara talked of having an autistic son, Danny, whose birth in 1988 derailed her dreams of spending extensive research stays at archives and research institutes in the United States and abroad. She and her academic husband, to whom she has been married since 1984, have found that the rosy picture of the flexible academic career grinds to a halt when a family faces such challenges. The flood of letters in response to this column was an indication that she had touched a nerve. She heard not only from historians with children with disabilities, but also from those whose research and publication agendas were overturned by the constraints of the two-career household, caring for children and aging parents, economic hardships, and the host of other mundane matters that interfere with the unfettered “life of the mind.”

Just as with her research interests at the start of her career, Barbara’s Perspectives columns and many talks as AHA president have confronted the serious issues of our time, posed some solutions, and pointed to further work that the AHA and all of us need to pursue in the face of increasingly daunting publication and research requirements. Barbara Weinstein has brought to the presidency of the AHA the same unique combination of human, intellectual, ethical, and feminist qualities that have made her a revered colleague, advisor, and friend.


Race, Region, Nation: São Paulo and the Formation of Brazilian National Identities. Durham: Duke University Press, forthcoming.

The Making of the Middle Class: Toward a Transnational History. Co-editor. Durham: Duke University Press, 2012.

The Encyclopedia of World History. Contributing ed. for Latin America, 6th ed. Peter N. Stearns, general editor. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001.

For Social Peace in Brazil: Industrialists and the Remaking of the Working Class in São Paulo, 1920–1964. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

“Women and Power,” Co-editor, Special Issue, Radical History Review 70 (Winter 1998).

The Amazon Rubber Boom, 1850–1920. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1983.

Presidential Columns

The AHA and Academic Freedom in the Age of Homeland Security (Perspectives, January 2007)
Historians and the Mobility Question (Perspectives, February 2007)
How Much Have We Decentered the Historical Profession? (Perspectives, March 2007)
Let the Sunshine In: Government Records and National Insecurities (Perspectives, April 2007)
Doing History in the Digital Age (Perspectives, May 2007)
The Case of the Incredible Shrinking Historians? (Perspectives, September 2007)
Washington for Historians (Perspectives, October 2007)
The AHA and Academic Freedom in the Age of Homeland Security, Revisited (Perspectives, December 2007)