Nara Milanich, "Paternity: The Elusive Quest for the Father" (Harvard UP, 2019)

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Nara Milanich’s Paternity: The Elusive Quest for the Father (Harvard University Press, 2019) explains how fatherhood, long believed to be impossible to know with certainty, became a biological “fact” that could be ascertained with scientific testing. Though the advent of DNA testing might seem to make paternity less elusive, Milanich’s book invites readers to think about paternity not as a biological fact but as a socially-constructed role that has evolved over time. Historically, given assumed paternal uncertainty, fathers were defined in terms of their behavior (acting like a father) or their relationship to a child’s mother (being married to a woman made a man the father of her offspring). In the twentieth century, paternity testing developed as a way to scientifically determine male progenitors, although these new methods never replaced older ways of reckoning paternity. Milanich describes blood tests and other early techniques proffered by doctors and scrutinized by courts as a way to know the “true” father. Paternity testing, she points out, has been used to different ends in different societies: it could identify an errant progenitor or reveal a mother’s liaison. A certain paternity test result could mean economic security for a child or put a person’s life in jeopardy. Moreover, Milanich reveals the uneven application of paternity testing that has tended to protect the most privileged groups in different societies. Paternity is a transatlantic study that moves from South America to Europe and the United States, and its chapters touch upon the histories of science and medicine, gender and the family, and immigration. The podcast features fascinating case studies set in Brazil and Argentina. This book’s reflections on the making of modern paternity speak to our own time, when, for example, the U.S. government is using DNA testing at the border to separate “real” kin from “fictitious” families, as Milanich explains to podcast listeners. The stakes of knowing the father go far beyond determining biological progenitors, and this book vividly reconstructs the political uses and cultural implications of the paternity test.

Rachel Grace Newman is joining Smith College in July 2019 as Lecturer in the History of the Global South. She has a Ph.D. in History from Columbia University, and her dissertation was titled “Transnational Ambitions: Student Migrants and the Making of a National Future in Twentieth-Century Mexico.” She is also the author of a book on a binational program for migrant children whose families divided their time between Michoacán, Mexico and Watsonville, California. She is on Twitter (@rachelgnew).

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