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Brazilian researcher receives International History Prize

Researcher Laura de Mello e Souza has been selected by the International Committee of Historical Sciences (ICHS) to receive the prestigious International History Prize. A pioneer in her field, she embarked on her historical studies during Brazil’s military dictatorship. This recognition marks a significant milestone as she becomes the first woman and the first individual from South America to be honored with this award.

Souza served as a professor in the History Department of the Faculty of Philosophy, Letters, and Human Sciences at the University of São Paulo (USP) from 1983 to 2014. Additionally, she held the chair of Brazilian history at Sorbonne University in Paris.

In an interview on International Women’s Day, Souza emphasized the ongoing challenges women encounter in their careers, stemming from constraints on their time and disparities in professional recognition, all within a society marked by gender inequality.

“Women’s accomplishments often arise from their perseverance and endurance, requiring a daily struggle, as the world still predominantly favors men,” Laura conveyed to Agência Brasil.

The award ceremony for the prize is scheduled to take place in Tokyo in October of this year, coinciding with the General Assembly of the International Committee of Historical Sciences.

Read the researcher’s interview

Agência Brasil – What led you to choose history as your field of study?

Laura Souza – I’ve had a passion for history since I was a young girl, but as I neared the end of high school, I hesitated to pursue it further. During that time, the military dictatorship in Brazil was strongly opposed to the humanities, leading to the dismissal or emigration of many professors from USP and other universities in this field. Although I considered architecture, medicine, and psychology, my passion for history prevailed, and I enrolled in the history program at USP in 1972.

Agência Brasil – Who were your influences?

Laura Souza – I loved reading about ancient Greece, I was interested in classical culture, and I loved historical novels. But I think it was reading Caio Prado Jr (Economic History of Brazil), when I was still in high school, and Jacob Burkhardt, in the month before I started working at USP (Culture of the Renaissance in Italy), that made a decisive impression on me.

Once at university, I was greatly influenced by the French historiography of the Annales, by authors such as Jacques Le Goff, Marc Bloch, and Philippe Ariès, and by Italian microhistorians such as Carlo Ginzburg. Among the Brazilian historians, always Caio Prado Jr, but above all Fernando Novais and Sérgio Buarque de Holanda.

Agência Brasil – On what subject did you begin your research?

Laura Souza – I initially focused on contemporary history. I wrote an oral research paper on leisure in São Paulo between the wars and conducted historical research for a documentary by Lauro Escorel called “Libertários,” which explored the Brazilian workers’ movement in the first quarter of the 20th century.

Then I moved on and started researching poverty and marginalization in Minas Gerais state in the 18th century. This was my gateway into academic research, where I became a historian.

Since then, my research has taken me through a variety of subjects. My doctoral dissertation focused on witchcraft and popular religiosity between the 16th and 18th centuries. In subsequent work, I explored topics such as the negative perceptions that influenced Hispanic America, colonial administration, and the experiences of Portuguese governors involved in overseas conquests. I also wrote the biography of Cláudio Manuel da Costa, an 18th-century poet embroiled in the Inconfidência Mineira [a failed independence movement against Portuguese colonial rule] and examined 18th-century perceptions of nature in Minas Gerais in my last published book. Additionally, I edited a volume on daily life and private life in colonial Brazil.

Agência Brasil – What are your current research topics?

Laura Souza – I’m currently working on two projects. The first project examines the displacement of three European courts whose countries were invaded by French revolutionary armies from the late 18th century to the early 19th century. The second project focuses on the analysis of three literary works that depict different regions of the Portuguese empire in the 17th century.

Agência Brasil – What challenges have you faced in your career as a researcher and educator?

Laura Souza – I’ve encountered the challenges typical of the era in which I began my career. Documents were not digitized, requiring physical travel to access them. This was especially challenging for private archives. Essentially, nothing was computerized, and I have always relied heavily on handwritten and unpublished documents in my work.

On the other hand, I am part of a privileged generation that had access to research grants because important funding agencies already existed, such as Fapesp [São Paulo State Research Foundation] at the state level, and Capes [Coordination for the Improvement of Higher Education Personnel Foundation] and CNPq [National Council for Scientific and Technological Development] at the federal level. In this sense, our path was somewhat smoother compared to subsequent generations, who have recently faced a challenging period marked by threats and funding cuts in education and research.

Agência Brasil – How did it feel to receive the International History Prize?

Laura Souza – It was a great honor and, above all, a delightful surprise. There are certainly many historians worldwide more deserving than myself. Nevertheless, I was thrilled because it highlights the robustness of Brazilian historiography, which is gaining increasing recognition on the international stage, thanks to the outstanding specialists it boasts.

Moreover, I received numerous heartfelt messages from female historians who felt encouraged and honored by this award. They are keenly aware of the additional challenges women face in carving out time for research and achieving professional recognition. Household responsibilities and childcare often weigh more heavily on women than on their partners.

Agência Brasil – What do you think is important to emphasize on International Women’s Day?

The achievements of women are primarily the result of their struggle and suffering. This struggle must be daily because the world still predominantly belongs to men. Mothers must raise male children who respect and support women. The law must ensure equality between genders in every aspect. Assaults and murders against women must be severely and ruthlessly punished. It’s very sad that we are still a long way from achieving these goals.

I hope that progress becomes more and more significant. After all, my descendants are entirely female: I have three daughters and three granddaughters, and I hope that the world will be more welcoming to them.


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