AHA panel report: “Identity Documentation and the Modern Western State”

2010 January 19
by Shane Landrum

First up in my series of AHA panel reports is the panel I organized, which happened on Friday afternoon (January 8). “Identity Documentation and the Modern Western State” included:

  • Molly Tambor, Assistant Professor of History at C.W. Post Long Island University
  • Shane Landrum, Ph.D. student in American History at Brandeis University (me)
  • Rachel Wortman, Ph.D. student in Comparative Cultural Studies at Ohio State University
  • (Chair) Linda Kerber, Professor of Law and History at the University of Iowa and author most recently of No Constitutional Right to Be Ladies: Women and the Obligations of Citizenship
  • (Commentator) John Torpey, professor of sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center and author of The Invention of the Passport

A longer summary follows; the text of my paper is here.

Regulating “prostitutes” with identity documents in post-Fascist Italy

Molly Tambor’s paper, “Prostitutes and Politicians: The Libretto and Women’s Citizenship in Italy” (abstract), explored the post-Fascist deregulation of prostitution in Italy, particularly the 1958 laws which formally did away with the libretto. Libretti (“little books”) were records of a registered prostitute’s health examinations, issued by medical police.

During the 19th and early 20th century, the Italian government ran and regulated brothels, and libretti were part of a scheme for ensuring that all registered prostitutes were free of sexually transmitted diseases, particularly syphilis (incurable until the discovery of penicillin). However, Italian police could stop any woman they suspected of being a prostitute, force her to submit to a medical examination, and issue her a libretto— at which point, regardless of what the woman said, she officially became a registered prostitute and would be required to show her libretto when stopped by police in the future.

In 1958, socialist legislator Lina Merlin helped to pass a law which decriminalized and deregulated Italian prostitution, closing the official brothels and ending the libretto system. This was part of a larger project of formal democratization in post-Fascist Italy. However, local jurisdictions tenaciously held on to the libretto system and their registers of prostitutes, and even today a woman in most Italian jurisdictions can be asked to show her libretto as a form of identity document. Tambor argues that the persistence of the libretti limits women’s ability to claim full citizenship rights in Italy, since in practice any woman can be detained on suspicion of being a prostitute.

Birth Certificates and World War II

My paper, Undocumented Citizens: The Crisis of U.S. Birth Certificates, 1940-45, is posted in full elsewhere on this site as of today. A shorter abstract is available at the AHA website.

Tying Identities to Bodies

Rachel Wortman was unable to attend due to weather-related travel difficulties, but Linda Kerber read Rachel’s paper, “Visual Technologies of Legitimating and Authenticating ‘Self’: National ID Programs and National Security” (abstract). Rachel is interested in the “data shadow” attached to contemporary identity documents in the US and UK, and her paper used the metaphor of Peter Pan’s shadow—which, in the J.M. Barrie story, Peter loses and has to have reattached by Wendy, who sews it on.

My summary of this paper is short, partially because it’s an idea-driven work that doesn’t lend itself easily to retelling, but suffice to say that I’m really interested in the outcome of Rachel’s dissertation research.


John Torpey offered detailed comments on the papers, and Linda Kerber moderated the question-and-answer session. The panel had a small turnout, about 12-15 people, but almost everyone who attended asked a question. For my first time presenting at AHA, it was a nice-sized group. Thanks to all who were present.

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