Participant Info

First Name
Last Name
Barnard College, Columbia University
Website URL
Latin America, family, children, childhood, gender, paternity, law, reproduction, reproductive technologies, genetic technologies, DNA, immigration, child migration, family detention, children and families on U.S.-Mexico border
Additional Contact Information

Personal Info

About Me

Nara Milanich, Professor of History, joined the faculty of Barnard in 2004. Her scholarly interests include modern Latin America, Chile, and the comparative histories of family, gender, childhood, reproduction, law, and social inequality.

She is finishing a book entitled Looking for the Father: Science, Family, and the Elusive Quest for Paternity (Harvard Univ. Press, 2019).

For millenia, the principle pater semper incertus est (“the father is always uncertain”) seemed an immutable law of nature. But in the 1920s, new advances in the science of heredity appeared poised to overthrow that assumption. This is the first book to explore the development of tests of biological parentage over the course of the twentieth century and their consequences for men, women, and children, states and societies.

Adopting a cross-cultural, comparative perspective ranging across Latin America, North America, and Europe, my research shows that even as parentage testing has purported to reveal essential biological truths, its social uses, public regulation, and cultural meanings have varied widely over time and across global societies. Paternity testing was first heralded as a tool for identifying errant fathers and adulterous wives but was soon incorporated into welfare policies and immigration proceedings, where it assessed not only kinship but also citizenship. Thus, a technology to ascertain the tie of parent and child has also served, from its inception, to draw the boundaries of race and nation. Today, DNA testing can establish genealogical descent with virtual certainty. But while science destabilized older social and legal constructions of paternity, it never fully displaced them. The result is that, in the age of modern biomedicine, definitions of kinship, identity, and belonging are as “uncertain” as ever.

Recent Publications

“Innocents Abroad: Borders, Citizenship, and What Children’s Historians Can Tell Us about the World Today” (Keynote at Society for the History of Children and Youth, Rutgers University-Camden, June 2017), Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth 11:2, spring 2018.

“Daddy Issues: ‘Responsible Paternity’ as Public Policy in Latin America,” World Policy Journal vol XXXIV, no. 3, Fall 2017.

“Certain Mothers, Uncertain Fathers: Assisted Reproductive Technologies in Historical Perspective,” in Reassembling Motherhood: Procreation and Care in a Globalized World, Yasmine Ergas, Jane Jenson, and Sonya Michel, eds, Columbia University Press, October 2017.

“Stratified Maternity in the Barrio: Mothers and Children in Argentine Conditional Cash Transfer Programs,” (with coauthor Valeria Llobet) in Feminism and the Politics of Childhood: Friends or Foes?, Rachel Rosen and Katherine Twamley, eds., University College London Press, 2018.

“To Make All Children Equal is a Change in the Power Structures of Society”: The Politics of Family Law in Twentieth-Century Chile and Latin America,” Law and History Review 33:4, November 2015, 767-802.

Media Coverage
Washington Post, NACLA (North American Congress on Latin America), Dissent
Country Focus
Chile, Brazil, Argentina, comparative transatlantic history (Latin America, North America, Europe)
Expertise by Geography
Latin America
Expertise by Chronology
19th century, Modern, 20th century
Expertise by Topic
Children & Youth, Family, Gender, Law, Medicine, Migration & Immigration, Sexuality, Technology, Women