FW: Murray on Coryell et al,_Negotiating Boundaries of Southern W omanhood_
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Subject: RVW: Murray on Coryell et al,_Negotiating Boundaries of
H-NET BOOK REVIEW
Published by H-South@... (May 2001)
Janet L. Coryell, Thomas H. Appleton, Jr, Anastatia Sims, Sandra
Gioia Treadway, eds. _Negotiating Boundaries of Southern Womanhood:
Dealing with the Powers That Be_. Southern Women Series. Columbia
and London: University of Missouri Press, 2000. 233 pp. Index.
$34.95 (cloth), ISBN 0-8262-1295-6.
Reviewed for H-South by Gail S. Murray <murray@...>,
Department of History, Rhodes College
Making the Invisible Visible
Ever since Anne Firor Scott adopted the title "making the invisible
woman visible" for her 1984 survey of southern women's history,
historians of southern women have sought not only to infuse women's
agency into the narratives of southern history, but also to redefine
the parameters of that history by questioning definitions of
political power, class identity and agency, and racial ideology. The
eleven essays in _Negotiating Boundaries of Southern Womanhood_ do
just that as they examine women who "confronted, cooperated with,
and sometimes were co-opted by" existing power structures (p. 2).
Drawn from the Fourth Annual Conference of the Southern Association
of Women Historians, the work of these young scholars vibrantly
reflects the diversity and complexity of female experience in the
nineteenth- and twentieth-century South. These essays are not
arranged chronologically, nor grouped by methodology, race, or
region. Perhaps like southern women's history itself, this random
ordering across time, space, class, and race highlights the
interconnectedness of southern women's experience. _Negotiating
Boundaries_ is a must read for all those interested in the South,
women's experience, or race and class dynamics.
Beginning with the antebellum South, five essays highlight the
struggles with "the powers that be" of particularly marginalized
women. The efforts of free women of color to negotiate labor and
hierarchy find careful chroniclers in Beverly Greene Bond, "The
Extent of the Law: Free Women of Color in Antebellum Memphis," and
Diane Batts Morrow, "Our Convent: the Oblate Sisters of Providence."
Bond gives definition to the small network of African American
women, either born free or recently emancipated, who labored to
support themselves and their families on the margins on white
society in antebellum Memphis. Ties of "intermarriage, residency,
and friendship" connected free women of color to prominent white
families (p. 25). Her actors vibrate with agency, negotiating the
boundaries of power with skill, diplomacy, and tenacity. Professor
Morrow's Providence Oblate Sisters represent the oldest permanent
female order of African descent in the country, dating from 1828.
They not only negotiated their way through the church's male
hierarchy and the rivalries within Baltimore's African American
community, but they also used traditional gender ideology to enlarge
their realm of service to the poor.
Though privileged by race, unmarried white women in the antebellum
South also contested their marginalization. Kirsten Wood examines
lives of slaveholding widows and their families in the Old Southeast
in "The Strongest Ties That Bind Poor Mortals Together." She finds
that widows submitted to the advice of male kin, manipulated "ideals
of familial relationships in order to demand help, justify their
conduct, and critique their kin," and thus to some extent,
challenged their powerlessness as unmarried women (p. 155).
In a similar vein, Christine Jacobson Carter studies the familial
expectations of women who did not marry in "Indispensable Spinsters:
Maiden Aunts in the Elite Families of Savannah and Charleston."
Carter struggles to find agency in women who were expected to serve
their family, yet were denied the respect and honor accorded
southern wives and mothers. More successful in challenging male
prerogatives are the Texas women in Angela Boswell's "Married
Women's Property Rights and the Challenge to the Patriarchal Order."
Although her study is based on only one county, Boswell discovers
numerous examples of laws granting women legal powers, not as a
challenge to their husbands' authority, but for the practical
conduct of business, thus moving these married women directly into
the public and financial sphere.
Three essays examine women's lives during the Civil War. "Cartridge
Makers and Myrmidon Viragos" by E. Susan Barber draws from an
extensive study of female labor in Confederate Richmond in order to
contrast the public perception of two quite different groups of
women. While the forty-three girls and women who were killed in a
munitions plant explosion in 1863 were heralded as "war heroes," the
public heaped derision on a group of women from the same
working-class neighborhood who marched on the business district with
axes and sticks to protest the food shortages in Richmond.
Another Virginia Confederate, Mary Geenhow Lee, is profiled by
Sheila Rae Phipps in a creative analysis of the function of the
"social call" and social "connexions" with others as vehicles for
ascribing social status during the disruptions of war time. In
"Their Desire to Visit the Southerners," Phipps creatively
deconstructs Mary Lee's use of a female rite to make political
statements and to wield social power.
Moving beyond the War, Michelle A. Krowl's essay traces the advocacy
of African American women who sought widow's pensions in post-war
Virginia in "Her Just Dues: Civil War Pensions of African American
Women in Virginia." Because widows first had to document their
pre-war marriage to a soldier in order to qualify for their "just
due" as pensioners, Krowl shows the inventiveness and tenacity of
African American petitioners. She argues that "black women
understood the aspect of entitlement that underlay an application,"
(p. 55) and thus they entered the political landscape and battled
federal pension bureaucrats for financial support. Because "the
specifics of respectability remained contested," (p. 69) and their
prewar marriages as slaves were not legally recognized, these women
found themselves defending their personal morality even as they
tried to prove they had been legitimate marital partners of
soldiers. As does Bond in her essay on free women of color in
Memphis, Krowl make impressive use of census data, federal records,
and local court proceedings to bring to light "invisible" actors.
Essays set in the post-war South include Antoinette G. Van Zelm's
examination of women's redefinition of citizenship in two groups of
Virginia women who memorialized the past by creating public
ceremonies. African American women played critical roles in
establishing important community celebrations around Emancipation
Day, even though their roles became less visible as the decades
passed. White Virginia women used their active support of the Lost
Cause, fund-raising for various memorial associations, and the
United Daughters of the Confederacy to establish a public presence.
Van Zelm concludes that [W]omen of both races affirmed their
communal identities. . . .and created new patterns of civic life"
Ruth Montgomery also uses women's role in the Lost Cause to
brilliantly question race and class in the shaping of a southern
progressive reform agenda. Her essay "Lost Cause Mythology in New
South Reform" uses Georgia sources to trace the strategies of women
reformers. Whether the reforms were child labor, prohibition,
compulsory education, or improved agricultural methods, these women
usually cast their advocacy in terms of rehabilitating the South's
"character" in the eyes of the rest of the nation. Meanwhile,
reformers sought to protect the "southern way of life" with all its
assumptions of white superiority and class "elevation," even as they
advocated social improvements. Like other scholars working the field
of "citizenship," Montgomery reminds us that "significant political
movement occurs outside the realm of partisan politics" (p. 198).
Elite African American women also reflected an acute awareness of
class and color according to Kibibi Voloria Mack-Shelton's essay,
"The Elite African American Women of Orangeburg, South Carolina:
Class, Work, and Disunity," which is based principally on oral
histories. Active in the state federation of Colored Women's Clubs,
these women also formed other invitation-only organizations and did
not socialize with working-class or other middle-class African
American women. Although Mack-Shelton finds some uplift activities
among these Orangeburg elites, her conviction that women of color
observed strict color lines challenges scholarly convictions of
African American sisterhood on behalf of racial uplift.
The triennial SAWH Conference has become a testing ground for
innovative research and stimulating conversations about southern
women. The eleven essays of this collection embody the vigorous
scholarship afoot in southern women's history and reveal the
persistence and ingenuity that southern women showed in "dealing
with the powers that be."
. Previous collections from SAWH triennial conferences, all
published by the University of Missouri Press, include Virginia
Bernhard, et. al., eds., _Southern Women: Histories and Identities_
(1992); Virginia Bernhard, et. al., eds., _Hidden Histories of Women
in the New South_ (1994); Janet L. Coryell, et. al., eds., _Beyond
Image and Convention: Explorations in Southern Women's History_
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