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Wood on Kierner, _Beyond the Household_

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    fyi...aj wright ... H-NET BOOK REVIEW Published by H-SHEAR@h-net.msu.edu (September, 1999) Cynthia A. Kierner. _Beyond the Household: Women s Place in the
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 21, 1999
      fyi...aj wright

      ----------------------------Original message----------------------------
      H-NET BOOK REVIEW
      Published by H-SHEAR@... (September, 1999)

      Cynthia A. Kierner. _Beyond the Household: Women's Place in the Early
      South, 1700-1835_. Ithaca, N.Y., and London: Cornell University Press,
      1998. xii + 295 pp. Illustrations, notes, and index. $55.00 (cloth),
      ISBN 0-8014-3453-X; $18.95 (paper), ISBN 0-08014-8462-6.

      Reviewed for H-SHEAR by Kirsten E. Wood, <woodk@...>, Department of
      History, Florida International University

      Beyond the Pedestal: White Southern Women in Public

      In this suggestive reinterpretation of the white South's gender ideologies
      and gender practices, Cynthia Kierner explores the public worlds of white
      southern women between 1700 and 1835. Kierner argues that white southern
      women participated in the public sphere in a variety of ways and continued
      to do so even after the antebellum construction of the passive,
      subordinate, and wholly dependent "southern lady." In particular, the
      increasing association of women with the private sphere diminished their
      contact with legal and economic aspects of the public sphere, while it
      facilitated new forms of public activity in the realms of sociability and
      reform. In each chapter, Kierner analyzes changes in both the gender
      prescriptions that affected the region's white women and the actual
      patterns of their involvement with the public sphere.

      Building on feminist revisions of Habermas, Kierner defines the public
      sphere "as embracing not only formal political participation but also
      informal civil and sociable life, the world of letters, certain business
      and market transactions, and religious and benevolent activities"(2).
      While broader than Habermas's, Kierner's definition is not so expansive as
      to include all matters that could reasonably be considered public; it
      involves "extradomestic ideas or issues," rather than all extradomestic
      space and activities (2). As a result, women who headed households and
      participated in the plantation economy, for example, did not necessarily
      act in the public sphere.[1]

      Kierner extends our knowledge of how emerging concepts of class, not just
      race, formed colonial gender roles. She begins by tracing the economic
      and demographic changes in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth
      centuries that slowly limited most white women's access to the public
      worlds of the marketplace and courthouse. As the southern colonies
      matured, white women's intersections with legal, political, and economic
      aspects of the public sphere contracted, bringing colonial gender norms in
      line with those of Europe. The rise of slavery, meanwhile, divided women
      by race, elevating white women's status and simultaneously redefining
      their work and concerns as primarily domestic. At the same time, changes
      in southern gender ideology strengthened the association of women with the
      domestic sphere. Contemporary moralists and novelists increasingly
      "valorized domesticity and women's moral influence in their households,
      while idealizing the leisured gentility" to which southern elites aspired
      (26). Ironically, as wealthy southerners practiced domesticity and
      gentility by embellishing their households, less wealthy southern women
      found new employment opportunities in the growing retail and service
      sectors. This emphasis on class--and on the gentry in particular--becomes
      even more pronounced in the second chapter, where Kierner analyzes the
      development of an elite public culture in the eighteenth century. Kierner
      suggests that a genteel feminine public existed alongside the familiar
      masculine public culture of races, cockfights, and militia musters.
      Increasingly, the gentry defined itself not solely through masculinity,
      but also through gentility, a set of attributes and practices which women
      helped define and manifest. Through balls, teas, and formal dinners,
      "elite women helped to fortify the public image of their class"; these
      exclusive but public events manifested the gentry's refined manners,
      elevated conversation, and wealth, which supposedly justified its
      political dominance (41). Gentility provided elite women with a new
      public forum and provided a novel rationale for improving women's
      education.

      Kierner's third chapter covers the revolutionary era. The war politicized
      all women, but republican ideology strengthened the association of white
      women with the private sphere and dis- credited the colonial elite public
      sphere in which gentlewomen had been so prominent. In the early stages of
      the revolutionary movement, patriots were all but blind to the possibility
      of female patriotism. Calls for boycotts of imported goods at best
      indirectly acknowledged that women, white and black, were responsible for
      most of the domestic manufactures that would replace imports. When the
      conflict became a military one, all female civilians necessarily became
      involved in public concerns: they contributed supplies to the army, ran
      households in the absence of men, encountered hostile military or
      guerrilla forces, and petitioned the government. While the Revolution
      itself provided no lasting mandate for women's involvement in the public
      sphere, it accustomed white women across the socioeconomic spectrum to
      making do without men, thinking about politics, and assessing their
      relationship to the new nation.

      Like many other historians, Kierner regards the 1790s as a backlash
      decade, attributing much of the reaction to American horror at the French
      Revolution's extremism. From her reading of northern periodicals that
      were widely distributed in the South, Kierner argues that immediately
      after the Revolution, the public sphere did indeed entertain the idea of a
      radical expansion of women's roles. During the 1790s, however, "fearful
      conservatives" insisted that the reassertion of female subordination
      within patriarchal families was essential to preserving social order (5).
      This call often included attacks on American women who aspired to
      political significance, tarring them with the brush of European feminism
      and libertinism. Moreover, since republicans defined the defense of
      liberty as the central public function, excluding women from politics
      effectively rendered them irrelevant to the public. Although women
      continued to follow politics throughout the 1790s, postrevolutionary
      republican men rarely acknowledged "women's past patriotism," nor did they
      imagine women "in future public roles" (103).

      Despite this ideological backlash, southern women found other means to
      stake a claim to public relevance. While republicanism provided at best a
      weak and temporary platform from which to launch women into the female
      public sphere, Kierner argues that in the South as in the North,
      domesticity and evangelicalism served women better. Influenced by
      evangelicalism, male southerners slowly idealized the home as "the seat of
      virtue and morality" and equated the blessings of home with the virtues of
      women. However, Kierner argues that this romantic construction of home
      and womanhood bore only a limited relationship to reality. First, women
      did not romanticize marriage and the domestic sphere as men did. For
      women, the domestic sphere was not only their workplace but also "the
      scene of both their greatest joys and severest trials." (170). In an
      agricultural and especially a plantation society, the domestic sphere was
      also an isolated and lonely one for many white southern women. Second
      (and somewhat contradictorily), women were not as removed from the public
      sphere as domestic ideology suggested. For example, advocates of
      domesticity argued that women needed good educations in order to fulfill
      their roles as moral instructors to the next generation. Thus,
      domesticity prompted an expansion both in the number of schools for girls
      and in the number of female teachers and headmistresses.

      Kierner's final chapter expands on the public consequences of domesticity
      and white women's special claim to virtue in the early republic. As in
      the North, religion provided "the key loophole through which most white
      women...entered public life" (181). Urban and rural southern women were
      prominent in the Sunday school movement, formed organizations to relieve
      the needy and educate the orphaned, distributed religious tracts and
      Bibles, and supported both foreign and domestic missionaries.[2]
      Benevolent women elected their own presidents and boards, raised money,
      drafted constitutions, and held elections. Those women who compromised
      their autonomy by associating with male organiza- tions and with the
      church could reach beyond their usual clients (white women and girls) to
      populations they could not serve directly, namely free blacks. Despite
      the apparent radicalism of these all-female and mixed public ventures,
      Kierner notes that "most men either ignored those activities or accepted
      them as the natural and even desirable consequences of women's innate
      compassion and piety"(198). One exception was the temperance movement.
      Men's temperance organizations solicited female support, but southern
      women did not have--nor did they apparently seek--"free rein to criticize
      their fathers and husbands" for drunken- ness and its related sins of
      impoverishment and tyranny (199). (Widely considered an outgrowth of
      other northern reforms, temperance in the South declined rapidly in the
      1830s after the creation of the American Anti-Slavery Association.)[3] All
      of these activities mitigated white women's isolation and may have
      compensated them for the gap between the ideal domestic sphere and their
      actual households.

      Looking ahead into the antebellum decades, Kierner concludes that southern
      women's reforms continued, albeit under somewhat closer male scrutiny,
      even as the South became more and more politically self-conscious in the
      face of northern abolitionist propaganda. Moreover, several competing
      ideals of southern womanhood offered antebellum white women options beyond
      the gilded cage and marble pedestal. Kierner illustrates the point by
      contrasting two sisters, Mary Randolph Randolph and Virginia Randolph
      Cary. Both sisters turned to writing when they ran into financial
      difficulties. Kierner argues that Mary Randolph's much-reprinted cookbook
      valorized women as managers, suggesting that they held the material and
      moral health of their households in their competent hands. In contrast,
      Virginia Cary bluntly preached female subordination within the household,
      opposed advanced women's education, and suggested that good domestic
      management was "merely a duty a wife owed to her husband"(210). Highly
      complementary to proslavery ideology, Cary's version of gender relations
      became dominant in the antebellum years, but Kierner insists that it never
      eliminated competing ideas nor did the region's white women "always
      conform to the ideal of submissive dependence"(211). The fact that
      Virginia Cary was a widow and Mary Randolph a wife suggests that southern
      women's negotiations of the public and of their prescribed gender roles
      (including marital status) were still more complex than Kierner
      demonstrates. As a widow, Cary had a legal persona and distinct public
      responsibilities unlike those of most wives; lacking a husband to protect
      or to dominate her, she insisted on women's God-given subordination to
      their husbands.

      Historians of early American letters, culture, and the public sphere
      should appreciate Kierner's attention to how southerners consumed
      publications and adopted ideologies usually associated with the North.
      Kierner's project will also aid northern women's historians, as she
      demonstrates the relevance of major themes in northern women's
      history--especially domesticity and reform--to white southern women.
      Kierner's insistence that southern distinctiveness developed only very
      slowly may help lessen the marginalization of this important region in
      early American history, but this very point may give pause to some
      southern and especially southern women's historians. Kierner uses many
      prescriptive sources (published and unpublished) and pays comparatively
      little attention to slaves and slaveholding, which may lead her to
      understate regional variation, even though her point that the South became
      self-consciously and oppositionally distinctive only in the nineteenth
      century is well taken and widely accepted. To be sure, Kierner makes a
      convincing case that white, elite southerners shared in the domestic and
      evangelical culture that eventually mandated a new public role as moral
      reformers for middle- and upper-class white women. She also presents
      ample evidence from their letters that these southern men idealized the
      home as women's sphere. However, southern men's epistolary
      romanticization of home and womanhood does not preclude the possibility
      that daily life within southern households reflected a more narrowly
      patriarchal vision of gender relations, rooted in slavery. Numerous
      historians have argued that the antebellum white southerner's household
      was very much man's castle and not woman's sphere. Moreover, Kathleen
      Brown has suggested that domesticity may have enhanced white men's power
      within the household by "categorizing wifely opposition as deviant and
      unloving," and not merely as disobedient.[4] Kierner's own evidence
      confirms that women's claims to moral influence did not threaten
      patriarchy either within or beyond the household. In the future, new
      studies that take domesticity and women's public roles seriously while
      also examining the power dynamics of individual households may help
      illuminate the relationship between public and private articulations of
      gendered power in and beyond the slaveholding South.

      The proliferation of new (and forthcoming) books, articles, and conference
      papers concerning southern women, the public, reform, and the economy
      confirms the importance and the timeliness of Kierner's study.[5] In none
      of its forms between the colonial and the antebellum period did southern
      patriarchy confine white women to one gender role or one 'sphere' of
      influence. Instead, white southern women navigated multiple and sometimes
      competing gender ideologies, several of which accorded them considerable
      status--at least in theory--inside and outside their own households and
      families. Of course, variety is by no means the same thing as autonomy,
      and what autonomy southern women found was carefully circumscribed.
      Moreover, Kierner agrees with other historians that the patriarchalism of
      the early South increased over time. For elite white women, however, this
      rigidification was not absolute nor without its compensations; attention
      to their changing relationship to the public sphere illuminates how they
      continued to participate in and benefit from the interlinked systems of
      patriarchy and slavery.

      Notes

      [1]. Female tavern keepers whose places of business were also venues for
      discussing public matters were involved in the public sphere, according to
      Kierner. Early colonial women who administered large estates or
      intervened in politics were also involved in the public, but it is not
      clear that all women who headed households, executed estates, and
      transacted in the marketplace are included in Kierner's definition of the
      public sphere.

      [2]. In her 1998 study of Virginia women, Elizabeth Varon finds evidence
      of female involvement not just in benevolent reform but in more explicitly
      political arenas such as the colonization movement and Whig partisanship.
      Elizabeth R. Varon, _We Mean to be Counted: White Women and Politics in
      Antebellum Virginia_ (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press,
      1998).

      [3]. Kierner argues that southern temperance revived in the 1840s and
      1850s due to the Washingtonians, whose secularism and working-class focus
      seemed to pose little threat to elite men or to the social order more
      generally (202).

      [4]. Kathleen Brown, _Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs:
      Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia_ (Chapel Hill: University of
      North Carolina Press, 1996), p. 340 and chapter 10 generally. For
      historians who generally agree on the exclusion of most white southern
      women from licit involvement with the public sphere in the South, see for
      example Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, _Within the Plantation Household: Black
      and White Women in the Old South_ (Chapel Hill: University of North
      Carolina Press, 1988); Stephanie McCurry, _Masters of Small Worlds:
      Yeoman Household, Gender Relations, and the Political Culture of the
      Antebellum South Carolina Low Country_ (New York: Oxford University Press,
      1995); Victoria Bynum, _Unruly Women: The Politics of Social and Sexual
      Control in the Old South_ (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina
      Press, 1992). Suzanne Lebsock, _Free Women of Petersburg: Status and
      Culture in a Southern Town, 1784-1860_ (New York: Norton, 1984) finds
      evidence both of companionate ideals of marriage and of women's
      involvement in reform in early nineteenth-century Petersburg. For recent
      works that find domesticity influential in white southern families or
      argue for the existence of a national, rather than regional, elite
      culture, see for example Marli F. Weiner, _Mistresses and Slaves:
      Plantation Women in South Carolina, 1830-1880_ (Urbana: University of
      Illinois Press, 1998); Daniel P. Kilbride, "Cultivation, Conservatism, and
      the Early National Gentry: The Manigault Family and their Circle,"
      _Journal of the Early Republic_ 19:3 (Summer 1999).

      [5]. See for example, Catherine Clinton and Michele Gillespie, _The
      Devil's Lane: Race and Sex in the Early South_ (New York: Oxford
      University Press, 1996); Varon, _We Mean to Be Counted_; Lisa Tolbert,
      _Constructing Townscapes: Space and Society in Antebellum Tennessee_
      (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999).

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