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Gundersen on Kierner, _Beyond the Household_

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    fyi...aj wright ... H-NET BOOK REVIEW Published by H-SAWH@h-net.msu.edu (October, 1999) Cynthia A. Kierner. _Beyond the Household: Women s Place in the Early
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 4, 1999
      fyi...aj wright

      ----------------------------Original message----------------------------
      H-NET BOOK REVIEW
      Published by H-SAWH@... (October, 1999)

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

      Reviewed for H-SAWH by Joan R. Gundersen <gunderj@...>, Department of
      History, Elon College

      Rethinking Gender and the American Revolution

      Cynthia Kierner's interpretive monograph is part of a new wave
      of scholarship on women in the revolutionary and early national
      period that is forcing us to rethink the relationship of gender
      to ideas of public and private.[1] While carefully delineating
      gender ideologies and the shifting limitations and opportunities
      for women during these transitional years, Kierner does not use
      the idea of patriarchy as the main causal force in a story of
      women's oppression. This clearly distinguishes her work from
      that of Kathleen Brown, Jean Friedman, and Elizabeth
      Fox-Genovese.[2]

      Kierner lays out evidence of a shifting gender ideology in the
      South (defined as Eastern seaboard areas from Virginia through
      Georgia). Before the revolution, southern women had access to
      certain public roles, especially through economic actions and
      rituals of sociability which required female participation. This
      pre-revolutionary world blurred lines between public and
      private. For example, hospitality in one's home was a public
      demonstration shaping one's public image, but the setting was
      private. Women's roles, however, were changing and being
      redefined in ways that increasingly substituted the symbolic
      participation of women in a genteel culture for more direct
      public participation at the courthouse and as economic managers.
      Deepening racial and class lines were a factor in this shift.

      The stresses of the revolutionary era redrew the lines of public
      and private. Women were excluded from many of the new rituals
      demarking revolutionary politics, while the small elegances of
      sociability appeared decadent and wasteful to a virtuous
      republic, especially during war. As republican ideology
      developed in ways inclusive of white males by contrasting them
      to dependent classes of females and slaves, evangelical religion
      recast the religious landscape with a new emphasis on domestic
      life as the locus of virtue and piety. Although wartime demands
      for cloth and other home manufactures initially gave women an
      important way to participate in the conflict, these substantial
      contributions were soon lost from view amidst images of women as
      dependent petitioners.

      Kierner argues that the reshaping of gender ideology to
      correspond to a public-private dichotomy was the work of a
      conservative counter-revolution in both political and religious
      thought. As women's presence in public decreased, however, the
      new importance assigned to domestic roles resulted in
      unprecedented growth in opportunities for women's education and
      a rationale that would let women stretch the boundaries of the
      private sphere to encompass a growing set of philanthropic
      activities. Thus the first quarter of the nineteenth century
      saw southern women, like their northern counterparts, create an
      impressive array of benevolent societies, Sunday schools, and
      church societies. _Beyond the Household_ places southern white
      women in the mainstream of trends that women's historians have
      long associated with the northern experience.

      The general outline of Kierner's book is persuasive, but the
      chapters on the colonial period are more creative than those on
      the revolutionary and antebellum eras in thinking outside of
      standard paradigms of public and private. Intent on showing
      growing domestication, Kierner treats some of women's formal
      public positions (such as nurse and regimental woman) as informal
      arrangements or extensions of domesticity. The
      revolutionary chapters are among the few where more middling
      women come to the forefront, because it is they who took more
      active roles in manufacture and in the military. This sets up a
      logical problem, because Kierner's discussion of the periods
      before and after the revolution focuses on how the experiences
      of the elite shaped gender roles for the upper and middling
      classes. The result is a disconnect between the class of those
      who shaped gender ideology before and after the revolution, and the
      class of those whose experiences are supposed to have provided
      that shaping during the war.

      Similarly, Kierner sees post-revolutionary women's growing
      philanthropy and church work as expansions of a domestic sphere.
      Her work is a close fit with scholars such as Catherine Clinton
      and Suzanne Lebsock.[3] Such an interpretation allows Kierner to
      place southern women within the interpretative framework long
      used by women's historians for northern women. The later
      chapters of _Beyond the Household_ should really be read in
      tandem with Elizabeth Varon's creative 1998 study _We Mean to Be
      Counted: White Women and Politics in Antebellum Virginia_.
      Both historians document women's widespread work in church
      organizations. Both see this as an expansion of women's
      opportunities and cite numerous ways that women were active
      shapers of their society. Varon, however, documents what
      Kierner did not find--political roles for women and opposition
      to slavery (as evidenced in their role in the colonization
      societies)--and argues, unlike Kierner, that philanthropy was a
      public/political act.

      It is difficult when working with such a sweep of primary and
      secondary material not to overextend somewhere, and Kierner
      occasionally misreads her sources. At one point she claims that
      even the women of middling families had slaves dedicated to
      household production. As evidence, she cites the David and
      Elizabeth LeSueur plantation with seventeen slaves, of which she claims three
      were used full time for cloth production (p. 15).
      Unfortunately, her source actually only claims that slave wome
      probably worked alongside Elizabeth in such tasks in addition to
      field work. In another place, Kierner moves Elizabeth Feilde
      from Kingston Parish, Gloucester County, to York County on the
      other side of the York River (p. 81).[4]

      Despite these momentary lapses, this is a good book and one that
      deserves to be read by women's historians, southern historians,
      and historians of Early America. This book challenges women's
      historians to fit southern white women into the paradigms they too often
      have reserved for northern women alone. When combined
      with Varon's work, it is an antidote to the assumption that
      southern white women were too oppressed by the patriarchy to
      have public roles in the new republic. Finally, _Beyond the
      Household_ continues the recent historiographic emphasis on
      women's losses as well as gains during the revolution. In
      total, this is a considerable accomplishment for a work with
      barely 218 pages of text.

      Notes

      [1]. See, for example, Cynthia Kierner's other recent book,
      _Southern Women in Revolution, 1776-1800: Personal and Political
      Narratives_ (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press,
      1998), and Elizabeth R. Varon, _We Mean to Be Counted: White
      Women and Politics in Antebellum Virginia_ (Chapel Hill:
      University of North Carolina Press, 1998); Linda K. Kerber,
      _Toward an Intellectual History of Women: Essays_ (Chapel Hill:
      University of North Carolina, 1997); Joan R. Gundersen, _To Be
      Useful to the World: Women in Revolutionary America, 1740-1790_
      (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1996).

      [2]. Kathleen M. Brown, _Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious
      Patriarchs: Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia_
      (Chapel Hill: Published by the University of North Carolina
      Press for the Institute of Early American History and Culture,
      1996); Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, _Within the Plantation Household:
      Black and White Women of the Old South_ (Chapel Hill: University
      of North Carolina Press, 1988); Jean E. Friedman, _The Enclosed
      Garden: Women and Community in the Evangelical South, 1830-1900_
      (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985).

      [3]. Catherine Clinton, _The Plantation Mistress: Woman's World in the Old
      South_ (New York: Pantheon Books, 1982); Suzanne Lebsock, _The Free Women
      of Petersburg: Status and Culture in a Southern Town, 1784-1860_ (New
      York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1984).

      [4]. For the correct information (and Kierner's source) on the LeSueur
      family, see my article, "Black and White Women in a Colonial Virginia
      Parish," _Journal of Southern History_ LII (August, 1986): 369.
      Elizabeth Feilde was the wife of minister Thomas Field (she spelled the
      name differently than he), who was Director of Kingston Parish, Gloucester
      County. Joan R. Gundersen, _The Anglican Ministry in Virginia, 1723-1776:
      A Study of a Social Class_ (New York: Garland Publishing, 1989), p. 252.

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