Gendered Power Relations in the Antebellum and Postbellum South: A Response to Thavolia Glymph’s Out of the House of Bondage

My first post on the blog! I am excited to study and work alongside these exuberant scholars as we implore on the multifaceted experiences of American women.


Glymph, Thavolia. Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Traditional studies of the slave-holding and postbellum South often emphasize power relations amongst slaves vs. male slaveholders and men vs. women. It has only been in the last few decades that the emergence of scholarship on the power dynamics between white and black women have materialized in the historian’s purview. Thavolia Glymph in her book Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household explores the power relations between Southern mistresses and black women within the plantation household before, during, and after the Civil War. Ultimately, the effects of emancipation led to the transformation of the plantation household that saw black women establishing their own homes and mistresses wielding little control over their commandment of black women’s labor. These ever changing contours of the plantation household saw white women’s attempt to dissipate the effects of emancipation while concurrently black women’s day-to-day resistance leading to the plantation household’s demise. Through her narrative, it is clear to see that one of Glymph’s main purposes is to revise common misconceptions of the plantation household and both white and black women’s role within it. Such myths Glymph punctures include the notion that the plantation household was encapsulated in the private sphere (immune to the economic and political world around it), the gendered assumption that plantation mistresses yielded little to no power, and the disvalue of black women’s resistance and agency during this time period.

To construct her narrative, Glymph primarily utilizes a micro-history approach by outlining various individual stories of mistresses and black women in order to reveal the larger picture of Southern plantation power dynamics. This includes the diaries and letters of mistresses as well as, most notably, the recollection of slaves through the Worker’s Progress Administration’s Slave Narrative Collection. This project, enacted from 1936-1938, documented over 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery and would thus be an invaluable resource for any scholar studying 19th century African American history. Furthermore, Glymph expands on existing southern women’s historical scholarship such as Elizabeth Fox-Genovese’s Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the Old South (1988) through the conception of the plantation household as an analytical construct.

Most notable in Glymph’s book is her deep-seated analysis of the everyday actions of both mistresses and black women. In Glymph’s view, every action has a symbolic significance in revealing power dynamics as well as the differing views of freedom and womanhood amongst white and black women. This line of thinking clearly aligns with Michel Foucault’s view that there is power within everyday actions. For example, freed Jane McLeod Wilburn recollected her enthusiasm over buying her own cloth and quilts. While some scholars might glance over this seemingly ordinary action, Glymph argues that this action symbolized black women’s independent purchasing power and freedom over their own lives. Glymph states, “Even evidence that seems explicitly imitative deserves deeper study” (pg. 206). This led me to recollect what evidence have scholars – including myself – often overlook when we construct our narratives?

As stated above, Glymph re-conceptualizes many prevailing notions of the plantation household, southern womanhood, and the agency of black women that is often lost within Lost Cause and gendered ideologies. One common misconception is that Southern ladies were ‘fragile flowers’ detached from the plantation’s economic and political arena and ‘soft’ on slavery and violence due to their gender. Rather, Glymph asserts that mistresses yielded a great amount of power on the plantation and often inflicted psychological and physical violence on slave women. Thus, mistresses were a crucial component in constructing the plantation household under the labors of slave women. However, this created a paradox of sorts for these white women: they were called to be gentle and lady-like while simultaneously filling the role of domestic manager for slaves.

Just as mistresses were responsible for constructing the plantation household, black women were crucial in either supporting or resisting this southern domestic ideology white women were pressured to conform to. Thus, mistresses’ identity was dependent – whether acknowledged or not –  on the cooperation of slave women.Ultimately, black women’s noncooperation and the establishment of their own homes led to the destruction of the antebellum slave society that mistresses were so desperate to hold on to. This noncooperation took the form of free labor relations, including black women deciding for themselves the hours of work and what type of work they wanted to do. Black women often resorted to tasked work as this led to greater flexibility over their time and lives. Within these labor negotiations, Glymph argues that black women had the advantage as they knew exactly how long a task would take due to their own slave experiences.

However, while black women attempted to forge their own independence in an emancipated world, Glymph alludes to the notion of de jure vs. de facto segregation in her narrative. While black women now had the flexibility to move freely and establish their own households due to emancipation, what of the small “civic capacities and everyday norms of respect” (pg. 133)? This is a struggle both African American men and women would endure for decades to come. Nonetheless, the power relations amongst mistresses and black women not only transformed the plantation household but had larger implications that resulted in the transformation of southern womanhood, power relations across racial and gender lines, and ultimately laid bare the ever changing definitions of freedom and citizenship.

For more information on the WPA’s Slave Narrative Collection, click on the link here:


Covertly to Overtly Political Women for the Lost Cause

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Caroline E. Janney, Burying the Dead but not the Past: Ladies’ Memorial Associations & the Lost Cause (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008).

Caroline E. Janney’s study on women’s Memorial Associations in the nineteenth century is an eye-opening and intriguing perspective on the origins of the American South’s Lost Cause. Fundamentally, Janney argues that the Lost Cause was initially orchestrated and perpetuated by upper middle class and elite southern women’s volunteer associations in the wake of the Civil War. Janney explores the chronological transformation of Ladies Memorial Associations (LMAS) across the South in their struggle to honor their dead, safeguard the memory of the Confederacy, and maintain their own political autonomy. In Janney’s view, these women’s struggles to reinter Confederate bodies, as well as erect monuments, memorials, and museums to Confederate soldiers and culture, are representative of larger women’s movements across the country. While the LMAS were not as progressive as many of their northern contemporaries, they nonetheless were fighting to be respected as crucial citizens of southern society. While not commending them for their motivations and ideologies, Janney gives these southern women credit where credit is due: Elite, white supremacist women helped promote the Lost Cause of the Confederate south, a movement which has repercussions into today.

Janney argues that the origins of LMAS lie in women’s dedication to, and support of, the Confederate cause during the Civil War. Their organizational efforts and help of all sorts (sewing clothing and uniforms, boycotting northern goods, and aiding wounded soldiers as nurses) gave elite, white women a purpose that extended from the larger development of women’s volunteer associations across the country. After the war, LMAS developed as a means for women to continue to prove their importance in society. In Virginia alone, the main focus of Janney’s study, women of LMAS reinterred 28 percent of the Confederate dead who were reburied in Confederate cemeteries. Building networks across all southern states and appealing to state legislatures to raise funds and support, LMAS were initially concerned with bringing the bodies and remains of dead Confederates back down south for reburial in Confederate cemeteries, as well as honoring the dead. LMAS built for themselves a reputation for holding Memorial Day celebrations of massive turnouts to recognize the sacrifices of Confederate men who had died for the cause. Janney makes the crucial point that these celebrations were promoted during Radical Reconstruction as women’s work, as emotional celebrations and mourning for lost loved ones, rather than masculine acts of political defiance. Women took up the cry of the Confederate cause, and were supported by men, to help disguise the continuation of Confederate feeling circulating in the south.

The goals of LMAS shifted after the end of Reconstruction to include the commemoration of the Confederacy at large as white women faced opposition from male and veterans’ associations who were aiming to take over the space that LMAS had carved for themselves in southern society. No longer under threat of federal military occupation, more men were willing to take up the Lost Cause and commemorative responsibilities. LMAS women remained determined not to fall to the wayside and promoted themselves as the original and crucial protectors of Confederate memory, angered over “Northern aggression” and their new problem of freedmen in the south. Women ran into struggles with men, and ex-general Jubal Early in particular, over where certain generals should be buried and where monuments in their honor should be erected. Janney relates that gender differences factored strongly in these arguments as women were struggling for political clout in a world where their men were reunifying with northern veterans over shared experiences of war, and the women feared losing their influence. Of particular significance to these women was ensuring that the Lost Cause was to be remembered by future generations. For this purpose, the Hollywood Memorial Association of Virginia saved the Confederate White House from being demolished, repaired it, and transformed it into the Confederate Museum at the end of the nineteenth century. This museum, as well control over school curriculum and the founding of youth associations, gave LMAS a hold over the continuing memory of the Confederacy.

Janney explains that LMAS women maintained significance into the twentieth century, though waned in mid twentieth century due to the influence and national, hierarchical structure of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) founded in 1894. Eventually, many local LMAS groups gathered together to form the Confederated Southern Memorial Association. While the two organizations worked together on many projects, LMAS simply could not keep membership up compared to the UDC who continued to promote Memorial Day celebrations, youth programs, and ideologies of white supremacy and the Lost Cause.

Janney’s epilogue serves to remind readers that the work of the LMAS lives on today, both in living memory of the American South, and in its physical structures. The Confederate Museum is currently in operation as part of the American Civil War Museum. Now called the Museum and White House of the Confederacy, the museum’s original goals of memorializing the Old South and ideals of the Confederacy have transformed to become more educational and inclusive of all southern people’s experiences during the war. Janney mentions that there has even been talk about dropping the word “Confederacy” from the museum’s name due to the racist connotations of the term.

Overall, this book is important and thoroughly enlightening. Janney’s purpose is not to bash or celebrate the Lost Cause, but rather explain that its origins are far more specific than many historians have previously discussed. Furthermore, while women are the central characters of Janney’s book, they are certainly not its heroes. Women of the LMAS were racist, privileged, and have helped perpetuate the idea the Civil War was not fought over the issue of slavery. Despite this, Janney explains that these women were important because they stretched the political boundaries in their confined spheres of influence. While they did not help earn the vote for women, they helped expand the public roles of women in the south dramatically.

Reconstructing Gender, Class, and Race

Laura Edwards. Gendered Strife and Confusion: The Political Culture of Reconstruction. Chicago: University of Illinois, 1997.

The theme for this week’s readings is Reconstruction, and women’s place within the turmoil that accompanied the end of the Civil War. Laura Edwards argues in Gendered Strife and Confusion  that the social upheaval that resulted with the end of slavery caused Southern white men to seek a way to reinforce the patriarchal structure upon which southern society rested. Edwards builds on the foundation we explored with Stephanie McCurry’s book Masters of Small Worlds, and Jeanne Boydston’s book Home and Work to craft her argument. Edwards breaks down the role of gender, class, and race in reinforcing and redefining the social hierarchy in the post-bellum south through the reinforcement of marriage as a legal, and patriarchal contract.

In her example of Susan Daniels and Henderson Cooper, Edwards demonstrates the perceived fragility of white female virtue after emancipation. In an interesting case that began before the Civil War, a white woman’s accusation of rape changed in significance after Emancipation. Edwards argues that before Emancipation, Daniels would have been ignored as a victim because she was an unmarried poor white woman, known to be promiscuous; and as such would not have been worth the resources as there was no benefit to society in protecting her person. After Emancipation, Daniels’ virtue gained value as the racial hierarchy was ruptured; so prosecution of her accused rapists gained significance as a means of reinforcing white supremacy (despite class) in southern society.

It was through overcoming these class divisions that had structured Antebellum white society that politicians were able to create a rhetoric that united (or attempted to unite) southern whites through creating racial hierarchies based on gendered notions of white virtue and black hypersexuality. These political ideas of white feminine virtue were not only negotiated in the public spheres of Reconstruction but also within the homes of individuals, as revealed through court cases where the patriarchal role of husbands and fathers were challenged.

In many ways this book, in connection with Tera Hunter’s To ‘Joy My Freedom,  and Janney’s Burying the Dead (I haven’t read any of Glymph’s book but look forward to Kim’s response to it) add insight into David Blight’s Race and Reunion. While Blight argues that Reconstruction was dominated by three visions of Reconstruction, these books show how in practice those visions were more complicated and often obstructed. I have found myself enjoying more, and more exploring Reconstruction and the many different ways that it ruptured and restructured American life, and the echoes of that rhetoric and rupture that continue into the twenty-first century.

Reading Schedule for Spring 2018

We are excited to have US History MA student, Kimberly Hodges joining us this semester as we continue our exploration of Women’s History (soon with a real microphone). Here is our reading schedule as it currently stands:

Week 1 January 16-19

a. Laura Edwards, Gendered Strife and Confusion: The Political Culture of Reconstruction, University of Illinois Press, 1997 Sarah

b. Hunter, Tera. To ‘Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors After the Civil War, Harvard University Press, 1997. Amber

c. Thavolia Glymph, Out of the House of Bondage Kim

d. Caroline Janney, Burying the Dead, but not the past: Ladies’ Memorial Associations and the Lost Cause Michelle

Week 2 January 22-26

Sklar, Florence Kelley and the Nation’s work

Week 3 January 29- February 2

Mary Odem, Delinquent Daughters Kim

Kathy Peiss, Cheap Amusements Amber

Nan Enstad, Ladies of Labor, Girls of Adventure Sarah

Elizabeth Clement, Love for Sale Michelle

Week 4 February 5-9

Gail Bederman, Manliness and Civilization

Week 5 February 12-16

Mae Ngai, The Lucky Ones

Week 6 February 19-23

Lisa Tetrault, The Myth of Seneca Falls Amber

Allison Sneider, Suffrage in the Imperial Age Sarah

Goodier and Pasquarello, Women will Vote Kim

Ellen Carol DuBois, Harriot Stanton Blatch Michelle

Week 7 February 26- March 2

Alice Kessler Harris, In Pursuit of Equity

Week 8 March 5-9

Susan Cahn, Sexual Reckonings

Spring Break March 12-16

Week 9 March 19- 23

Margot Canaday, The Straight State Michelle and Sarah

Victoria Wolcott, Remaking Respectability: African American Women in Interwar Detroit Amber and Kim

Week 10 March 26-30

Professor Watson visit and blogging opportunities

March 21, March 27, and March 29:


Week 11 April 2- 6

a. Meyerowitz, Joanne. ed. Not June Cleaver: Women and Gender in Post-War America, Temple University Press, 1994. Kim

b. Rebecca Jo Plant, Mom: The Transformation of Motherhood Amber

c. Lizbeth Cohen, A Consumer’s Republic Michelle

d. Elaine Tyler May, Homeward Bound Sarah


Week 12 April 9-13

Dorothy Sue Cobble, The Other Women’s Movement Amber

Annelise Orleck, Storming Caesar’s Palace. Michelle

Ruth Rosen, The World Split Open Sarah

Marjorie J. Spruill, Divided We Stand Kim

Week 13 April 16-20

a. Leslie Reagan, Dangerous Pregnancies Amber

b. Mary Zeigler, After Roe Kim

c. Roberts, Dorothy. Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction and the Meaning of Liberty, Vintage Books, 1997. Sarah

d. Joanna Schoen, Choice and Coercion Michelle

Week 14 April 23-27

Andi Zeisler, We were feminists once

Comparative Review Essay, Glenda Gilmore and Tera Hunter

To ‘Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors After the Civil War; Tera W. Hunter. Harvard University Press, 1997.

Gender and Jim Crow: Women and the Politics of White Supremacy in North Carolina, 1896-1920; Glenda Gilmore. University of North Carolina Press (1996).

Review Essay

In Tera Hunter’s To ‘Joy My Freedom, and Glenda Gilmore’s Gender and Jim Crow, Black women’s experiences after emancipation are examined through their positions as workers, activists, and mothers within Southern society. Tera Hunter and Glenda Gilmore each provide comprehensive analyses of the subjects of their respective works during the period of time between Reconstruction and World War I. Both books are focused on a period of time that saw enfranchisement and then rapid disenfranchisement of Black men, through the lens of African American women’s participation in social, political, and economic spheres. Though each book largely excludes the socioeconomic group of the other in its narrative, Hunter follows Black women’s labor, primarily in Atlanta, GA, while Gilmore focused on the concepts of race and gender that helped shape the emerging middle class in North Carolina, each book provides crucial insight into the women it focuses on, and when read together, these two books reveal the nuanced, and conflicting, worlds that these women lived in.

Hunter’s examination looks not only at the type of work that was available to Black women in this period, but the wages, working conditions, and impact on their family situations that the work had. Emancipation gave Black women freedom to dictate many of the terms and conditions of their own labors that had been denied to them under slavery. Hunter is clear to describe the lack of freedom from assault, racial persecution, and gender hierarchies that working class African American women faced, and the related decrease in autonomy many African American women had because of these threats. The struggle to balance the vulnerability of Black bodies with the crucial roles that Black women filled as laundresses and domestic servants in white households provides the reader with an understanding of the tenuous place within society that these women held. Hunter does not shy away from exploring the conflict between the African American laboring women and their white employers to highlight the labor struggles and the power that these women ultimately were able to summon through the washerwomen strikes in Jackson, Galveston, and Atlanta.

Both works look at the emergence of southern progressivism, and the violent resistance to that progress. Atlanta is the center of Hunter’s analysis as it represented an intersection of urban development and rural migration; the city had a reputation of forward-thinking progressivism while at the same time was one of the breeding grounds for what Gilmore coined New Men. Gilmore credits New Men with promoting Jim Crow and escalating violence against African Americans because their white male masculinity felt threated by successful and prominent African Americans, who these New Men considered a threat to the future of democracy. Gilmore’s analysis centers on the political and feminist ties that united white and Black women in the fight for women’s suffrage as evidence of the progressivism that was present in North Carolina during this period. The expansive educational opportunities available to Black women and men, compared to those available to white women, serve as further evidence of progressive ideals at work in North Carolina. These educational opportunities allowed African American women to postpone marriage and gain higher educational levels that were deemed necessary to create the “Best” men and women to lead the next generation.

Gilmore argues that shifting concepts of masculinity, racial superiority, and political power prevailing in the post-bellum period forced African Americans to battle the creation of Jim Crow legislation by embracing Victorian ideals of Domesticity, education, and hard work. Black women, seeing their families cut off from participation in politics joined with each other and, more tenuously, with white women for reform for their communities, in the form of schools, temperance societies, and health care as activists to promote change. Using the concept of “Best men” and “Best women” to contextualize the accommodationist beliefs that Black men and women needed to act as ambassadors for their race, an idea made popular by Booker T. Washington, Gilmore explains the burden felt by the first generation of middle class African Americans after the end of slavery.[1] It was the success of the “Best” men and women in demonstrating their equality to white middle class men and women that eventually brought a backlash of racism and violence through the New Men, who felt the established racial and gender hierarchies slipping away. Within the discussions of racial violence and oppression, Gilmore and Hunter both demonstrate the fracturing effects of Jim Crow on  the African American communities, a much ignored aspect of Reconstruction history.

Women attempted to reclaim their identities from the racial oppression by engaging in recreational activities such as dancing, being active in their church communities, and forming aid groups to help their communities and to promote solidarity among their professions and class. Gilmore highlights the interplay of class divisions and racial identities in creating a nebulous boundary for “Best men” or “Best women” and the problems that emerged from those definitions in Jim Crow as younger generations of men and women came of age, and sought to carve out their own identities in society. Through leisure excursions, such as dancing and listening to jazz as a means of asserting individuality and expanding Black culture, “Best” men and women’s vision of racial uplift was challenged by this younger generation. Gilmore’s examination of gender and the formation of Best Black Men and Women highlights the double edged sword that such behavior seemed to carry, bringing criticism on younger generations of African Americans from both the white community, who, Hunter highlights, viewed Black sexuality as a threat to society and inseparable from jazz and dance, and the middle class Black community who viewed this behavior as undermining the progress of equality. Neither author fully explores this fragmentation, leaving a fascinating research path underdeveloped.

Highlighting role of class in determining the struggles and causes that these women faced in post-bellum society gave voice to silenced women in both working and middle class communities in southern societies.  For Gilmore, a post-bellum generation of middle-class Black women emerged as educated diplomats to white society, focused on reform movements to improve their communities and change prevailing racial stereotypes of African Americans that were formed within antebellum society. The working class women whom Hunter focused on embraced the autonomy to move from the country to the city to escape oppressive conditions, and later the freedom to move out of Atlanta to northern cities that defined the Great Migration to seek opportunities. However, both authors focus on the struggles that existed for each group within Jim Crow, and the ways that those tensions complicate the understanding of the experiences of African American women, and more broadly African American communities, in the early twentieth century. One their own, each book is an insightful and crucial work for understanding African American, Women’s, and Social histories at the turn of the twentieth century; when paired together these two works offer a well-rounded insight into the divisions and struggles that were present within these communities, most importantly they reveal the divergent ideas of racial uplift that dominated the twentieth century in action. I cannot recommend reading these two books enough.


[1] Booker T. Washington and W.E.B DuBois had well-known, and well documented, differing opinions regarding racial uplift. Washington was an accomodationist who believed that in order to earn the respect of white supremacists African Americans needed to emulate and surpass middle class white families in their behavior, education, and business acumen.

Racial and Sexual sins in Antebellum New Orleans

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Fundamentally, The Strange History of the American Quadroon  aims to debunk the mythological, hyper-sexualized representations of female quadroons of popular historical sources. In doing so, she explains how the attraction of the quadroon transformed New Orleans into a place of the exotic “other,” resulting in the tourist-centered culture that the city is today. Cementing Clark’s arguments is the newly-formed black republic of Haiti, whose refugees introduced over 1,000 free blacks to the city and caused a demographic imbalance of free black men and women for the city’s marriage market. Clark argues that these free women of color, who emigrated from Haiti with few resources, informed the stereotype of quadroons as fortune hunters who were inspired by their mothers to become the concubines of rich, white men. This book, finally recovering the lives of free black women in New Orleans from their pervasive literary exploitation, powerfully changes the ways in which the general public and academics conceptualize issues of race and sex in American history.

Clark first traces the origins of the quadroon to early national Philadelphia. Political concerns reflected conflicting ideologies between merchant and elite classes, influenced by the city’s commercial ties to Saint-Domingue. Philadelphia, the largest port city at the end of the eighteenth century, saw an influx of around 2,000 refugees from Saint-Domingue in the 1790s as a result of the French and Haitian Revolutions. The term quadroon became an epithet of promiscuity intertwined with political and social anxieties over commercial interests and racial equality. Clark’s connection between Philadelphia and New Orleans rests upon her argument that fears of interracial violence and black rebellion, expressed most potently in the political and commercial capital of Philadelphia, became assuaged with the emigration of 9,000 Haitian refugees from Cuba to New Orleans in 1809. The Haitian quadroon abated fears of black insurrection because she was socially and sexually conquered by white masculinity. This argument, though backed by the fact that free black male refugees were not allowed into the city, is not satisfactory in light of the preventative laws passed in the United States in order to curb slave rebellions, which continued to occur throughout the early nineteenth century.

Clark’s most striking arguments describe the varied experiences of quadroon women of New Orleans, proposing that economic disadvantages upon arrival to New Orleans, as well as civil codes barring interracial marriage, led many emigrant quadroons to become the ménagère, or housewife, of white men of middling business and elite classes. This Haitian practice allowed free black and mixed race women to exercise autonomy of self and household; in public depictions, this practice became equated to the plaçage complex (a 20th century term) in which quadroons “were imagined as romantically tragic kept women” who were “dependent and defenseless” in their largely transient relationships with men who would go on to marry white women instead (66). In reality, Clark explains, many white men (whom she terms “bachelor patriarchs”) established long-lasting and exclusive relationships with quadroons, acknowledged parentage of their children, and lived with them as almost-normal families. However, many other free black women of mixed parentage became prostitutes or were sold as sex slaves in markets that helped romanticize quadroons as exotic and sexually alluring as New Orleans became increasingly marketed as a site of sex tourism.

Though her chapters are organized thematically, Clark traces the transformation of the quadroon, and therefore the culture of New Orleans, from the late eighteenth century through the nineteenth century. The quadroon ball, in particular, and its depictions in literature demonstrate the degradation and exploitation of mixed race women for the pleasure and entertainment of white men from all over the country. Women who once publicly courted the upper class in the antebellum period were increasingly put on show for the rabble and sold as tourist attractions in the postbellum period. Fundamental to this transformation were the popularized accounts, often hearsay, of the quadroon as an orientalized, seductive, lavish, or tragic character particular to the scapegoated city of New Orleans, a site that represented the racial and sexual sins of the rest of the country. Clark explores the travel narratives, abolition literatures, novels, and sociological discourses published by Karl Bernhard, Lydia Maria Child, Joseph Holt Ingraham, and Harriet Martineau, respectively, which perpetuated these mythologies. However, Clark also brings forward letters, baptismal records, marriage licenses, and wills from the New Orleans archives which alter this strange history of the American quadroon and the Crescent City. Contrasting these sources, Clark’s book powerfully proves the consequences of shifting the nastier bits of America’s past onto certain people and certain places.


What Golden Age?

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John C. Appleby’s Women and English Piracy examines the gendered world of piracy in the years from 1540 to 1720. Making a crucial intervention into studies of both Atlantic and women’s history, Appleby explores the increasingly violent and masculinized characteristics of English piracy as it expanded from England to Ireland, the Barbary Coast, Indian Ocean, the Caribbean, and English North America. Appleby discredits the notion of a “golden age” of successful and prevalent piracy in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, arguing instead that piracy became increasingly desperate. In Appleby’s telling, women become primary witnesses to these quite unromantic transformations in English piracy. Appleby thus expands both public and scholarly understandings of English piracy, highlighting the experiences of women of varying backgrounds as agents and victims as receivers of plunder, abandoned wives and mothers, victims of violence and sexual exploitation, as well as the occasional accessories to piracy itself.

Appleby first describes the rise and fall of English piracy from 1540 to 1720 as context for his subsequent, thematic chapters which are more focused on the experiences of women. Appleby emphasizes that coastal and river piracy (around the British Isles and Thames) in the earlier years of this period was largely economic in nature and dependent upon women. Pirates’ neighbors, wives, partners, friends, and mothers provided home bases for pirates who needed food, shelter, and entertainment upon arrival to shore. These women were instrumental to the distribution and sale of plunder, which provided pirates with their profits.

Appleby claims that the global expansion of English piracy in the early seventeenth century had significant repercussions for women’s lives and piracy itself. As pirates embarked on lengthier and more distant voyages, wives were increasingly abandoned and contact between pirates and their families decreased; overall, women became less important to the business of piracy. As pirates established bases on islands such as Jamaica, Providence, and Madagascar, women’s interactions with piracy revolved around selling rest, relaxation, sexual recreation, and only occasionally receiving plunder. Piracy became more masculinized through bonds of fraternity that formed on ever-lengthening voyages at sea; while once a means of economic support, piracy became a more self-interested means to the end of drinking, gambling, and whoring.

After warfare with Spain declined at the end of the seventeenth century, English privateering evolved into indiscriminate piratical plundering. Public pressures heightened national offenses against piracy through force and law. Thus, pirates around the globe increasingly encountered difficulty in recruiting crew members over the seventeenth century, resulting in impressment and enslavement. Appleby describes the tens of thousands of people captured by Barbary pirates by the end of the seventeenth century; while some English women became captives, many more were left without sons or husbands to provide for them, so they actively petitioned local authorities and the national government for help in paying ransoms. These petitions, while outside of the scope of English piracy itself, provide valuable documentation of how women were impacted by piracy in a dearth of source material from poor, often illiterate, women.

One of Appleby’s central points is to give a voice to the voiceless as he breaks down traditional associations of piracy with sex in this period, decidedly including issues of nonconsensual relationships. Temporary relationships that pirates had with Native women were often orchestrated as transactions for power and goods on behalf of local people, often Natives themselves. Appleby’s exploration of the interconnectedness of piracy with the African slave trade emphasizes African women’s frequent subjection, with impunity, to rape and degradation by pirates’ violent appetites. Appleby emphasizes that even white prostitutes in the Atlantic became subject to the whims of violent men come to shore so satisfy their sexual desires.

Appleby fundamentally argues that elite women such as Graine O’Malley of Ireland and Lady Elizabeth Killigrew of Cornwall, as well as the illegitimate-born Mary Read and Anne Bonny were uncommon of women’s participation in piracy. While the latter two women represent the poorer classes of women who associated with piracy, female piracy was rare due to the fraternity of masculinity that permeated pirate culture. Increased violence toward and abandonment of women coincided with the decreased involvement of women in business-related matters; for Appleby, these deliberate changes represent a pirate culture that became more disorganized and more desperate in the attempt to maintain an extra-legal, seafaring lifestyle.  Appleby’s scrutiny of the long-celebrated “golden age” of piracy recovers, as far as source materials allow, voices that have long been missing in pirate studies. Thus, this narrative takes readers across time, space, ethnicity, class, and gender in a way that re-works, and actually demystifies, popular and academic conceptions of piracy.