In her book, Masters of Small Worlds: Yeoman Households, Gender Relations, & Political Culture of the Antebellum South Carolina Low Country, Stephanie McCurry explores the lives of small farm living in South Carolina in the years leading up to the Civil War. Though it is a fairly limited study in this book, geographically speaking, the area is largely representative of most southern antebellum era areas. One idea she covers that we have seen in many of the books is the idea of coverture. In her study, McCurry, points out that during this time and in this place, coverture was more like slavery for these wives. They were expected to work alongside their husbands, in the fields if need be, and along side the slaves, if they had any. They were simply expected to follow their husband’s dictates. Those who refused or spoke out against their husband, especially in instances of abuse, were vilified alongside their husbands. McCurry states that to the men of South Carolina, the “real offense was the erosion of male authority within the family and community when coverture was cracked and wife elevated, even morally, over husband”(132). Without the ideology of coverture and the coverture laws that were still in place at the time, these communities and households would crumble because of slavery, inequality, and the important politics of all white men being equal. It was absolutely necessary, according to their own ideas, that women remain bound to their husbands and not allowed any freedoms, aside from those he chose to grant her. McCurry showcases, in her book that “On family farms, children were ‘flesh, blood, and labor supply.’ So, in an even more literal sense, were wives, for few kinds of labor were more important to the yeoman household economy than women’s reproductive labor…In the yeoman households of South Carolina Low Country, the reproductive labor of wives…paved the route to household independence”(59). These women were seen as little more than property under coverture laws and financial gain due to their reproduction capabilities. The more children a man had, the less he had to pay out for working labor. Only as their families grew would these yeoman farmers buy more acreage and expand their farms. When they got too old, the land was divided, and the next generation would take wives and begin the reproductive/land grab cycle all over again (60).
Jeanne Boydston’s book Home and Work: Housework, Wages, and the Ideology of Labor in the Early Republic is a must read for anyone studying the glass ceiling, gender based wage disputes, or the economic gender gap. This book implicitly covers the idea of gender and labor roles. Boydston shows how women, despite their class, economics, or geography, always helped to supply the needs of the household. She states that though many people look at the Women’s Rights Movement and mid-twentieth century as the time when women were finally “going to work” to provide for their families as a complete myth. She shows that women were working, even before they were being paid for it. Similar to what Brown states about the colonial era, Boydston shows how women provided financially for their families, just as men. Sometimes they it was by producing a surplus of materials, food, or product that could be traded or sold. Sometimes it was by producing the items the home needed without having to rely on the marketplace at all. It definitely saves money, if you can spin your own yarn, weave your own cloth, and sew your own clothes, rather than paying for the materials and someone else to do it for you (40). This places a very distinct value on housework. However, Boydston, does not stop there. As she moves into the first industrialization period in US history, she shows that women began to work more and more outside the home as factories began to grow. Women, while seen as “unskilled” workers, were payed less than men in these jobs, and so often had an easier time finding work. Even in factories that revolved around women’s work, such as sewing, women were seen as less skilled than men. Boydston firmly illustrates the struggles between women and men in trying to delineate the gender and labor boundaries of the time, within households as well as in the workplace. Despite their skill and craftsmanship, society always seemed to see women as mothers and homemakers first and everything else second. Boydston states, “Even when women did enter paid work, their preeminent social identity as “mothers” (in distinct contrast to “workers”) made their status as producers in the economy suspect” (158). Regardless of their accomplishments or resourcefulness, women were viewed as being fit only or caring for the home and children.
Nancy Isenberg’s Sex and Citizenship in Antebellum America is an interesting, but fairly heavy read. While this book could be combined with many of the others that we have read over the last fourteen weeks in a discussion of politics, most of the other books showcase the political role of women as quiet gestures, charitable gatherings, secondhand movements as a part of something bigger, like motherhood and morality. Isenberg’s book is vastly different. It is a perfect bridge to the second half of this course (which we will begin in January of 2018), wherein women begin to speak out more. The great thing about Isenberg’s book is that it allows the reader to see that women’s activism and appeal for rights did not begin in 1848 in Seneca Falls. Like Kerber, she shows how women began challenging the role after the Revolution, especially during the antebellum years. Though many of their campaigns and rallies revolved around abolition, they were already beginning to question their role in society, politics, family, and the church. In essence, this book has something to offer each of the aforementioned themes. However, Isenberg’s book is different in that it is not attempting to place politics as a byproduct of something else. Here, the identity of women within the American political, legal, and social strata are the spotlight of the discussion. While this book is a little hard to read because of the theory and feminist language, if one is not familiar with it, it tells the story of early ideologies of citizenship and the women’s rights in a way that prepares the way for readers to understand the concepts and books of twentieth century feminists. I highly recommend listening to our podcast on this book if you are interested in hearing other points of view. This is a book we actually disagreed quite a lot on.
Stephanie Camp’s book, Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women and Everyday Restistance in the Plantation South, makes an interesting study of southern slave women using ideas of space and time. Before she goes into these ideas she discusses a little about the gender roles and treatment of slave men and women. Men had more freedoms to move about than women did, based on the jobs they were given. Men were mostly field workers and sometimes sent on errands to neighboring plantations or to town. They were given papers on these trips to give to patrols that might stop them to prove they were about their master’s business. Women were rarely given these privileges, so they had less opportunities to attempt to runaway. Furthermore, slave women, just like their white counterparts, were seen as the homemakers and mothers. After putting in long hours of work, just like the men, they were expected to return to their homes to cook for their family, mend and clean clothes, and keep their quarters neat. If they were lucky, they had a husband or other women who would help them, but it was not the others’ responsibility to ensure it got done. It was theirs. In addition, slave women also had to suffer the sexual humiliations forced upon them by the men around them. Not only did they deal with rape, from both white men and black, but most punishments were exacted to be sexually degrading with the women stripped bare, tied down, and whipped over all their body. Men were usually just stripped to the waist and their backs were whipped.
After making these comparisons, Camp moves into a discussion of space. She looks at all the different ways in which women manipulated and rebelled against their slave status. Sometimes it was a slipping off the master’s property, just over the border to meet with other slaves. Many women would not runaway if they had children, because it was seen as disgraceful to leave her children behind in order to free herself. Fathers were not seen as such. Sometimes these women would rebel by hanging abolition papers in their quarters, or stealing things from the master to make their living space nicer. Sometimes they used their space to hide other runaways. Whatever they did, it was a way to show that even though they were seen as someone’s property and were expected to abide by many rules and restrictions, they were masters of themselves, and ultimately in control of their own lives.
One of the most interesting points that Camp makes in regards to this is that the slaves had three bodies. “The first served as a site of domination, it was the body acted upon by slaveholders” (66). This is the body that took the punishments. “The second body was the subjective experience of this process. It was the body as vehicle of feelings of terror, humiliation, and pain” (67). These first two bodies, the master had control over and could influence. They could inflict physical harm and cause a slave to feel pain and any number of emotions. “The slave’s third body was a thing to be claimed and enjoyed, a site of pleasure and resistance…Women’s third body was a source of pleasure, pride, and self-expression” (68). This third body was why women rebelled. They gained great satisfaction from their small rebellions, even if they were punished for them after the fact. This third body could not be touched unless these slave women gave another permission to access them. These third bodies were not owned.
Camp’s argument is both enlightening and fresh. She takes a subject that has been studied for years, and looks at it through an interesting and exciting lens. In comparison to the other books for this segment, it lacks more information and greater explanation of the lives of slave women. However, as a stand alone read it is quick, easy, and very informative.
As Sarah and Michelle have already offered up a great analysis of the gender, race, and class arguments, the power struggle and the difference between the white and African women in Kathleen M. Brown’s Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, & Anxious Patriarchs, I will attempt to focus my commentary more on the men of Colonial Virginia during this time – the anxious patriarchs.
Brown is quick to point out the seeming instability that men felt within their own homes. While men were seen as the powerhouse of the familial, economic, and political spheres, their position was actually quite precarious. Most English societies believed that “unruly women and disorderly houses lay at the root of social ills” (31). Men were expected to control their women and their houses to ensure that chaos did not overpower a community. As Europeans began to leave their homes for new frontiers in the American colonies, they met many other men and women who introduced them to new relationship dynamics. Take for instance, the Cherokees we read about in Theda Perdue’s Cherokee Women. This tribe follows matrilineal lines, and women held an important role in the spiritual, economic, familial, and political operations of the tribe. Until the Europeans decided that the tribe needed to be more like them, women were, in many ways seen as equals, with great power. This was outrageous to the colonials who settled in America. As these new ideas were introduced, it became ever more pressing to ensure that gender lines were clearly defined and drawn and that neither party ever crossed them. To do so, countenanced community intervention and sanction, because it threatened the infrastructure of the working government.
Though Brown does not spend the same amount of time discussing the roles of men, as she does the women, she does a good job detailing the various areas where men insisted on maintaining an authoritative hand. Politics and the running of the plantation were two of the biggest. Women were expected to keep themselves away from the working of the colonial government and any ideas of a political nature. Because so much of the plantation infrastructure was politically based and wrapped up in community politics, women were expected to manage the household and nothing more. Especially the slaves. They fell under the purview of the master.
Because these “anxious patriarchs” had to pick their battles within the household, they needed a way to showcase their power. Slaves became their outlet. Those men who believed they were more powerful than women simply because of their sex, took pleasure in dominating the female slaves. It allowed them an outlet to freely express their male authority. “Far from proving incompatible with the ethos of domestic tranquility, the coercion of slaves may have made such ideals possible, providing planters, with a suitable foil for the serene authority they hoped to wield over wives and children” (366). In other words, they were happy to be harsh with the slaves, in the hopes that they family would learn to fear them just a little and not test their authoritative limits too much.
“Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church” (1 Corinthians 14: 34-35, Holy Bible, King James Version). The title of the third section of Catherine A. Brekus’s Strangers & Pilgrims: Female Preaching in America 1740-1845, is “Let Your Women Keep Silence.” This section of the book details the battle men waged against women who believed they had been called by God to preach His word. Mostly this section focuses on the time period from 1820 to 1845. Brekus begins with a short story about Sally Thompson, and follows her struggle throughout the next 20 years, comprising the last three chapters of the book.
Sally Thompson was preaching as to a Methodist camp congregation in Rhode Island in 1822. There were women present who had her speak previously and were excited to hear her once again. From their prior experience they judged her to have a “mild and pleasing manner [with] plain good sense” (267). On this occasion, however, she did not behave in her normal manner. One of the witnesses described her as “disturbingly masculine” (268). Thompson was under pressure as a female preacher and was attempting to compensate and prove her place among the other preachers. In the early days of her preaching she was lauded by other Methodist ministers who told her, “God has called you to exercise your talent publicly…and if you intend to reach heaven, you must continue to exercise it” (269). By 1830, they had changed their mind, through no fault of Thompson. The other ministers began seeing her as a challenge to their authority. In April of 1830, she was excommunicated on the grounds of insubordination, not having been allowed to speak for herself at her trial. This scene was one that was common among the female preachers of the time, especially those serving the Methodist, African Methodists, Freewill Baptists, and a few other Christian churches. They were labeled “bold and shameless jezebels” and were constantly under fire for being immodest and imprudent – virtues expected in all reputable women at the time. All these women wanted was to answer the call they felt God had given them to redeem sinners and bring the world to Christ (271).
Brekus, explains the reasons for the condemnation of these female preachers as a basic power struggle between the genders. Men made the claim that women preaching went against God, as his apostle clearly stated that women should be silent in all things related to the churches. Women were convinced that the men were jealous of the amount of people that would gather to listen to the female sermons – quite a few more than were willing to listen to the men – on any given day. The men claimed that women already had a role – motherhood. “God made mothers before he made ministers,” claimed one Presbyterian minister, further stating that the role of a mother was more important than any other role in the world (270). This is a direct correlation to the idea of Republican Motherhood that Kerber discusses in Women of the Republic. However, whereas, Kerber discuss the role as a way for women to exert their place in society, these ministers seem to have been using it as a way to remove them from society instead.
The remainder of the book focuses on the various examples and fights that women preachers had over the next ten years to find their place in the ministerial world. Many of these examples are fairly repetitive in their scope and outcome. Unfortunately, where Brekus produces logical and reasonable excuses for the behavior of the men, most of her evidence is speculation from the women themselves. This makes it seem somewhat biased. By the mid 1840’s women were beginning to, once again, express themselves as ministers and evangelical leaders. However, despite, Brekus’s argument and evidence, we may never fully understand why men suddenly seemed to turn against women’s spiritual leadership role for fifteen years. For a more complete discussion on this very idea, I highly suggest listening to our podcast, which can be found in the menu.
Linda Kerber’s Women of the Republic was not only revolutionary in its time, it is a fantastic and easy read. The heart of her argument revolves around women taking control of their own lives, and setting standards for themselves. It is about them finding their place in the newly formed United States of America.
In the beginning of the book, Kerber focuses very heavily on the ideas of coverture and femes covert. She stresses very heavily that prior to the Revolutionary War, women were pushed to the very fringes of society, and not granted a place at its center. During the Enlightenment, philosophes, such as Locke and Montesquieu, made the claim that women needed to be given more credence and position in society. Montesquieu even when so far to say that man’s “authority over women is absolutely tyrannical; they have allowed us to impose it only because they are more gentle than we are, and consequently more humane and reasonable” (20). They attempted to persuade the male population that women did not need to be controlled or forced to comply. Given the option, they were sure that women would choose to stand behind their men. Locke claimed, “the availability of divorce [was] the ultimate test of marital freedom” (20). He was positive that women would always do right by their husbands and follow their lead. They would never leave them to follow their own ideas and passions. That was theory at least. The Revolutionary War proved them wrong.
The problem came in the form of patriotism. Women wanted to express their patriotism, but were constantly being locked out the political realm that men buried themselves within. They were expected to bow down to the same political ideals that the men in their lives held, and to not worry their “pretty little heads” about anything. Their world was tossed into chaos, and they were expected to simply continue with their lives and obey the dictates of their husbands, fathers, brothers, sons, and guardians. Margarget Livingston wrote, “You know that our Sex are doomed to be obedient in every stage of life so that we shant be great gainers by this contest” (35). They understood that unless something changed and they took a stand, they made a change for themselves, the war would nothing for them but trouble, hardship, and heartache. In an effort to be a more prominent force in the war, many women tried to join in the effort. They went door to door, collecting food, money, clothing, and jewelry for the war effort. They volunteered their services as nurses, cooks, and laundresses for the troops, though they were seen as little more than a “nuisance” (56). They boycotted. They signed petitions. They did everything they could to get their voices heard. In some instances, such as the tea boycott in 1774, they succeeded; however, in many others their voice was simply not loud enough to be heard above the divided shouts of the men.
While many of the men were divided by their loyalties, it was doubly worse for the women. Men needed to choose, whether they were with the patriots and willing to fight for everything they and their ancestors had built in the “new world” or if they were loyal to Great Britain and ready to sacrifice everything they had, stand up to their friends, family, and countrymen, to side with the King and Parliament. Women were simply expected to follow their men, regardless of their own views of the situation. The laws even stated that if a women followed her husband or father into exile as a loyalist, if and when she eventually returned, she was not to be punished for siding with the enemy as it was not her place to make that decision. However, she was, in many cases also not entitled to any of the things that she had been forced to leave behind; her home, land, or possessions. For instance, the law in South Carolina stated that “husbands are oftentimes influenced and governed by the sentiment and conduct of their wives. If, therefore they do not exert this influence, by example and dissuasion, they are considered in the law, as having incurred such a degree of guilt, as to forfeit every right or claim under their husbands” (129). They may not have been guilty of treason in the eyes of the law, but they were guilty of not using their “feminine wiles” to control their men. As if they could.
However, this was the role that women chose to assert themselves at the end of the war. When the fighting ended, they invented the role of the Republican Mother. This personage was an educated woman, who exerted her ideals and ideas in the home, by influencing her husband and children in all things political and religious. As we saw in Susan Klepp’s Revolutionary Conceptions, this was a time that women were actively attempting to control the number of children they were having. This was a part of Republican Motherhood, as less children allowed her to form stronger relationships with her children and spend more time seeing to their education and moral behavior.
While Kerber coined the term of Republican Mother, she fails to do it justice in this book. The entire book builds on the idea that women were seeking a way to leave the domestic sphere and make a place for themselves in society, yet she ends the discussion with a very brief chapter on the role they chose to wield – within the home! As we see in the posts by Sarah and Michelle on Branson’s Fiery Frenchified Dames, and Zagarri’s Revolutionary Backlash, women were not simply resigned to resuming their place in the home. They wanted more. They wanted a place in society. They wanted their voices heard. Though she spends most of the book showing how women wanted to make a place for themselves in the new revolutionized country, Kerber does not follow through. This book provides a great background to understanding why women felt abandoned by their country during the revolution, but it must be paired with Branson and/or Zagarri, to finalize the narrative.