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.


Gender, Violence, and Memory

The Spectral Wound: Sexual Violence, Public Memories, and the Bangladesh War of 1971. Nayanika Mookherjee; Duke University Press, 2015.

The Spectral Wound

What is the goal of studying the experiences of women in history? This is a unifying question for many women historians I think. How we come to terms with violence, war, and women’s histories has become something that I find myself more focused on this semester as the classes I have been taking are focused on the intersections of rupture, memory, and violence. Rape narratives are fundamental to the narrative of collective memory of the war, and in the case of the Bangladesh War of 1971, the struggle for independence. In The Spectral Wound, Nayanika Mookherjee tries to understand the memory of Bangladesh’s war of independence from Pakistan through the national recognition of rape victims by the Bengali government; not only has the government recognized the victims but they named them birangonas, or heroinesPublic memory or as Mookherjee calls it, the “pathological public sphere,” forces the deconstruction, reconstruction, and reinterpretation of the events of 1971 that results in shifting politics and a continual search for compensation and closure by the victims.

The mantel of birangona grants victims of rape during the war a status that absolves them of the shame that often accompanies sexual violence in Muslim cultures. At the same time, many of the birangonas are expected or coerced into sharing their accounts of rape publicly as a means of reinforcing the anti-Pakistan rhetoric. A point that Mookherjee emphasized throughout the book is the need to incorporate women as part of the new nation, that created the need to form the emblematic heroine as a way of not only incorporating women into the nation, but as protecting the future of the nation. Personal memories become public in the recollection of the war, and the victims are reliving their trauma in everyday life as other victims of violence do, but must also relive it on the public stage. In the foreword, Veena Das explains the dichotomy of expected behavior and reality, but also highlights the role of the expectations that the victims must navigate, “It was often alleged various people in Bangladesh that women from respectable families who were raped never told their stories and that stories of rape were a ruse for poor women to extract something from the government” (xii). It is these divisions that continue to keep this spectral wound open in Bangladesh.

These women serve as the wound that Bangladesh suffered during war and symbolize the wounds the Bangladeshi people suffered before independence. It is a difficult concept to understand how a woman can be heralded as birangonas and at the same time shamed because they are not adhering to the gendered expectations of society by remaining silent; though perhaps it is not too difficult to understand in the wake of so many high profile sexual assault charges in the news that women are both called heroines and expected to remain demure and silent. What bothers me about these accounts of rape is the way agency is stripped from the women, and though they are birangonas they remain a subject of derision.

The term spectral is an interesting choice, do we think this means that the women, their families, and the nation are haunted by the memories because they don’t know how to put the “ghosts” of the rupture to peace? Is there ever peace for the victims of violent sexual assault or do they have to learn to live with their ghost? It is the threat of continuous rupture that puts these women in a difficult space of belonging; political violence (which these rapes most certainly were) doesn’t end when the violence has ended, but echoes into the future.

Mookherjee provides a nuanced, and thoughtful exploration of the ways that Bangladesh honors victims of sexual violence even as they strip the “heroines” of agency through the commercialization of their memories. In addition to exploring the ways that state intervention in the rape of hundreds of thousands during the war for independence changes both the public and individual memories of that rape, Mookerhejee also examines the way that the loss of masculinity through sexual assault extends the trauma through time and across relationships. By refusing to focus solely on the female victims of the war, Mookherjee swings at the gendered dimensions of history and memory.

Even though Mookherjee’s work is focused across the globe and a century after my own research interests, I believe that her insights and her approach to the topic provide tools to navigating my own research and the ways that those wounds remain open. I found watching Mookherjee talk about her process and the lives that these individuals found outside of their role as birangonas shifted my perspective on the research that she did; this becomes a story with a glimmer of hope.

Talk Given by Mookherjee

This is an NPR story that I came across the morning that I finished this book on the legacy of sexual violence in Korea:

A Social Healer

A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich (1990).

A Midwife’s Tale is divided up into ten chapters, each focused on a specific aspect of Martha Ballard’s life, and the corresponding diary entries.  Ballard’s accounts are so rich in material that “the problem is not that the diary is trivial but that it introduces more stories than can easily be recovered and absorbed” (25). So much of Thatcher Ulrich’s writing seems to connect to other readings that we have done as part of our blog; it is easy to make connections to Home and Work, to Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs, to Revolutionary Backlash, to Damned Women, and especially Revolutionary Conceptions.

Several aspects of Martha Ballard’s diary stand out to me, but I am afraid I can only address a couple of them. In the first chapter, Thatcher Ulrich sets out to define the circles that a midwife would have fit into; something that became increasingly important as professionalization of medicine began to gain momentum in the early nineteenth century. Labeling Martha Ballard and her sister midwives as “social healers” Thatcher Ulrich takes the concepts which we have seen used to define early American economy and community by authors such as Boydston, and applies that to the craft of the midwife. It is important to define the place in the community that a midwife would have held, as Martha Ballard and Thatcher Ulrich make clear her only job was not to deliver babies; a midwife was expected to treat the ill, provide herbal medications, ensure safe delivery of children, help prepare the bodies of the dead, observe autopsies, and of course maintain her own home and garden. These expectations of the midwife would not have been fruitful if there wasn’t a social support system in place to assist her; hired helpers, daughters, nieces, neighbors, and even occasionally husbands or other men from the community would be called upon for assistance to ensure the success of the midwife. Thatcher Ulrich stresses that Martha Ballard’s experiences were not exceptional and that she was, “one among many women with acknowledged medical skills. Furthermore, her strengths were sustained by a much larger group of casual helpers” (62). This revelation (perhaps too strong a word) gives much more importance to the practice of calling on neighbors; in order to maintain the social network and bonds that were needed to keep her successful, a midwife (or really any woman during that time) would have had to maintain her relationships with as many of her neighbors as she could so that she would be confident in her ability to call on them for help. As I was reading this I kept thinking back to the ways that these social calls were portrayed in period dramas, Anne of Green Gables (1985) stood out to me. Rachel Lynde is the pesky neighbor who is always seen calling on Marilla Cuthbert in the 1985 version, and Rachel is portrayed as a bit of an overbearing, nosey neighbor who is determined to interfere in the Cuthbert’s affairs. The 2017 version of Anne of Green Gables however shows a more realistic relationship between Marilla and Rachel; Rachel comes to help Marilla with canning, and the share a friendship that works to highlight both the solitude of housekeeping in the late 18th and early 19th century, but also the important bonds that women shared through helping each other with larger tasks. This is the invisible work that Boydston argued allowed for the survival and success of the community.

The other aspect that I would like to focus on is the breadth of sources that Thatcher Ulrich pulled from to create this book. She clearly spent a lot of time working on reading and transcribing parts of Martha Ballard’s diary, but she also used the diaries of several men from the town, court documents, county and state census data, store ledgers, and personal correspondence when she could find it to pull Martha Ballard’s life from the shelf and give her story to the world. I readily admit that I am jealous of how many sources Thatcher Ulrich was able to compile for this project, as I continue to struggle to find personal letters and diaries of the women who I would like to write about. I would be curious to know how much time she spent on her research before she was able to piece together a firs

t draft. However jealous I am of her source material, I do recognize that it is Thatcher Ulrich’s ability to weave it together in a compelling narrative that not only made this such a powerful book for me to read, but won her the Pulitzer.

Image of Martha Ballard’s Diary

Thatcher Ulrich closes the book with Martha Ballard’s death in 1812 at the age of 77 by saying this:

Her restraint in recording the sins of her neighbors, her humility in acknowledging her own, her charitableness, even her martyrdom and self-pity, were molded by this ethic of caring. But unlike the thousands of midwives and ordinary Christians who have always lived by these standards, Martha Ballard ensured that she would not be forgotten… To celebrate such a life is to acknowledge the power—and poverty—of written records (342-343).

I am so happy that I read this book, not just because of the wealth of information that it provided me, but also for the insight into the life of eighteenth century women. I do not think this level of insight would have been possible without having her own words available to us.

It might be clear that I really liked the newer deeper version of the tale of Anne Shirley, here is a link to the trailer:

Trailer for Anne of Green Gables on Netflix:

 This is an excellent documentary from the BBC on British homes. The documentaries demonstrate exactly how much work was put into “everyday” tasks such as cooking and cleaning. No wonder Martha Ballard would rather have the girls do the washing!

Lucy Worsley If Walls Could Talk “bedrooms”

A Woman in the Periphery

A Woman in the Periphery

Our Nig, Or, Sketches from the Life of A Free Black, In a Two-Story House, North Showing That Slavery’s Shadows Fall Even There. Harriet Wilson (1859).

Harriet Wilson begins her autobiography with a poem for her mother:

            Oh, Grief beyond all other griefs, when fate

First leaves the young hear lone and desolate

In the wide world, without that only tie

For which it loved to live or feared to die;

Lorn as the hung-up lute, that ne’er hath spoken

Since the sad day its master-chord was broken!

Moore. (page 1).

Typically, I would leave poems, or other headings out of a response, but this poem set the tone for the rest of the book. I was unsure what Our Nig was going to be like, I had read that it was a response to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and that it compliments Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl well. There are parts to Wilson’s prose which bring to mind these other works, as well as the writings of Sojourner Truth and even seduction novels. Frado is the protagonist who is abandoned by her white mother and black step-father at the Bellmont estate at the age of seven.  The Bellmonts took Frado in as an indentured servant, and began to refer to her as “Nig”.  The story recounts the ways that Frado survived her time as the Bellmont’s servant, and the abuse that she received at their hands and the hands of northern antebellum society. Wilson emphasized the similarities between her treatment and the treatment of slaves, not just in physical labor and abuse but also in the restrictions on her behavior (not sitting down to eat) and her travels (restrictions on school or church attendance). Wilson successfully highlights the failures of indentured servitude in the U.S. After Frado turned 18 and was freed from her contract she became ill and had to rely on the community for support while she was ill and recovering. Seeking out the Bellmonts, who she believed owed her some assistance for her years of service, resulted in Frado being insulted and turned out.

Wilson’s story is a bit difficult to get through despite its brevity. The timeline is muddled, and there is no concrete way of knowing where Frado is living based on the evidence provided within the story. The only reason the audience understands that it takes place in the north is because Wilson puts it into the title. The account of Mag, Frado’s mother, is equally confusing. I thought that Mag was a free Black woman until she married Frado’s father and Wilson brought up how demeaning it was for a white woman to marry a free Black man. The book gained much more narrative power as I researched the life of Harriet Wilson. Wilson is credited as the first Black author to self-publish a book in the U.S., though this is a contentious claim. Wilson based Frado’s life on her own; Wilson’s mother was an Irish washerwoman and her father was a free Black man who worked as a Hooper. Wilson was also orphaned as a young child and forced to work as an indentured servant in a New England home. Wilson’s life was lived almost entirely in the periphery; she was a woman born of a mixed-race marriage, she was working in servitude in a time of slavery, and yet she never conformed to the expectations of her gender or race.

Statue of Harriet Wilson


Here is the transcript of an interview with Henry Louis Gates who rediscovered Our Nig in 1982 (interview was 2002):

Here is a brief bio on Harriet Wilson (and the source for the image of her statue):

Here is the book electronically through the University of Virginia

Gender and Culture Shift in Native Life

Cherokee Women: Gender and Culture Change, 1700-1835.  Theda Perdue (1998)

Cherokee Women: Gender and Culture Change, 1700-1835 explores the ways that Cherokee culture changed as white Americans (colonists and later citizens) pushed westward through Cherokee country. Theda Perdue successfully proves her thesis; “in the eighteenth century women may have become more secure in some roles—as farmers and as socializers of children, for example—and in the nineteenth century, Cherokees incorporated aspects of Anglo-American culture into their lives without fundamentally altering values or totally restructuring gender (9).” To prove this, Perdue provides the reader with a foundational understanding of the way that Cherokees understood gender, and gender roles- as actions and fulfillment of social roles. By beginning the book with the tale of Selu and her role as corn-goddess, and earth mother, Perdue gives us a baseline for what we believe traditional gender roles and responsibilities would have been for Cherokee women. In following the changing economic and political world that the Cherokees found themselves immersed in at the end of the eighteenth century the audience can begin to fully grasp the breadth of changes that were beginning to occur in Cherokee lives.

Statue of Selu on The Corn Mother’s Temple


It is crucial to highlight that Perdue doesn’t claim that gender roles, or women, were unchanging over time; rather she emphasized the ways in which women adapted traditional gendered expectations to allow their culture to survive. Perhaps the most detrimental to female autonomy, because of the changing economic and political atmosphere, was the decline of the matrilineal clan as the center of Cherokee life. When life was centered around the clan, and family, women would have held significant power over resources, and relationships; as the focus of life began to shift towards an Anglo-American ideal of domesticity the Cherokee women began to lose their authority. In contrast, Cherokee men began to value individual wealth and property as part of the adoption of Anglo-American culture, which put them in a position of power over their children- something that Perdue argues they would have not had before this shift in economic power. I found it fascinating that Perdue provided examples of both how this was embraced by fathers, and how this acculturation was not universal as many maternal uncles or mothers continued to be the primary authority over the lives of children.


This new shift in cultural and economic power resulted in many Cherokee children being sent to missionary schools so that they would be able to succeed in this new society. In my undergraduate work, I read excerpts from Zitkála-Sa’s, American Indian Stories (1921), in which Zitkala-Sa describes the missionary school experience, and the struggle of living in two separate cultures simultaneously. When initially setting out to read Cherokee Women, I expected to see similarities between Perdue’s research and Zitkala-Sa’s anecdotal writing; however, Perdue’s discussion of cultural genocide which the Cherokee found themselves facing that made Zitkala-Sa’s writing, and Perdue’s, much more effective and powerful. I found Perdue’s exploration of the missionary school perhaps the most fascinating part of the book, likely because of my previous readings on it. I had not realized that the schools depended so heavily on parental cooperation for continuing operations—something that Zitkala-Sa does not go into. I would like to find some more readings that look at how the children managed to straddle the two distinct cultures- or even refused to submit to the missionary school’s codes of conduct.

Zitkala-Sa (Red Bird) was Lakota and wrote extensively in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Daniel Richter’s Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America (2001), is considered crucial to reexamining the history of the United States as Richter shifts the focus out towards the non-native world, from the Native “center” of the narrative. Perdue managed to do this before Richter through incorporating firsthand accounts by Native individuals, and weaving them in with Cherokee religion to build a tangible world in which the women she is studying lived in. In addition to shifting the focus of the narrative, Perdue created a piece of work that is crucial to any discussion of Cherokee life with her discussion of gender and social structure. While my counterparts each wrote about specific pieces of the book which they felt were most important to Perdue’s thesis, I think that it is her definition of gender in Cherokee life, and how it shifted along with internal and external forces that is the most important (and interesting) addition to the historiographic discussion of native life, and gender history.

Quick Read: The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood (1986)

Most of our blog posts and reading discussions focus on scholarly works, and books that relate directly to our research. This one however is a book that I read for fun (it can happen in Grad school). I am starting a new section on the blog, which hopefully we can update semi-regularly, called “Quick Read” that will feature books that we read outside of our usual workload. These books shouldn’t take too long to read, and we will give you our opinion on them with less in-depth analysis than our usual posts/discussions.

I picked up a copy o Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale through my Kindle Unlimited subscription (not an advertisement) because it offered free audio with it, and I was supposed to not read anything until I was cleared by my doctor after a major car accident. The story is set in a dystopian America, where women are essentially divided by class and procreative ability. Atwood successfully created a fictional, yet poignant exploration of female power and empowerment, through the account of “Offred” and her placement as a Handmaid- essentially a concubine- in the home of a prominent member of the ruling party. The Handmaid’s Tale is reminiscent of The Giver (Lois Lowry), 1984 (George Orwell), and Aeon Flux (Peter Chung). The protagonist, Offred, struggles to cope with the collapse of 1980s America, and her new position as a femme covert in the new theocracy. One cannot read this without thinking about how Atwood was influenced by Nazi Germany and the idea of an Aryan race. Perhaps most frighteningly is the relevance to modern discussions of separation of church and state, xenophobia, women’s rights, and religious freedom.

In a world where women must be covered head to toe in appropriate colors to display their rank and role in society; where women must act only to please God and the head of their household, Offred is able to find glimpses of happiness. This makes her question if her life as a femme covert is better than her life of “freedom”, responsibility, and worry that accompany modern life. I think that this is the most important part of the book for our purposes on this blog. Oftentimes as historians, or modern Americans, we look at societies that have cultural practices similar to those described in The Handmaid’s Tale and we wonder why women would stay in a world like that, a world where they cannot ow property, be allowed to read, and must by covered from the eyes of men. Atwood successfully, I think, examines some of the temptation to stay in a life like that. Though in the end Offred attempts to escape her life as Handmaid so that she can exercise control over her own body.

This was a quick (311 pages) and interesting read that I think helps expand our understanding of women’s rights and empowerment. It is no wonder that this book has resurfaced as a must-read.


Searching for Domesticity in Whaling New England

Captain Ahab Had A Wife: New England Women and the Whalefishery, 1720-1870. Lisa Norling (2000)

In her lengthy examination of New England women and their lives in the whaling community, Lisa Norling argues that these women thrived within the whaling world by embracing the Victorian ideals of female domesticity.  Norling is faced with a difficult task, attempting to find a path to understanding women in a historically “man’s world”.  To rise to the challenge, Norling utilizes diaries, correspondence, and ledgers to find the women who inhabited this world. The problem with this approach, and one which I struggle with in much of my research, is that the historical records only allow us to examine women through the men to whom they were attached. I cannot claim to have an alternative approach to studying women during this period, but I do think that it is important to acknowledge this shortfall in the historical record within the analysis of the materials. Indeed, this approach further limited Norling’s study to “prominent” Quaker and then New England families, a group more likely than poor families to want to project the ideals of Domesticity.

Wrestling with the ways that Victoria domesticity could work within a whaling community results in Norling tracing the New England whaling economy nearly from inception on colonial Nantucket through the 19th century. I thought that the organization of the book, while important to laying the foundation for an understanding of New England Whaling practices and economy that shaped the world in which these women lived was separate from the main argument about domesticity. In fact, this exposition shifts the focus of much of the book onto the practice of Paternalism within New England and Fishing communities in the 18th and 19th centuries. Understanding that women, and communities, depended on paternalism to survive when such a large part of the population was gone for increasing lengths of time is crucial to understanding the roles that women had to step into, but almost half of each chapter is devoted to reviewing the state of paternalism at that point in time. The relevance to Norling’s overarching argument that Victorian ideals of domesticity were successful, are confused by the extensive discussion of paternalism and its intricacies. As Norling’s study goes further into the 19th century and the paternalism system continues to break down, women were forced to expand their roles as substitute husbands and breadwinners, at a time when Victorian Domesticity were at an all time high. The new ideals of femininity and masculinity become subverted according to Norling during this time:

For centuries a supply of firewood had been a basic necessity of life, one of the essentials granted by New England towns to their indigent and often specified as part of widows’ portions. Henry Beetle’s inability to provide his wife [who was according to her letters chopping wood herself] and child with the means to acquire wood seemed to stand for his failure as his family’s sole support and thereby, with the new definition of masculinity and femininity, challenged his very manhood. The image of Eliza outside, swinging an ax and hewing wood, seems to have upset Henry’s notions of female delicacy and dependence. (Norling 163)

This raises the question, should we emphasis that Domesticity was an ideal, and not a reality for most women during the 19th century?

Norling’s argument continues to become muddied with her consideration of the many ways that women were forced to find employment or income during the absences of their men. Norling suggests that this is offset by the romantic symbolism and epistolary writings found in the correspondence between whaling men and their wives. Norling’s use of select letters, I believe, romanticizes the relationships of these individuals. I appreciated her inclusion of letters from women detailing their struggles, and their frustrations with being left ashore with families to care and provide for, but would have liked to hear more about how frequently these letters are found in the trove of letters that Norling has explored. This frustration seems to provide a more realistic glimpse of Victorian life (as a mother today I could relate), but I think she could have used more analysis on them to reveal the reality of the world of a Whaling Wife, rather than reinforcing the Victorian idea that women wanted to be perceived as the center of romance and the home.

I don’t want to deter from the overall importance of Norling’s work. I think it is a crucial book and a fascinating read. My task for this post was to look at the success of Norling’s argument, and I am unsure that I can answer definitively that it was a successful argument. I keep returning to questions posed on Amber and Michelle’s posts for Captain Ahab Had A Wife,  How does this reliance on domesticity and separate sphere hamper Norling’s argument, and Does reading backwards preordain the conclusion? I think that Norling utilized the ideal of separate spheres for men and women, and domesticity to propel her historical narrative, but the reliance on these two (now) shaky foundational ideas of 18th and 19th century life reveal a conclusion that I don’t think fully can withstand further research or analysis.

Postscript: This is the first analysis (and even extensive writing) that I have done since I sustained a mild brain injury ending my semester early and unexpectedly. I will be posting several more posts in the next few weeks as I attempt to finish my semester work.