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.

Summer Reading List!

Summer is upon us, and that means fun in the sun and a summer reading list!

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, A Midwife’s Tale (Sarah)

Martha Hodes, A Sea Captain’s Wife (Amber)

Lori Ginzberg, Untidy Origins (Michelle)

Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (Amber)

Jean Fagan Yellin, Harriet Jacobs: A Life (Michelle)

Harriet E. Wilson, Our Nig (Sarah)

Frederick Douglass’s three autobiographies: Narratives in the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845), The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881), and My Bondage and my Freedom (1855)

All three of us will be reading:

Bonnie Laughlin Schultz, The Tie that Bound Us: The Women of John Brown’s Family

Leigh Fought, Women in the World of Frederick Douglass

Be on the lookout for our reviews and possibly a discussion or two soon.

We would love more reading recommendations, so feel free to leave a comment or send us an email.

Hope you have a safe and wonderful summer!

White Men, Power, and Property in the Antebellum South

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McCurry fundamentally explores power relationships between antebellum South Carolina yeoman farmers and their large planter neighbors as they went about their private and public lives within relative proximity of each other. While the planter class represented the political elite in the antebellum south, they could not function without the support of the lower class of small farmers, however much they viewed the lower class as inferior nuisances. This relationship plays out, McCurry argues, in the ways that yeoman farmers, as white landowners in the black belt of the south, asserted their social equality with plantation owners. Not only does McCurry explore the power relationships between these two classes, but she also discusses the power dynamics within these households, particular in terms of gender and race relations. One of the most significant additions McCurry makes to the historiography of the antebellum south and Civil War era is that she explains why poor whites went to fight for the Confederacy; simply, the racialized system they lived in helped yeoman farmers maintain their status as masters. While they were not masters over much, they still were a class above the black majority in South Carolina.

One of the underlying themes throughout McCurry’s book is the issue of individual property rights and community land claims in shaping these power relationships. Fences became integral to formally shaping individual properties, and McCurry states that men became masters of these fenced in worlds, and in particular, the people within them, women and slaves included. Understandably, the wealthier elites bought the most fertile, and therefore, most valuable lands; some yeoman farmers owned more property, but their property was typically made up of sand and swamplands that required much expensive maintenance to make into usable land. In these small farming households, both children and women worked the land, even alongside what few slaves they might have had. This distinguished, among other things, yeoman wives and their planter superiors; elite women did not physically work, but rather ran their households of many servants and slaves. Furthermore, both masters and mistresses of plantations attempted to establish patron-client relationships with the yeoman classes in various ways, but that ultimately failed because the small farmers believed themselves to be equals through their identities as masters over their own properties.

McCurry explains that the South Carolina Low Country remained very patriarchal; her discussion of southern churches explains in depth the interplay of both class and gender. The classes were integrated in this small community churches, kept in place by systems of pew-renting that meant planters got the best seats inside the church buildings. Many of the freedoms that were experienced even by the wealthiest of planter mistresses were kept in check by the yeoman class of men in their communities. While Brekus had briefly discussed the difficulty faced by women who wanted to be preachers in the south during this period, McCurry fleshes this argument out in full. She states that even elite planter women wishing to demonstrate charity needed to go through church elders who then designated where that charity would be allotted. The southern patriarchal system was also demonstrated through church discipline, McCurry argues; punishments almost always fell harder on women than men in many cases for similar offenses, and even southern Christianity argued for the validity of the slave system. Thus, she demonstrates the strong tie between church and politics in the south.

How and Why Housework was Devalued in the First Place

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In extensive document and theory-based detail, Boydston traces how the economic significance of women’s housework evolved in both private and public ways over the course of the late eighteenth century into the early nineteenth in the northeastern United States. Integrating both Marxist and feminist approaches in her analysis of the subject, Boydston fundamentally argues that women’s housework became increasingly devalued as an economic, societal contribution into the nineteenth century. Thus, Boydston argues that “the image of the colonial goodwife, valued for her contribution to household prosperity, had been replaced by the image of wife and mother as a ‘dependent’ and ‘nonproducer’” (xi). This speaks not only to husband-wife relationships within the home, but also American economics at large and changing societal conceptions of women’s value in general.

Boydston debunks the idea that industrialization is what devalued women’s labor; rather, she argues that this decline began well before then and was practically solidified by the end of the eighteenth century and the American Revolution. She also makes the crucial point that the term economy used to pertain specifically to issues of the household, including the work that kept it running smoothly. Because of this definition, women were valued as workers and laborers in their own right. Women’s contributions to their own homes were increasingly devalued, and sons began challenging their widowed mothers’ rights to their own contributions to the family’s home and wealth. Boydston notes that what had taken place over the course of the eighteenth century was not a change in the type of work women were doing, but the attitudes concerning that work that reflected a very negative view of housewifery in general. Also essential to this transformation was the increased dependency on a cash market and wage labor; women were significant contributors to the barter system because they were producers of finished goods including both food and textiles.

The American Revolution, Boydston argued, helped bring women’s work back to a position of value in their communities as many women contributed to the home-based production of essential goods in the midst of boycotts against the British. She states that money was again devalued which helped this shift take place. However, these sentiments did not last into the nineteenth century. Women’s home manufacture enabled their families to depend less on cash markets, yet even women grew to view their work as insignificant and themselves as dependent on their husbands’ support. These ideas were maintained through the war of 1812. The labor of women, Boydston points out, became increasingly defined as unpaid labor, while men’s work was defined as waged. Industrialization transformed the lives of the producing classes, Boydston notes; mass manufacture helped create a poor urban class dependent on the cycles of these industries, took jobs away from artisans and skilled workers, and a middle class began to develop within the developing consumerist culture. Thus, Boydston argues, the meaning of freedom transformed in the antebellum period, shifting from connotations of economic dependency to delineating wealth.

Boydston argues that housework was a crucial function for the poorest as well as elite families, though the work done by these wives was certainly different. While wealthier families could afford to pay domestic servants for their help (for duties such as cooking or laundry), these women simply shifted their attentions to other essential household duties, such as training servants. Even middle class women continued to participate in the efforts of home manufacture and yet still did the cooking, cleaning, and childrearing and essential behind the scenes work on farms. Many women themselves, Boydston claims, considered their household duties “drudgery,” and increased dependency on the cash market required new sets of skills in budgeting and market intuition. Many of these changes were influenced by the industrial threat to men’s masculinity and heads of households as breadwinners. Fundamentally, Boydston maintains that despite it being devalued in the eyes of many, both men and women, women’s household work was an essential contribution to emerging capitalist economy in the United States.

Jezebels, Mammies, and None of the Above

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For this particular round of books, Amber, Sarah, and I have each read a different book pertaining to enslaved women in the antebellum period. I read Deborah Gray White’s Ar’n’t I a Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South (1985), a groundbreaking study of antebellum southern plantations. Crucially adding to the traditional historiography on American slavery,  which had long focused almost exclusively on the experiences of enslaved men, White presents a detailed narrative that carefully examines the lives of southern enslaved women. In this monograph, White uses new evidence that better enlightens the everyday experiences of these women, including both their physical work and struggles to forge their own individual identities, as people more generally and as women more specifically, despite adversity and suppression. This book examines these issues from practically the beginning of the antebellum period through the Civil War and post-emancipation period.

Because the purpose of this book is to as thoroughly as possible unveil who these women were, White’s first chapter is dedicated to explaining what most of these women were not: the stereotypical Jezebel and Mammy. Thus, White debunks contemporary (and even perhaps modern) misconceptions about southern slave women as either sexually promiscuous or as asexual matronly figures. These two stereotypes open discussion for family dynamics, as well as racial dynamics on southern plantations. White claims that “half-white children told a story of  white man’s infidelity, a slave woman’s helplessness (though this concerned few whites), an a white woman’s inability to defy the social and legal constraints that kept her bound to her husband regardless of his transgressions” (40). Because the actions of southern white men pertaining to improper treatment (to use a euphemism) of their female slaves were increasingly condoned by northern abolitionists, southerners conjured up the paternalistic image of the domestic slave, the middle to elder-aged Mammy, whose role as nurse and housekeeper became integrated into the loving fabric of white families. White points out that this justification for slavery overemphasized the unfailing devotion slaves had to their masters, as well as the numbers of slave women who actually were in charge of white households.

After debunking these myths, White then thematically tackles different aspects of slave women’s lives. She addresses the economic significance of female slaves’ procreative abilities (later tackled in Jennifer Morgan’s Laboring Women, as we have discussed earlier); she discusses the 1629 Virginia field labor tax that helped solidify the conceptualization of the racial other in American society (as later discussed by Kathleen M. Brown in Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs and covered in this blog); she discusses everyday slave resistance such as feigning illness; she discusses the evolving nature of women’s work over the course of their lives; she addresses the nature of sexual and romantic relationships; she discusses the significance of motherhood in keeping slave families functioning both within themselves and the larger slave community on plantations; she discusses the lack of justice for these women in cases of sexual violence done to them by white and black men; she discusses the prejudice women faced even after fleeing to Union lines during the Civil War; and she discusses formerly enslaved women forming identities as women, and largely working women, in a world that repeatedly tried to take away that part of their identity. White emphasizes that even after living as legally free people in the U.S., black women needed to be self-reliant: “In short, life still challenged them to a different kind of womanhood, nothing like that of white women” (176).

As is the case with many women and gender studies, White explores the lives of antebellum enslaved women while also glossing over the experiences as men for comparison and contrast. However, White makes the crucial point that “Female slave bondage was not better or worse, or more or less severe than male bondage, but it was different” (89). Thus, White’s purpose remains to help fill in the gaps in the historiography on slavery as a whole. Before White, these women were largely left out of the story of slavery in the American South. White’s study enlarges that image to encompass not only the many types of labor done by slave women (including the duties of childrearing), but also different images of enslaved women sewing dresses, attending church, and performing midwife duties on neighboring plantations. Essentially, while showing antebellum slave women as victims of an oppressive system, she also shows the agency exerted by these women to form their own identities and shape their own lots in life despite their circumstances.

 

You’ve Got to Fight for Your Right (to Vote)

Revolutionary Backlash: Women and Politics in the Early American Republic, Rosemarie Zagarri (2009).

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This week we tried a different approach to our readings, each of us read and will be responding to a different book. I read Rosemarie Zagarri’s Revolutionary Backlash, which builds on the work done by the other two books read this week (Fiery Frenchified Dames-Susan Branson, and Women of the Republic- Linda Kerber) to explore the ways that women tried to use politics as a means of gaining agency outside of the home. It is important to note that Zagarri, like Kerber and Branson, are only addressing the roles of white women who would have been enfranchised had they been male, by meeting the requirements of land and income of the time. This is a welcome approach given my frustration with Revolutionary Conceptions and the way African American women were dropped into the narrative but not fully explored; however it would have been beneficial I believe for Zagarri to address why this approach works best for her examination.

Zagarri begins by outlining her argument, during the Revolution women were encouraged to participate openly in support of the colonists through boycotts, supplying troops, wearing homespun, and even attending public political events. This was possible both as politics moved out of pubs and taverns (inappropriate venues for a respectable woman) and into the streets where everyone was able to view and participate. This encouragement to participate in the new nation was embodied in Republican Motherhood, though as Zagarri is quick to point out, only as long as women continued to be the moral center of the family. Zagarri writes that “in many ways the story of postrevolutionary America is the story of how American women and men sought to define- and ultimately limit and restrict- the expansive ideals they had so successfully deployed against Britain” (4); this definition of ideals shifted shortly after the revolution and was completed by the 1820s.

It is at this point that Zagarri argues that the extreme division of the nation along the lines of Federalist and Republican caused women to become more partisan in their political ideology, no longer deferring to the men in their lives for guidance. This, along with the growing fear of enfranchising free blacks, led to the “backlash” for which the book is titled. Women began to be pushed back into the home. I particularly like the way that Zagarri highlights the way that women of the time responded to the “backlash” by changing their focus to civil society, “provid[ing] a conceptual middle ground between the extremes of party and electoral politics, on the one hand, and politics defined as all unequal power relations, on the other” (8). By participating in charitable societies, reform organizations, and benevolent societies women were able to “contribute to the polity in different ways…Thus at the same time women’s ability to participate[ate in party politics and electoral affairs began to decrease, women began to find venues for participating in politics by another means” (8-9). This is of particular interest as it relates to my research this semester on the women of the American Colonization Society, reinforcing my working theory that the women joined the Society as a means of participating in politics and escaping the private sphere.

Zagarri’s book is admittedly not one that I would have chosen for myself outside of this course, but I am so glad that I was able to read it. Her discussion of the ways women were able to retain their political agency inspire of the “backlash”is very compelling.

Cherokee Women Upsetting the Patriarchy

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I found this book illuminating in almost every aspect.Not only does Perdue provide a detailed, enthnographic description of Cherokee religion, culture, daily life, and gender roles, but she also presents a historical argument that traces the effect of European contact on both men and women of the Cherokee nation. In Cherokee Women, Purdue means to show that the attempt of the new U.S. government to force civilization on the Cherokee people, and specifically the cult of domesticity on Cherokee women, was never fully actualized. Thus, Perdue argues, Cherokee women actively adapted aspects of European culture to fit their own lives and worldview and fought to keep their culture alive despite the changes being forced upon them. While some of this argument gets lost in the middle of her book, Perdue effectively makes this point at the end as she specifically discusses missionary attempts at complete conversion and the resilience in the Cherokee’s belief in Selu, the Cherokee corn mother.

In Part One of her book, Perdue lays the foundation for her argument. By explaining the original dynamics of Cherokee culture and beliefs, she is able to present a description and argument for change (or adaptation, rather) over time. Part of what allowed Cherokee women to keep their resilience, according to Perdue, was their worldview of opposites and balance, a belief she explains in Part One. She tells readers that the sun was female, and the moon was male. Women farmed, and men hunted. Blood, a lifeforce from the inside, represented power when it came to be outside the body. Men and women are both connected to this power through their separate gender roles in Cherokee society; Men shed the blood of others and took life while women shed blood themselves to give life. Though much of Part One read more like an ethnography than history because of a lack of written sources from the Cherokee themselves in early years, Perdue is able to effectively use Cherokee legend and myth, as well as interpretations of outsider information to provide a starting point for understanding how Cherokees viewed gender and functioned within their gendered society.

For me, one of the strongest and most interesting points Perdue makes about Cherokee adaptation to “civilization” is the Cherokee failure to fully adhere to Jeffersonian agrarianism. Cherokee women were traditionally in charge of agriculture and farming, and men viewed that type of work as specifically gendered for women. This became a problem, Perdue explains, once those promoting civilization meant for Cherokee men to become the farmers in the Cherokee nation. Essentially, women used the advanced agricultural tools meant for male farmers, and men became, according to Perdue, the middle men for Cherokee women’s labors. Before reading this book, I had learned some of what civilization looked like for the Cherokee people, but I was not aware of the agricultural implications as part of the failure of the civilization program and the finalization of Cherokee relocation.

In all, Perdue’s monograph proves a very informative and enlightening contribution to the worlds of women and Native American studies. Using fairly scant sources, Perdue is able to construct a narrative of not only Cherokee culture, but the larger American society as a whole. Though the end seemed somewhat rushed, her conclusions are still reasonable and understandable given the context placed at the beginning of the book. In Cherokee Women, issues of power, masculinity, economy, and religion are tackled in an effective and coherent way.