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.