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The editors of Kentucky Women: Their Lives and Times seek to reaf-firm the complex role of Kentucky women in the national historical narrative. In doing so, this work encompasses seventeen biographical essays of notable Kentucky women who the editors hoped were as “varied and diverse as Kentucky itself” (p. 1). The scholarly analysis presented in these essays covers a range of issues. Race and gender inequality, activism, art, and literature are all considered.
The volume is a part of the University of Georgia Press edited series, Southern Women: Their Lives and Times, and is arranged chronologically. Craig Thompson Friend provides a much-welcomed addition to the historiography of Kentucky women in the frontier period, and Melissa A. McEuen’s analysis of Nancy Mahoffey demonstrates the importance of the state’s contribution to southern foodways, a growing field of historical inquiry. Other essays are new reiterations of the reform work undertaken by middle- and upper-class women such as Laura Clay, Sophonisba Preston Breckinridge, Katherine Petit and May Stone, and Elizabeth “Lizzie” Fouse. [End Page 230]
The contributors who focused on the rich history of reform in Kentucky are adept in placing these women within the context of their time and explaining the motivations behind their particular cause. Lindsey Apple, in particular, does well presenting a historically complex portrait of Madeline McDowell Breckinridge and the elite bias in which she approached her reform work. Melanie Beals Goan also expertly parses through the complexity of Mary Breckinridge, placing her in the larger historical narrative of female reformers and how they achieved social, professional, and political power through their humanitarian efforts.
The inclusion of Elizabeth “Lizzie” Fouse and Georgia Davis Powers as influential African American women in Kentucky’s history is a step forward in presenting a diverse picture of the state’s women. Karen Cotton McDaniel and Carolyn R. Dupont are skilled in their analyses of Fouse and Powers within the context of racial discrimination and social change. In particular, McDaniel presents a ground-breaking argument related to Fouse’s challenge to police violence in Lexington following the 1925 death of Gertrude Boulder while in police custody. Her article contributes to the emerging historiography of the role of black women in the fight for civil rights, specifically their focus on protecting black female bodies and womanhood.
Like McDaniel, the authors in the volume all contribute a unique analysis of their topics, and the women featured were undeniably vital to the history of the commonwealth. However, the lack of diversity is troubling. One third of the book is devoted to female reformers during the Progressive era and most of the essays are limited to the upper- and middle-class elite. Although scholars would probably agree that the women featured in this work are important in understanding the powerful role of women in shaping Kentucky, they do not encompass the “lives and times” of the majority of Kentucky women.
This brings forth the question of whether scholars can write a truly comprehensive history of Kentucky, or any state. A vital next step is perhaps following this important volume with a second one that is more thematic in approach so that nonelite women can take [End Page 231] their rightful place in the history of the commonwealth. The editors are correct that there are archival limitations, but looking at Kentucky women’s history through a thematic lens can perhaps mitigate those limitations. For example, one could examine women engaged in the underground economy of the state through an analysis of prostitution. There are also rich resources that give insight into the role of coal miners’ wives in the industrial economy of the state, or there are ample ways in which scholars have and can continue to uncover the voices of the women who were the subjects of middle-class reform.
This need for a second volume does not take away the breadth of coverage and unique analytical positions presented in Kentucky Women. Indeed, it is...