- North Carolina Women: Their Lives and Times, Vol. 2, ed. by Michele Gillespie and Sally G. McMillen
The authors of this collection of essays stretch the conventional boundaries of biography to narrate the events, actions, and values associated with selected women whose lives intersected with North Carolina history from the late nineteenth century through the late twentieth century. Rather than fixing the lives of women to the usual landmark moment of southern history (the Civil War), the editors begin this second volume of essays with the Progressive era and the political reform movements that impacted the daily lives of American women. As Charlotte A. Haller also pointed out in her review of Volume 1 in the August 2015 issue of this journal, the conventional edge of biography toward “accomplished, influential women” shapes the very selection of whose stories get told (p. 1). While the editors achieve diversity in socioeconomic and racial backgrounds with this second volume, the accomplishments of the women profiled fall within a narrow range of fields. Most fit within the bounds of education, politics, civil rights, and organized labor.
The editors, Michele Gillespie and Sally G. McMillen, succeed in weaving a “larger story of women in the South” through the lives of these selected individuals (p. 3). Perhaps the strongest essay, “North Carolina’s Farm Women: Plowing around Obstacles,” by Lu Ann Jones, is also the one that strays furthest from the confines of conventional biography. Jones opens her story with the accomplishments of Edna Anderson Harris, who made her way into the public eye by organizing a local chapter of the United Farmers Organization. But hers is not a typical story of achievement. Instead, Jones tells Harris’s story from the perspective of the “survival skills” honed by rural women just to make it through daily life on the farm (p. 215). While Harris’s story is accessible through the pages of the Raleigh Times, Jones draws from extensive oral history fieldwork completed in the 1980s to document the lives of other rural women who “came of age in the 1920s and 1930s” (p. 218). Jones also captures the vivid details of Nellie Stancil Langley’s everyday life [End Page 715] and pays careful attention to the meaning of gender in Bessie Smith Pender’s childhood memories of life on a tenant farm growing cotton and peanuts. And, using stories of women’s chickens and eggs, Jones provides insights into exactly how “products of women’s labor entered the channels of commerce” (p. 222). Only at the end of this collective biography does Jones turn to the stories of women like Jane Simpson McKimmon, whose work with rural women as North Carolina’s first state home agent associated with agricultural extension programs can be traced through government records.
Although some of the women profiled, such as Gertrude Weil, Olive Dame Campbell, Gladys Avery Tillett, Ella May Wiggins, and Pauli Murray are familiar subjects who appear in a similar volume edited by Margaret Supplee Smith and Emily Wilson (North Carolina Women: Making History [Chapel Hill, 1999]), this new collection of essays builds on existing scholarship rather than merely rehashing it. For example, Lauren F. Winner goes back to the archives and Pauli Murray’s papers to discover the significance of Murray’s brief weekend return to the state in 1978 as “crucial for understanding Murray’s experiences in and related to North Carolina” (p. 334). Winner reads the events of one weekend late in Murray’s life as an “index” of civil rights during a single lifetime, including significant setbacks (p. 334).
The authors consider their subjects’ actions and values carefully within the historical context. Elizabeth Gillespie McRae takes on this difficult biographical challenge in “Nell Battle Lewis: The Political Journey of a Liberal White Supremacist.” McRae reveals the tensions entangled in the politics of gender and race during the...