- On Her Own Terms
Central to the five books discussed in this review essay are questions of agency and self-preservation. How do people initiate change? How do they marshal and distribute scarce resources to survive oppressive social institutions and exploitative labor systems? And, how do individuals construct psychological fronts and redoubts to fend off regular assaults against their self-concepts and bodies without losing essential elements of their humanity and identity? In insightful and creative ways, these five works on women’s history address these kinds of questions.
The studies of Marli F. Weiner and Leslie A. Schwalm excavate the nineteenth-century experiences of African-American women in South Carolina. The former assays the often tumultuous, but sometimes cooperative, relationships that emerged between slave women and their white mistresses; the latter is concerned with the ways black freedwomen fashioned freedom from the ashes of civil war. Chris Dixon’s book on abolitionist marriages takes the reader northward, illustrating how men and women engaged in the fight against human bondage crafted new values and coopted old ones to sculpt a public face for the antislavery movement, while at the same time projecting these beliefs into the recesses of their private lives and relationships. Judith Weisenfeld, in her discussion [End Page 176] of the African-American Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) in New York City, delineates how women’s lives and aspirations intersected with Christian missionary impulses, class cleavages, racialized gender conflict and cooperation, and the burgeoning Great Migration. Finally, Claire C. Robertson reveals how women, especially Kikuyu and Kamba bean traders, in Kenya have tried to repossess their bodies and labors in the face of patriarchal, market, colonial, and neocolonial forces, which, individually and cumulatively, have operated to deprive them of economic security, social autonomy, and personal fulfillment.
Marli Weiner’s book, Mistresses and Slaves, is anchored on the assertion that gender and race, as opposed to region, class, and religion, were the most important determinants of life experiences among antebellum southerners. With regard to female slaveholders and bondswomen, gender and racial ideologies which rationalized slavery and female subordination to male authority generally had conservative impacts on daily life—that is, they did not challenge the patriarchal, racist character of slave ownership. Nonetheless, there was room for common ground between white women and their black servants, secured by their kindred experiences as women. According to Weiner, this shared terrain had radically subversive ramifications, for it could be outside the boundaries of racial conventions that encouraged white mistresses to see African-American slave women as their property, not as individuals.
In early chapters, Weiner describes the labors of slave women and plantation mistresses. African-American girls were socialized into slavery and gender roles by performing gender-based work, such as cooking, cleaning, sewing, and laundry. Cross training was common among domestic workers, and many women learned to do most, if not all, of the tasks others performed. Domestic work sometimes was preferable to field labor, especially in the event that it was not too burdensome. However, domestic labor was closely supervised by white women, many of whom loaned domestics to relatives, reassigned them...