- Women Shaping the South: Creating and Confronting Change
This collection of essays based on papers presented at the Sixth Southern Conference on Women's History provides fresh insights into how women have shaped the course of change in southern communities from the Revolutionary War to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
The first three essays highlight disparate areas in which antebellum women's influence has been overlooked and understudied. Phillip Hamilton's essay describes the importance of women's productive and managerial skills in planter households in Virginia. After the Revolution women supervised plantations while their husbands fulfilled the duties of public office, and their skill at minimizing household expenses enabled rural households to adapt to a more diversified economy after the collapse of the tobacco trade with Great Britain. An essay on Jane C. Washington, who inherited Mount Vernon upon the death of her husband in 1832, looks at her role in shaping both public culture and public history. Jean B. Lee argues that Washington set important precedents in developing practices that would allow public access to the estate while also preserving its historical and structural integrity. Another essay by Yvonne M. Pitts examines the ways in which Kentucky women challenged the gender and racial orders with wills that freed slaves or otherwise privileged blacks over white heirs. State appeals courts tended to uphold such wills because procedural law protected the right of individuals to dispose of their property as they wished. A fourth essay bridges the gap between antebellum and postbellum periods with an analysis of North Carolina women's expressions of disaffection with the Civil War. Jacqueline Glass Campbell provides convincing evidence that the complaints of at least some North Carolina women did not necessarily stem from disloyalty but rather from a concern for distributing the costs of war more equitably, and that Sherman's army only strengthened women's loyalty to the southern cause by providing a Yankee target for their frustrations.
Another group of essays examines women's responses to racism and their role in shaping race relations in the South. Sarah L. Silkey's discussion of Ida B. Wells's British anti-lynching campaigns shows that Wells's success at convincing the British press to condemn the practice put pressure on southern political leaders who feared that bad publicity would discourage outside investment in their states. Several other essays provide important new analyses of interracial cooperation. Clayton McClure Brooks's study of white and black Virginia women concludes that while they had disparate motivations for their activism, they had common goals and a mutual respect that allowed them to effect important reforms in the 1910s. Similarly, a study of interracial cooperation in the St. Louis League of Women Voters in the interwar period also finds that women of both races were able to effectively coordinate their reform efforts. Priscilla Dowden-White claims that it was the league's embrace of a broad social welfare agenda that attracted black women's support even as it alienated white feminists. A similarity of interests and strategies is equally evident in Sarah Mercer-Judson's essay on black and white clubwomen in Atlanta during World War I. Organized women turned the tables on male officials by arguing that [End Page 422] working women needed to be protected from vice rather than being vilified as a threat to soldiers' sexual health. Author Claire Nee Nelson focuses on an individual activist, Louise Thompson Patterson, whose radical politics have been attributed her involvement in the Harlem Renaissance and black communist groups in New York City. Nelson effectively argues that Patterson already had been radicalized by her experiences teaching in the segregated South before she arrived in New York. The volume's final essay asks historians to rethink their approach to studying the civil rights movement. Using emotionally powerful examples of female activism in southwest Georgia, Alisa Y. Harrison makes a case for greater attention to ordinary people and ordinary lives.
This volume is a worthy...