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Reviewed by:
  • Scarlett's Sisters: Young Women in the Old South
  • Katy Simpson Smith (bio)
Scarlett's Sisters Young Women in the Old South. By Anya Jabour University of North Carolina Press 384 pp. Cloth, $39.95

As a regional phenomenon, southern girlhood is as culturally resonant as it is understudied. From the myths surrounding Virginia Dare to the surreal pageantry of modern debutantes, the South has shaped its young women in its own ritualistic image. In her lovingly written new book, Anya Jabour dives into the experiences [End Page 96] of elite young white women in the antebellum South to suggest that these girls enjoyed some social manipulations of their own. Adding age to the historical foci of gender, class, and race, Jabour argues that the experiences of young white women in the nineteenth-century South were as much dependent on the possibilities of adolescence as on whiteness or femininity. Through letters, diaries, photographs, and report cards, Jabour presents a compelling group of women who took advantage of their girlhood years to postpone the inevitable descent into marriage and motherhood. Girls themselves are at the heart of this story, and their precocity and insight into southern society easily carry Jabour's straightforward argument. This book is hardly an exercise in antiquarianism. Jabour's analysis of these young ladies' "dissident subculture" calls to mind punk rockers as much as belles in hoop-skirts. Rather than wielding electric guitars, these elite young women consciously extended the process of growing up, staving off marital submission by forming homosocial bonds, valorizing education, and sanctifying singleness.

Scarlett's Sisters moves chronologically through women's early lives, from adolescence through courtship, engagement, and marriage, and concluding in motherhood, when Jabour argues that female resistance was effectively ended. Scholars of motherhood will certainly challenge this assertion (we all like to envision our particular subjects as patriarchal gatecrashers), but Jabour at least extends her analysis of girlhood beyond marriage, which has also been a problematic terminus. Jabour's most fascinating chapter presents female schooling as the apex of the emotional resistance of young women to the expectations of a southern patriarchy. In these boarding schools and female academies from Delaware to Texas, students constructed female enclaves of mutual support and social irreverence, falling in love with roommates instead of gentlemen callers and idolizing female teachers in place of fathers. It is in these early chapters filled with hope and daring that we find young women pursuing intellectual independence and playfully imagining idyllic communes for old maids. To these girls, Cupid was a "positively disagreeable creature," and true love was only conceived among female deskmates and bedfellows. Jabour's young women inevitably grow up, however, and suppress their idealism in the face of the patriarchal institutions that defined nineteenth-century womanhood.

After Jabour compiles the weight of marriage, housekeeping, and—the final blow—motherhood, she concludes with a chapter on the Civil War's implications for young women. Here we see resistance evolve into rebellion and recalcitrant maidens become full-blown "She Rebels." Entering into the debate about women's complicity in postbellum white supremacy, Jabour argues that the distance between Scarlett-as-feminist and Scarlett-as-supremacist can be bridged by the brazen idealism of young women who used their age as an excuse for disobedience. Though such an argument is intriguing and presents valid challenges to our understanding of nineteenth-century femininity, Jabour fails to follow through [End Page 97] on her historical claim. If the war presented such radical possibilities for young proto-feminists, how can one reconcile the raw optimism of Jabour's rebel ladies with the restrictive re-feminization of Victorian girlhood? By leaving the post-bellum years unexamined, Jabour's hypothesis of young women's penchant for progressivism remains untested. Thus, while Scarlett's Sisters succeeds in painting a captivating portrait of the subtle resistance of southern girls to gendered expectations before the war, Jabour's analysis of the Civil War is a precarious addendum to an otherwise compelling narrative of continuity.

Anya Jabour shines most in her gift for listening. This is not a book in which theory swamps narrative or analysis silences sources. Rather, by following the thread of events...


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pp. 96-98
Launched on MUSE
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