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Reviews in American History 30.1 (2002) 13-21

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South Carolina History Through Women's Eyes

Enrico Dal Lago

Jane H. Pease and William H. Pease. A Family of Women: The Carolina Petigrus in Peace and War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999. 328 pp. Maps, illustration, appendix, notes, bibliographical essay, and index. $29.95.

In A Family of Women, Jane and William Pease set out to narrate the story of three generations of female descendants in the Petigru family, from the 1810s to the 1890s. They detail their rise to prominence in the higher echelons of the South Carolina aristocracy and they follow the demise of their fortunes with the coming of the Civil War, after which the Petigru family's influence and power considerably declined. However, the authors achieve much more than just providing scholars with a detailed reconstruction of the parable of rise and fall of a remarkable southern family. The story of the Petigrus is so much linked to the history of South Carolina that an important feature of the book is the attention to the larger context of the events occurring in the state during the central decades of the nineteenth century. The reader follows these events through the lives of representative elite women who struggled to adapt to changing social conditions as they progressed from poverty to richness and then plunged into poverty again amidst eighty years of momentous shifts in South Carolinian fortunes. 1

Taking issue with the most recent scholarship on gender and family in the antebellum South 2 , Jane and William Pease begin their study by placing the story of the Petigru family in the context of a society dominated by rigid patriarchal rules, according to which elite women's sole purposes in life were marriage with their equal and motherhood. Once married, women became completely dependent on their husbands and were instructed by them about their matrimonial duties as plantation mistresses and mothers. What changed forever this neatly ordained world of social expectations were the Civil War and the prolonged absence of men, which forced many women to become heads of their households and manage plantations and slaves. Taking the story further into the little explored territory of the life of elite women in the postbellum South, Jane and William Pease argue that, even after the war, [End Page 13] "women who had once lived in luxury . . . saw no alternative but to work at whatever task would assure their families' survival," given the fact that men were unable to cope with the social and economic consequences of defeat (p. 4). For some women this situation was hard enough to make them long for their former ladylike dependence, for others--the youngest and the ones in their midlife--it was an occasion to boost their self-confidence and desire for autonomy.

If this is the general background against which the story of the Petigrus takes place, there is little doubt that the authors use the example of this particular family in order to convince the reader of the fundamental soundness of their thesis; the portrait of the Petigru women that comes out of the Peases' book is one with several strong-minded characters who, in spite of their often unconventional behavior, found it difficult to escape the trappings of patriarchal oppression until the coming of the social revolution brought by the Civil War. Even if in the Peases' story men are relegated to the backstage as secondary characters, their influence in shaping the early course of the Petigru women's lives was immense; whether they were fathers, brothers, or husbands, the Petigru men proved through the momentous consequences of their decisions and actions the strength and pervasiveness of the patriarchal system in the antebellum South. This is even more striking when compared to the situation after the Civil War, when the demise of the patriarchal system was such that, in a dramatic reversal of roles, many men--the Petigrus among them--became dependent for survival on their wives and sisters and the women's decisions and actions shaped the...


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