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BOOK REVIEWS349 onstrating that sound scholarly research can also be "a good read," professional and amateur historians and the general reading public are very much in the author's debt. Davtd E. Meerse New York City Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the Old South. By Elizabeth Fox-Genovese. (Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1988. Pp. xx, 544. $34.95.) There are a good many ways to approach historical problems concerning gender. This one focuses more systematically and with greater clarity than most. It locates two groups of women in a specific social setting and compels us to think about how they maneuvered—how they shaped and were shaped by—rigid lines of both race and class, primarily during the final forty years of the existence of chattel slavery in the United States. The author uses the term household in a way that is crucial to her entire discussion. As distinguished from a home, a family, or a statistical entity, the household is treated as "a basic social unit in which people, whether voluntarily or under compulsion, pool their income and resources " (31). For Southern women, much more than Southern men, this unit was in fact the social world in which they had to operate. As much as slaveholding women were able to enlarge their mental worlds by reading, they were hemmed into the realm of the household. For them, principal social contacts came at the borders when their own household met with others. Slave women were even more circumscribed, though the author is careful to point out exceptional instances where black women successfully broke down the carefully constructed fencing. Even a large-scale study such as this one is itself fenced in by the skewed nature of the written sources produced by the particular society in question. The author is forced to rely very heavily on diaries created by slaveholding women and on the written results of latter-day interviews (as well as a few autobiographies) with former slaves. Her focus of study virtually precludes reliance on such traditional sources for the study of slavery as travelers' accounts and essays "on the management of negroes ." Both these latter groups of sources would have merely confirmed the obvious fact—which the author emphasizes in more compelling ways—that the social system was dominated by men, and that women knew this and, to a large extent, had to define their own gender within and even by the bonds of this dominance. Focusing on the household results in important insights. The author makes plain the contrast between the confining world of slaveholding women and that of white women of the North and western Europe, 350CIVIL WAR HISTORY where the triumph of bourgeois capitalist individualism was having interesting effects on what women were thinking, doing, and being allowed to say. This focus also tends to emphasize the interaction between black and white women as they both found their own definitions of gender shaped by the divisions of class and race. Thus, the author does not greatly emphasize the role of slave women within their own community. Her portrait is less full and detailed for black women than white, if only because for compelling reasons, slave women were not much in the habit of keeping diaries. Obviously, the author's focus does not permit discourse on Southern white women who did not own slaves. The sources themselves drive anyone toward the larger farming units of the South. The complexity and subtlety of the author's analysis is such that any summary here necessarily results in oversimplification. Among her more striking emphases is the reluctant conclusion that white slaveholding women were, if anything, more racially contemptuous toward blacks than white men were. She makes a largely convincing case that most slaveholding women did not really oppose the system of labor from which they so greatly benefited; on this matter, her discussion of Mary Boykin Chesnut is both sparkling and devastating. In general, she takes the view that the war was a major breaking point for slaveholding women of a preponderantly rural society. At one point she makes the intriguing suggestion that "as southern society coalesced, slaveholders and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 349-350
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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