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  • Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household
  • Frank Towers
Thavolia Glymph , Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household (New York: Cambridge University Press 2008)

In this important book, Thavolia Glymph reconceptualizes the history of women and slavery and debunks the [End Page 263] notion that former slaves sought to emulate the domestic ideals of white America. In place of this explanation, Glymph argues that freedwomen sought a separate selfhood that kept them apart from white women and the Victorian gender conventions that served white supremacy.

Key to Glymph's argument is her focus on "relations of power between women, and contests over that power." (235) In the context of the nineteenth century US South, such a focus puts slavery at the centre of the story. This shift may seem uncontroversial, but Glymph convincingly shows that white women's roles as slave-holders and enslaved black women's fight against their white mistresses have been neglected by scholars. While recognizing white slaveholding women's privileges, historians have nonetheless treated planter women as "suffering under the weight of the same patriarchal authority to which slaves were subjected." (23) To advance these claims, historians have deployed the concept of paternalism - an ideology of the family that extols the benign authority of fathers over women, children, and, in the antebellum South, slaves. Glymph argues that such interpretations, which posit a solidarity between black and white women based on the gendered structure of power, "rest ultimately on uncritical acceptance of a huge assumption: that a gentle and noble white womanhood had once existed in fact, together with a cult of domesticity to which enslaved and free women mutually ascribed." (135)

To combat this outlook Glymph looks beyond slaveholding women's self-justifying narratives to consider how "mistresses' violence against slaves provides a useful lens through which to examine their feelings about slaveholding." (25) Rather than treating violence as an exception to slaveholding women's conduct, Glymph asserts that "physical punishment seems to have occurred much more frequently between mistresses and slaves than between masters and slaves." (36) White women regarded physical abuse as an essential tool for extracting labour from enslaved women. Instead of the proslavery ideal of paternal harmony, Glymph says that "A kind of warring intimacy characterized many of the conflicts between mistresses and slave women in the household." (37)

Foregrounding slavery in southern women's history also informs Glymph's challenge to portrayals of the Civil War as a crisis in gender relations. These accounts treat "the difficulties mistresses faced ... as a symptom of their general inexperience in managing slaves ... and as a product of gendered rules of conduct."(122) For Glymph the wartime stresses on Confederate women focused on their "status as slaveholder, not simply on their predicament as helpless females," and slaves' "resistance to white women derived from a hatred of their position as slaveholders ..." (122-23) In this outlook, women slaves' wartime resistance to household mistresses was identical to male bondsmen's fight against the same slaveholders in the fields. In both cases, slaves exploited the war's "unprecedented opportunities for resistance to the notion of 'one family, black and white' with mistresses as the matriarchal heads." (132)

In discussing black women's resistance to slavery, Glymph highlights their quest for "dignity ... displayed in their preparations for death, in their attempts to maintain love relationships and protect their children, and in their day-to-day struggles to restructure and lessen their workloads." (91) Pursuing dignity was inseparable from struggles for the vote, civil rights, and land that have been the main focus of Reconstruction historiography. Although sometimes hard to see in the latter conflicts, the agency of black women is more visible in their daily defiance of white women's demands for obedience to the norms of southern domesticity. [End Page 264]

After emancipation black women aspired to establish "black homes" apart from former mistresses and to dismantle the domestic ideals that had oppressed them under slavery. Glymph shows how actions that might be viewed as proof of African-American women's aspirations to Victorian domestic ideals such as staging teas, wearing fine dresses, and attending formal...


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pp. 263-266
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