- Women Writers and Journalists in the Nineteenth-Century South
In Women Writers and Journalists in the Nineteenth-Century South, Jonathan Daniel Wells proclaims that his volume is “the first study to examine collectively women journalists and writers in the nineteenth-century South. It offers new perspectives on women and intellectual life in the region, the roots of the southern movement for women’s rights, and sectional distinctiveness” (12). He then carefully displays archival evidence of the participation of southern women across the nineteenth century as creative writers and journalists. He is to be commended for the range of documentation and the excellence of the narrative that he weaves about their productivity, as well as for his account of how these experiences created a rich intellectual context from which we can connect southern women to the evolution of the women’s rights movement. In weaving this story, Wells also does not shy away from the fact that the majority of the women whom he chronicles were white supremacists who were loyal to the Confederacy’s Lost Cause and who generally remained racist after the Civil War and throughout their lifetimes. Indeed, he does a fine job of living up to his general claims—with one quite cautionary tale.
What happens, however, if we ask of Wells, “For whom is your narrative most true?” The striking answer is that this analysis does not, in fact, establish the watermark for the performances of “women” of the South, in [End Page 605] contrast to how such a conclusion about good studies of women’s lives and work may have habitually drifted too quickly toward primacy in the past. Instead, what it does with remarkable care and attention is to document the achievements of southern middle- and upper-class white women (i.e., one quite distinctive group). While this specific strength should not be minimized, it should be contextualized. We should take care not to erroneously overgeneralize this one story as a dramatic stand-in for all southern women’s stories, permitting by default this one well-done volume to function, in effect, as the tape by which other experiences and achievements are interpreted and measured. Wells’s volume is “a” historical narrative of southern women, not “the” narrative. A more richly rendered story that brings into scope the diversity of southern women’s intellectual history and professional performance is yet to be fully documented.
To his credit, Wells seems to recognize this distinction since he references in general scope the accomplishments of a goodly number of southern African American women writers and journalists, acknowledging the number from this race- and gender-oppressed group who dedicated themselves after the Civil War to this profession. Even so, Wells adds names but does not actually broaden his analytical and interpretive framework, which, of course, leaves short a more thorough consideration of the participation and accomplishments of this group. To do justice to southern African American women, Wells would need not only to add names but to enrich the terms of scholarly engagement. While nineteenth-century southern African American women do indeed share some goals with southern middle- and upper-class white women, there are material differences, and those differences do matter.
In other words, for the African American women’s group, Wells’s volume does not (1) take vibrantly into account the intersections of race, class, gender, and material condition in the actual interpretation of actions and achievements; (2) offer much specific analytical attention to the differences in rhetorical exigency, imperatives, or mandates for engaging in public writing activities between the two groups; or (3) take into account this convergence of factors in the formation and enactment of agency, authority, intentions, social and political consequence, or the ways in which such ecological convergences define and shape women’s intellectual lives. To be noted, however, is that these values are not actually the focus of Wells’s study. His volume’s focus, as “a” historical narrative, is centered on southern middle- and upper-class white women.