- Women Writers and Journalists in the Nineteenth-Century South by Jonathan Daniel Wells
Jonathan Wells’s Women Writers and Journalists in the Nineteenth-Century South builds on the work of other historians to show that women writers made significant contributions to Southern intellectual life over the course of that century. While scholars Nina Baym and Michael O’Brien have focused on how women from this region made their contributions through novels, Wells illustrates how Southern women contributed to intellectual life as reporters, editors, and mangers of publications. Further, Wells argues that through these contributions, Southern women writers laid the foundation for achieving the right of suffrage because it acclimated Americans to the idea of women working in traditionally male professions (12).
Wells is at his best when he describes how women challenged traditional gender roles. Professional historians and lay readers alike will benefit from the sheer number of publications [End Page 87] Wells features and his description of women’s experiences in writing, producing, marketing, and distributing them. Perhaps one of the most interesting accounts Wells presents is of women writers engaging notable members of the planter elite, such as Thomas Dew, on whether women possessed the capacity to think and write on an equal level as men (21-23). He notes that necessity, sometimes caused by the death of a husband, often was the catalyst that allowed women to move in and take up traditionally male tasks (95). His detailed accounts of women writers moving into the business and managerial side of publishing illustrates how Southern women took important intermediary steps that made granting the right of suffrage to women acceptable to the larger American population.
Wells offers valuable insight on the question of why the South, a region typically associated with conservative ideals, accepted women participating in these traditionally male activities. First, he features a more complex picture of the South than earlier studies have offered. Wells notes that the South had a vibrant middle class which supported some form of education, making it a region where women’s literary culture could flourish. His description of the literary activity and the involvement of women in that culture conveys to readers that there existed an alternative female model to the plantation mistress. Wells also contends that Southern women writers rarely featured essays that challenged the system of slavery before the Civil War or racial segregation after it. Although few African American writers participated in journal writing before the Civil War, Wells demonstrates that many black women became active writers after the conflict. They often highlighted instances of segregation, lynching, and the relegation of African Americans to second class citizenship. He notes that this, unfortunately, produced little interracial cooperation between white and black women. In doing so, Wells offers a reason why Southern society was accepting of women writers.
Wells’s book highlights the process Southern women played on the march to the franchise, but his study reveals less about what Southern periodicals say about Southern identity or the nature of a distinct Southern culture. To be fair, Wells never makes unearthing a Southern identity in these publications his main focus. However, the question of whether such an identity really existed is still unavoidable and must be addressed since he examines a region whose defense of its identity is intertwined with social and political conflicts that have bedeviled the Unites States since its founding. For example, postbellum supporters [End Page 88] of the Confederacy invoked notions of a distinct Southern identity to resist integration of schools and the federal government’s role in enforcing civil rights laws. In contrast, historian Ann Marshall makes more of a point of this identity construction in Creating Confederate Kentucky: The Lost Cause and Civil War Memory in a Border State (2010).
There are other shortcomings of note. Wells neglects to consider if women in different parts of the South might have approached writing activities differently or with different levels of intensity. For example, did Kentucky women contribute more to the South...