- Arkansas Women: Their Lives and Times ed. by Cherisse Jones-Branch and Gary T. Edwards
This installment in the University of Georgia Press series Southern Women: Their Lives and Times chronicles women whose "long-term presence in Arkansas has informed the contours of gender history and women's history in the state" (p. 3). Some of these women remained in the state their entire lives, while others went on to other parts of the nation and the world. Some are very well known, while the public memory of others has faded since their passing.
Arkansas Women: Their Lives and Times contains fifteen biographical essays chronicling "women's experiences across time and space" that are "both racially and geographically diverse" (p. 1). The editors intend for the volume to "provid[e] a multidimensional focus on women, many of whose stories have not been told, with a particular appreciation of how gender and race informed and nuanced the times in which they lived" (p. 1). Editors Cherisse Jones-Branch and Gary T. Edwards argue that "[t]he literature about women in Arkansas has grown very slowly since the 1980s," which is surprising, as Arkansas history is ripe with female firsts, many of which are explored in this volume (p. 2). As the editors note, Arkansas was the first state to grant (white) women the right to vote in primary elections in 1917, which Sarah Wilkerson Freeman calls suffragists' "first victory in the South" (p. 112). It was the second southern state to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment. Arkansas elected the first southern woman to the U.S. House of Representatives and the first female senator in the nation, Hattie Wyatt Caraway. The authors argue for the importance of their own biographical subjects while also arguing for an expansion of Arkansas's historiography to include diverse groups of women.
The volume is organized both chronologically and thematically. The first four chapters concern women on the Arkansas frontier, including indigenous and enslaved women. Sonia Toudji's piece on indigenous women and Kelly Houston Jones's piece on enslaved women in Arkansas are of particular note. Building on the work of Jennifer L. Morgan, Toudji argues that women's reproductive labor was critical to the survival of the colony and that both the colonial and the French [End Page 676] governments understood this fact, which affected their policies regarding intermarriage between French men and indigenous women. Jones reconstructs the lives of enslaved women who were forced to move west, including a surprising amount of communication with enslaved communities back east. She argues that white expectations of enslaved women to perform backbreaking labor alongside enslaved men "blurred the boundaries of gender" (p. 32).
The next section is the largest, with six chapters concerning Arkansas women "who were change agents in their communities" in the twentieth century, focusing on their political, social, and cultural activism (p. 4). Freeman's chapter on Senator Hattie Caraway and Elizabeth Jacoway's chapter on civil rights activist and mentor for the Little Rock Nine, Daisy Lee Gatson Bates, are exceptionally interesting. Freeman argues that Caraway's story demonstrates "how southern populist and progressive agendas … prepared the ground for liberal and feminist social and political reforms while simultaneously perpetuating racial injustice and white supremacy," a process that will be all too familiar for historians of women and gender in the South (p. 109). Jacoway demonstrates Bates's skill at "public relations" amid the incredibly violent resistance to integration, as well as Bates's efforts to mentor and counsel the Little Rock Nine on how to survive the bullying and physical assaults they faced once in classes (p. 202).
The final section contains five chapters devoted to "Arkansas 'firsts,'" though some of the earlier chapters could easily fit here as well. While the authors could have focused on any number of female pioneers in Arkansas history, they choose to shine a spotlight...