Christie Anne Farnham, ed. Women of the American South: A Multicultural Reader. New York: New York University Press, 1998. x + 319 pp. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8147-2654-9.
Reviewed by Jeanette Keith (Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania)
Published on H-SAWH (August, 1998)
Unequal Sisters of the South
In Women of the American South, Christie Anne Farnham and her contributors have created a welcome addition to a growing literature on women in the South. Adopting a consciously multicultural strategy, Farnham has chosen essays on Native American women, women of color, women in religious communities, Appalachian women, feminists, and conservatives. For each essay, Farnham provides narrative introductions placing the essay's topic in the context of the nation's history. This technique makes this book exceptionally well adapted to classroom use. Taken cumulatively, the essays shatter the "southern woman as elite white lady" paradigm that has so long dominated work in southern women's history.
Like Unequal Sisters, the multicultural reader on U.S. women's history compiled by Vicki Ruis and Ellen DuBois, this reader contains essays, all but one previously unpublished, that vary from outstanding to mediocre with an occasional side excursion into the obscure. Since this reader seems designed for undergraduates or the general reader, I will first discuss readings that should work well in the classroom.
Of the two essays that deal with Native Americans, the stronger is "From Corn Mothers to Cotton Spinner: Continuity in Choctaw Women's Economic Life, A.D. 950-1830," by James Taylor Carson, which looks at women's work among the Choctaw. Although short, the essay is crammed with the kind of insight about gender roles that undergraduates find fascinating. As their nation's farmers, Choctaw women opposed Indian removal in the 1830s, attending councils to denounce proposals to give up the land. Although their efforts failed, Carson notes that Choctaw women maintained traditional gender roles while adapting to new crops and methods of production.
Two essays discuss poor women and their relationship with agencies of benevolence. The first essay is about poor women in Georgia in the early national period, while the second describes the treatment of poor women by the New Deal's work relief programs. The two essays make an effective contrast, but both point out how much social attitudes toward the poor depended on elite concepts of proper gender roles. Timothy J. Lockley's essay, "A Struggle for Survival: Non-elite White Women in Lowcountry Georgia, 1790-1830," is based primarily upon the records of charitable institutions in Savannah. As Lockley notes, elite white women in Savannah and in other Georgia towns funded "female asylums" as a means of rescuing poor white girls from life on the city streets and instructing them in the behavior proper to their station. This essay highlights conditions among the South's urban poor; Lockley could have titled it "Down and Out and Female in Savannah." The second essay, "A New Deal for Southern Women: Gender and Race in Women's Work Relief," by Martha Swain, is a solidly researched and well-written outline of New Deal policy toward women and work relief. Like Lockley, Swain notes that elite concepts of proper women's work determined how women were employed in New Deal work projects. Administrators insisted that women could not do the heavy work done by men, and therefore should not draw the same pay as men. In vain, women administrators pointed out that many poor women in the South did field labor like men and often lacked domestic skills like sewing. Swain also notes that New Deal administrators channeled African Americans into classes designed to improve their performance as servants, or simply denied them their fair share of aid. Despite all this, Swain concludes that New Deal work relief saved southern families and communities.
Elite women in the Old South, the Civil War, and the New South are the focus of essays by Joan E. Cashin, Nina Silber, and LeeAnn Whites. Cashin discusses inheritance customs among Southern planters in "According to his Wish and Desire: Female Kin and Female Slaves in Planter Wills." Silber describes the construction of "The Northern Myth of the Rebel Girl." In "'Stand by Your Man': The Ladies Memorial Association and the Reconstruction of Southern White Manhood," LeeAnn Whites points out that the Ladies Memorial Association, formed to create memorials to the Confederate dead, was for many years the largest women's group in the South. Participation in the group, Whites argues, "empowered" elite women by introducing them to public life. The cult of the Lost Cause also allowed women to facilitate the reconstruction of southern manhood. Women offered public deference to defeated white men and encouraged them in their attempts to re-establish white supremacy. Whites points out that some of the roots of female Progressivism in the South can be traced to the Memorial Association, which sponsored asylums for the widows of the Confederacy and schools for their orphans.
Four of the book's seventeen essays deal with aspects of African-American history in the South. The first, "Susannah and the Elders or Potiphar's Wife? Allegations of Sexual Misconduct at Booker T. Washington's Tuskegee Institute," by Adele Logan Alexander, describes a sex scandal that resulted in the expulsion of a female student and the firing of a male professor at Tuskegee in 1907. Audrey Thomas McCluskey's essay, "'Most Sacrificing' Service: The Educational Leadership of Lucy Craft Laney and Mary McLeod Bethune," finds similar "beliefs and values" (p. 191) in the educational work of Laney, who founded Haines Institute in Augusta, and Bethune, who moved from being an education administrator in the South to working for the New Deal in the 1930s. McCluskey's essay provides brief biographies of both women, highlighting their attitudes toward education for black women. Darlene Clark Hine and Christie Anne Farnham discuss black women's problematic relationship with the white suffrage movement in "Black Women's Culture of Resistance and the Right to Vote." Realizing that "the hopes of bridging the rift between black and white women [had] vanished" (p. 215), black women activists emerged from the struggle for suffrage as committed "race women" who paved the way for black women's pivotal role in the Civil Rights Movement. Barbara Bair's "Renegotiating Liberty: Garveyism, Women, and Grassroots Organizing in Virginia," illuminates a lesser-known aspect of black southern history, the widespread influence of Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) among black women in Virginia.
The two essays on religion seem less likely to "teach well." Johanna Miller Lewis's "Equality Deferred, Opportunity Pursued: The Sisters of Wachovia," describes the role of single women in Moravian colonies in North Carolina. While well-written and interesting, the essay has only a geographical connection with the history of the South. Similarly, Jean E. Friedman's "The Politics of Pedagogy and Judaism in the Early Republican South: The Case of Rachel and Eliza Mordecai," describes a pedagogical experiment undertaken by the elder sister in a family of Jewish educators in Warrington, North Carolina. Rachel Mordecai's attempts to teach her little sister according to Enlightenment principles are interesting, but by all evidence could have taken place in Philadelphia, New York or London; Friedman's essay focuses tightly on the relationship between the sisters in the home and makes minimal mention of the Mordecai family's relationship to the community in which they ran a famous school for young women.
Among the most disappointing essays in the book are those by Margaret Ripley Wolfe and Pippa Holloway. Wolfe's "Waiting for the Millennium, Remembering the Past: Appalachian Women in Time and Place," has no clear focus, jumping from stereotypes about mountain women to a list of prominent Appalachian entertainers and writers (including Nikki Giovanni, who happens to be from Knoxville, but who surely would be surprised to find herself in the same category as Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton and Patsy Cline) before outlining a brief history of the region with an emphasis on women. Pippa Holloway's "Searching for Southern Lesbian History" does not find any, but does indicates places where an interested scholar might go look.
This book will be most useful for those of us who teach women's history and Southern history. None of the essays included here break new ground or advance new hypotheses of the sort that remake research fields, and all are accessible to undergraduates. Considering this collection as a teacher, however, I would have liked more essays on the post-World War II South. Jane Sherron DeHart's "Second Wave Feminism(s) and the South: The Difference that Differences Make," will introduce students to southern feminists and anti-feminists and the battle for the Equal Rights Amendment; well and good. But I wish Farnham had found a place for something on the Civil Rights Movement, a topic that would seem a natural for a multicultural reader.
My final criticism has to do with the definition of multicultural. Farnham's selection indicates that "multicultural" in a southern context is primarily a matter of color. There are essays here on red, black, and white women. However, multicultural should also encompass cultural differences deriving from class. In this book, where are the poor folks? With the exception of two articles that treat poor women as objects of benevolence, neither poor whites nor poor blacks are represented here. To enhance this reader's "teachability," should not rural women (the majority in the South until after World War II) be included? Women farmers and sharecroppers? Textile workers and domestics? Given the plethora of work on these topics, it is hard to believe that essays were not available. The current selections will give students little insight into the poverty that dominated southern life until very recently, and leave the impression that the region was as middle class as the suburbs of present-day Atlanta.
All caveats aside, Farnham and New York University Press are to be applauded for this collection. We can only hope that the study of southern women will continue to be enriched by such efforts to widen the focus, incorporate new and diverse research topics, and chip away at the dominating paradigm of the "southern lady."
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Jeanette Keith. Review of Farnham, Christie Anne, ed., Women of the American South: A Multicultural Reader.
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