Cynthia A. Kierner. Beyond the Household: Women's Place in the Early South, 1700-1835. Ithaca, N.Y., and London: Cornell University Press, 1998. xii + 295 pp. $55.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8014-3453-2; $23.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8014-8462-9.
Reviewed by Kirsten E. Wood (Department of History, Florida International University)
Published on H-SHEAR (September, 1999)
Beyond the Pedestal: White Southern Women in Public
In this suggestive reinterpretation of the white South's gender ideologies and gender practices, Cynthia Kierner explores the public worlds of white southern women between 1700 and 1835. Kierner argues that white southern women participated in the public sphere in a variety of ways and continued to do so even after the antebellum construction of the passive, subordinate, and wholly dependent "southern lady." In particular, the increasing association of women with the private sphere diminished their contact with legal and economic aspects of the public sphere, while it facilitated new forms of public activity in the realms of sociability and reform. In each chapter, Kierner analyzes changes in both the gender prescriptions that affected the region's white women and the actual patterns of their involvement with the public sphere.
Building on feminist revisions of Habermas, Kierner defines the public sphere "as embracing not only formal political participation but also informal civil and sociable life, the world of letters, certain business and market transactions, and religious and benevolent activities"(2). While broader than Habermas's, Kierner's definition is not so expansive as to include all matters that could reasonably be considered public; it involves "extradomestic ideas or issues," rather than all extradomestic space and activities (2). As a result, women who headed households and participated in the plantation economy, for example, did not necessarily act in the public sphere.
Kierner extends our knowledge of how emerging concepts of class, not just race, formed colonial gender roles. She begins by tracing the economic and demographic changes in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries that slowly limited most white women's access to the public worlds of the marketplace and courthouse. As the southern colonies matured, white women's intersections with legal, political, and economic aspects of the public sphere contracted, bringing colonial gender norms in line with those of Europe. The rise of slavery, meanwhile, divided women by race, elevating white women's status and simultaneously redefining their work and concerns as primarily domestic. At the same time, changes in southern gender ideology strengthened the association of women with the domestic sphere. Contemporary moralists and novelists increasingly "valorized domesticity and women's moral influence in their households, while idealizing the leisured gentility" to which southern elites aspired (26). Ironically, as wealthy southerners practiced domesticity and gentility by embellishing their households, less wealthy southern women found new employment opportunities in the growing retail and service sectors. This emphasis on class--and on the gentry in particular--becomes even more pronounced in the second chapter, where Kierner analyzes the development of an elite public culture in the eighteenth century. Kierner suggests that a genteel feminine public existed alongside the familiar masculine public culture of races, cockfights, and militia musters. Increasingly, the gentry defined itself not solely through masculinity, but also through gentility, a set of attributes and practices which women helped define and manifest. Through balls, teas, and formal dinners, "elite women helped to fortify the public image of their class"; these exclusive but public events manifested the gentry's refined manners, elevated conversation, and wealth, which supposedly justified its political dominance (41). Gentility provided elite women with a new public forum and provided a novel rationale for improving women's education.
Kierner's third chapter covers the revolutionary era. The war politicized all women, but republican ideology strengthened the association of white women with the private sphere and dis- credited the colonial elite public sphere in which gentlewomen had been so prominent. In the early stages of the revolutionary movement, patriots were all but blind to the possibility of female patriotism. Calls for boycotts of imported goods at best indirectly acknowledged that women, white and black, were responsible for most of the domestic manufactures that would replace imports. When the conflict became a military one, all female civilians necessarily became involved in public concerns: they contributed supplies to the army, ran households in the absence of men, encountered hostile military or guerrilla forces, and petitioned the government. While the Revolution itself provided no lasting mandate for women's involvement in the public sphere, it accustomed white women across the socioeconomic spectrum to making do without men, thinking about politics, and assessing their relationship to the new nation.
Like many other historians, Kierner regards the 1790s as a backlash decade, attributing much of the reaction to American horror at the French Revolution's extremism. From her reading of northern periodicals that were widely distributed in the South, Kierner argues that immediately after the Revolution, the public sphere did indeed entertain the idea of a radical expansion of women's roles. During the 1790s, however, "fearful conservatives" insisted that the reassertion of female subordination within patriarchal families was essential to preserving social order (5). This call often included attacks on American women who aspired to political significance, tarring them with the brush of European feminism and libertinism. Moreover, since republicans defined the defense of liberty as the central public function, excluding women from politics effectively rendered them irrelevant to the public. Although women continued to follow politics throughout the 1790s, postrevolutionary republican men rarely acknowledged "women's past patriotism," nor did they imagine women "in future public roles" (103).
Despite this ideological backlash, southern women found other means to stake a claim to public relevance. While republicanism provided at best a weak and temporary platform from which to launch women into the female public sphere, Kierner argues that in the South as in the North, domesticity and evangelicalism served women better. Influenced by evangelicalism, male southerners slowly idealized the home as "the seat of virtue and morality" and equated the blessings of home with the virtues of women. However, Kierner argues that this romantic construction of home and womanhood bore only a limited relationship to reality. First, women did not romanticize marriage and the domestic sphere as men did. For women, the domestic sphere was not only their workplace but also "the scene of both their greatest joys and severest trials." (170). In an agricultural and especially a plantation society, the domestic sphere was also an isolated and lonely one for many white southern women. Second (and somewhat contradictorily), women were not as removed from the public sphere as domestic ideology suggested. For example, advocates of domesticity argued that women needed good educations in order to fulfill their roles as moral instructors to the next generation. Thus, domesticity prompted an expansion both in the number of schools for girls and in the number of female teachers and headmistresses.
Kierner's final chapter expands on the public consequences of domesticity and white women's special claim to virtue in the early republic. As in the North, religion provided "the key loophole through which most white women...entered public life" (181). Urban and rural southern women were prominent in the Sunday school movement, formed organizations to relieve the needy and educate the orphaned, distributed religious tracts and Bibles, and supported both foreign and domestic missionaries. Benevolent women elected their own presidents and boards, raised money, drafted constitutions, and held elections. Those women who compromised their autonomy by associating with male organiza- tions and with the church could reach beyond their usual clients (white women and girls) to populations they could not serve directly, namely free blacks. Despite the apparent radicalism of these all-female and mixed public ventures, Kierner notes that "most men either ignored those activities or accepted them as the natural and even desirable consequences of women's innate compassion and piety"(198). One exception was the temperance movement. Men's temperance organizations solicited female support, but southern women did not have--nor did they apparently seek--"free rein to criticize their fathers and husbands" for drunken- ness and its related sins of impoverishment and tyranny (199). (Widely considered an outgrowth of other northern reforms, temperance in the South declined rapidly in the 1830s after the creation of the American Anti-Slavery Association.) All of these activities mitigated white women's isolation and may have compensated them for the gap between the ideal domestic sphere and their actual households.
Looking ahead into the antebellum decades, Kierner concludes that southern women's reforms continued, albeit under somewhat closer male scrutiny, even as the South became more and more politically self-conscious in the face of northern abolitionist propaganda. Moreover, several competing ideals of southern womanhood offered antebellum white women options beyond the gilded cage and marble pedestal. Kierner illustrates the point by contrasting two sisters, Mary Randolph Randolph and Virginia Randolph Cary. Both sisters turned to writing when they ran into financial difficulties. Kierner argues that Mary Randolph's much-reprinted cookbook valorized women as managers, suggesting that they held the material and moral health of their households in their competent hands. In contrast, Virginia Cary bluntly preached female subordination within the household, opposed advanced women's education, and suggested that good domestic management was "merely a duty a wife owed to her husband"(210). Highly complementary to proslavery ideology, Cary's version of gender relations became dominant in the antebellum years, but Kierner insists that it never eliminated competing ideas nor did the region's white women "always conform to the ideal of submissive dependence"(211). The fact that Virginia Cary was a widow and Mary Randolph a wife suggests that southern women's negotiations of the public and of their prescribed gender roles (including marital status) were still more complex than Kierner demonstrates. As a widow, Cary had a legal persona and distinct public responsibilities unlike those of most wives; lacking a husband to protect or to dominate her, she insisted on women's God-given subordination to their husbands.
Historians of early American letters, culture, and the public sphere should appreciate Kierner's attention to how southerners consumed publications and adopted ideologies usually associated with the North. Kierner's project will also aid northern women's historians, as she demonstrates the relevance of major themes in northern women's history--especially domesticity and reform--to white southern women. Kierner's insistence that southern distinctiveness developed only very slowly may help lessen the marginalization of this important region in early American history, but this very point may give pause to some southern and especially southern women's historians. Kierner uses many prescriptive sources (published and unpublished) and pays comparatively little attention to slaves and slaveholding, which may lead her to understate regional variation, even though her point that the South became self-consciously and oppositionally distinctive only in the nineteenth century is well taken and widely accepted. To be sure, Kierner makes a convincing case that white, elite southerners shared in the domestic and evangelical culture that eventually mandated a new public role as moral reformers for middle- and upper-class white women. She also presents ample evidence from their letters that these southern men idealized the home as women's sphere. However, southern men's epistolary romanticization of home and womanhood does not preclude the possibility that daily life within southern households reflected a more narrowly patriarchal vision of gender relations, rooted in slavery. Numerous historians have argued that the antebellum white southerner's household was very much man's castle and not woman's sphere. Moreover, Kathleen Brown has suggested that domesticity may have enhanced white men's power within the household by "categorizing wifely opposition as deviant and unloving," and not merely as disobedient. Kierner's own evidence confirms that women's claims to moral influence did not threaten patriarchy either within or beyond the household. In the future, new studies that take domesticity and women's public roles seriously while also examining the power dynamics of individual households may help illuminate the relationship between public and private articulations of gendered power in and beyond the slaveholding South.
The proliferation of new (and forthcoming) books, articles, and conference papers concerning southern women, the public, reform, and the economy confirms the importance and the timeliness of Kierner's study. In none of its forms between the colonial and the antebellum period did southern patriarchy confine white women to one gender role or one 'sphere' of influence. Instead, white southern women navigated multiple and sometimes competing gender ideologies, several of which accorded them considerable status--at least in theory--inside and outside their own households and families. Of course, variety is by no means the same thing as autonomy, and what autonomy southern women found was carefully circumscribed. Moreover, Kierner agrees with other historians that the patriarchalism of the early South increased over time. For elite white women, however, this rigidification was not absolute nor without its compensations; attention to their changing relationship to the public sphere illuminates how they continued to participate in and benefit from the interlinked systems of patriarchy and slavery.
. Female tavern keepers whose places of business were also venues for discussing public matters were involved in the public sphere, according to Kierner. Early colonial women who administered large estates or intervened in politics were also involved in the public, but it is not clear that all women who headed households, executed estates, and transacted in the marketplace are included in Kierner's definition of the public sphere.
. In her 1998 study of Virginia women, Elizabeth Varon finds evidence of female involvement not just in benevolent reform but in more explicitly political arenas such as the colonization movement and Whig partisanship. Elizabeth R. Varon, We Mean to be Counted: White Women and Politics in Antebellum Virginia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998).
. Kierner argues that southern temperance revived in the 1840s and 1850s due to the Washingtonians, whose secularism and working-class focus seemed to pose little threat to elite men or to the social order more generally (202).
. Kathleen Brown, Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996), p. 340 and chapter 10 generally. For historians who generally agree on the exclusion of most white southern women from licit involvement with the public sphere in the South, see for example Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women in the Old South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988); Stephanie McCurry, Masters of Small Worlds: Yeoman Household, Gender Relations, and the Political Culture of the Antebellum South Carolina Low Country (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995); Victoria Bynum, Unruly Women: The Politics of Social and Sexual Control in the Old South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992). Suzanne Lebsock, Free Women of Petersburg: Status and Culture in a Southern Town, 1784-1860 (New York: Norton, 1984) finds evidence both of companionate ideals of marriage and of women's involvement in reform in early nineteenth-century Petersburg. For recent works that find domesticity influential in white southern families or argue for the existence of a national, rather than regional, elite culture, see for example Marli F. Weiner, Mistresses and Slaves: Plantation Women in South Carolina, 1830-1880 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998); Daniel P. Kilbride, "Cultivation, Conservatism, and the Early National Gentry: The Manigault Family and their Circle," Journal of the Early Republic 19:3 (Summer 1999).
. See for example, Catherine Clinton and Michele Gillespie, The Devil's Lane: Race and Sex in the Early South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996); Varon, We Mean to Be Counted; Lisa Tolbert, Constructing Townscapes: Space and Society in Antebellum Tennessee (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999).
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Kirsten E. Wood. Review of Kierner, Cynthia A., Beyond the Household: Women's Place in the Early South, 1700-1835.
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