Angela Boswell. Her Act and Deed: Women's Lives in a Rural Southern County, 1837-1873. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2001. xii + 224 pp. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-58544-128-0.
Reviewed by Kelly McMichael Stott (Department of History, Texas Christian University)
Published on H-SAWH (August, 2002)
Rural Texas Women's Lives: Reality or Ideal?
Rural Texas Women's Lives: Reality or Ideal?
Angela Boswell's Her Act and Deed is the third book in the Sam Rayburn Series on Rural Life and the first to deal exclusively with women. The work focuses on the diverse group of women who lived in one Texas county, located sixty miles north of the Gulf of Mexico and northwest of Houston. Named for the river that bisects it, Colorado County traditionally had a mix of Anglos, Germans, and African Americans. While Boswell correctly claims that the women who lived in the county were not typical of the South or even of Texas, she does assert that Colorado County represented in microcosm the significant phases through which all southern states passed in the nineteenth century: frontier, antebellum, Civil War, and Reconstruction.
Boswell's book does an excellent job of synthesizing some of the major works about southern women's history while asserting a few original theories as well. Extremely readable, the text is largely devoid of academic jargon and is accessible to both scholars and general readers who are interested in women's studies and life in rural Texas. Tracing women's agency over distinct time periods, Boswell illustrates the nature of women's lives by examining the differences between women's gender ideals and the realities they encountered in their lives.
Surprisingly, Boswell explains that whether Anglo, German, or African American, the women who lived in Colorado County embraced their lives through many of the same ideals, such as a belief in the gendered nature of women. They strove to overcome the obstacles--from frontier hardships to the bonds of slavery--that prevented them from reaching these ideals. Boswell argues that the book is "as much about how southern ideals regarding women took root and pervaded Colorado County's society and laws ... as it is about how these southern laws and ideals affected the choices and realities of women of all races, ethnicities, and classes" (p. 10).
Boswell chose to focus on Colorado County because of the large volume of county records and newspapers available, a rarity for the time period. The amount of material covered in the book quickly becomes apparent. Her Act and Deed is based on extensive research into every extant public record available in the county over a thirty-five-year period. Each of Boswell's arguments is supported by numerous examples. The combination of Spanish legal heritage, Deep South immigration, German influx, and slavery provides an interesting background when viewed through deeds, wills, and divorce decrees. Such is the evidence that Boswell uses to illustrate the public and private lives of Colorado County's nineteenth-century women.
Boswell has divided Her Act and Deed into four parts covering four distinct time periods (frontier, antebellum, Civil War, and Reconstruction), although she consistently makes comparisons between the periods. The introduction provides a historiography of southern women's history but concentrates solely on writings dealing with elite white women. This is disappointing, given that Boswell goes to such great lengths throughout the rest of the book to discuss the lives of black and German women, in addition to Anglos. The introduction would have been more effective if reworked to complement the book's emphasis on the larger female population of Colorado County.
With the first chapter, Boswell looks at Anglo and German women's use of Texas's married women's property law, which allowed married women in the state to hold property separate from their husbands and guaranteed them a share of the communal property (unlike the common law practiced in most of the other states). Asserting that she agrees with the generally accepted interpretation that the Texas law supported creditors' rights, allowing families to hold property in wives' names, and did not give married women greater legal rights, Boswell provides significant evidence to the contrary. She reveals that there were some married women who conducted business without their husbands and who were treated as if they were single women. The chapters on the frontier are marked by this contradictory argument, and, in the end, Boswell claims that the laws were "expanded to align better with the social and economic realities of frontier life" (p. 30). A more closely drawn argument, I think, would reveal that although the laws were not enacted by Texas's legislature to grant greater rights to women, they did, in practice, recognize the needs of wives to act in the public arena when their husbands were absent or delinquent in their duties.
Semantics aside, the chapters regarding the frontier period are compelling, especially the statistical details of family size and make-up. Boswell's research into divorces and wills reveals particularly useful insights into the nature of marriage on the frontier and the expectations of women and men (Anglo and German) in a harsh subsistence setting. Boswell allows that frontier women tended to be quite self-sufficient, much more so than they became just a few years later.
The second portion of the book looks at the antebellum period in Colorado County, when a larger population and improved economic conditions meant greater choices for white women. Oddly, Boswell concludes, women who had shown a surprising degree of autonomy during the frontier period eagerly moved out of the public realm and embraced the ideals of domesticity and dependency associated with the ideology of separate spheres. It was not that these women did not understand how business worked, Boswell argues, but that when freed from the need to engage in transactions, most of the women in the county preferred to allow men to handle business arrangements and administer wills. In the same light, Boswell's research into divorce during the period reveals that an easier lifestyle had changed the nature of women's expectations of marriage. During the frontier period, women had sued for divorce based on financial reasons (mainly abandonment), but by the antebellum years, Colorado County's Anglo and German women were demanding more companionate marriages--a luxury only possible because of the better conditions, including an increase in slave labor in the county.
The frontier section introduces the slave women who resided in Colorado County and illustrates the lack of choices available in their lives--enslavement, forced work, miscegenation, and separation from the male slaves in their lives and their children. By the 1850s, white women in the county were choosing to focus on domestic work. Slave women had no such option; they were expected to perform both house and field work. Interestingly, this chapter reveals that while, on the whole, Germans were against slavery, many Germans in Colorado County held slaves, particularly female slaves, but perhaps had a different attitude about the institution than did their Anglo counterparts. Boswell suggests that German women sought to "replicate their elitist notions from their home country" and hire domestic servants but could not find white women in America who would do such work (p. 83).
With the coming of the Civil War, Colorado County's white women were forced once again onto the public scene. By 1863 most of the local men had volunteered or been drafted into the Confederate forces, and the women were left to carry on their families' farms and conduct their husbands' businesses. Married women engaged in various kinds of contracts during the war years, and creditors neither questioned their rights nor their abilities. Essentially, these women took on the public roles that men had held before the war, a transition that many husbands expected their wives to make. Although men initially guided many of these women through letters, the increasing demands of soldiering left these women to their own devices. Most met the challenge and proved that, like their mothers before them during the frontier period, they could effectively handle all types of business and legal matters.
Although several historians have suggested that factors (mainly the absence of men) originating in the Civil War and continuing with the disruption of the Reconstruction period fostered greater opportunities for women, Boswell fine-tunes this argument and asserts that only slave women enjoyed an expansion in their legal rights (because they were freed and declared citizens). Most of the women in south Texas did become more economically active as a result of the war, although they tended to be employed in work traditionally associated with their sex, such as teaching, doing laundry, and running boardinghouses. Once again, Boswell finds that Colorado County's women tried to fulfill their ideal of womanhood and let the legal independence they had asserted during the war fade in deference to the men in their families. Boswell argues effectively that freedwomen embraced these same gendered notions of a woman's place in society and worked even harder than did Anglo and German women to assert the values of domesticity and dependence.
Angela Boswell's first book, Her Act and Deed, is a fine example of the excellent scholarship currently being published about Texas women. Though narrow in scope, Boswell's work marks an excellent starting point for other scholars to follow. Do the trends found in one Texas County hold true for other regions in Texas and for other ethnic groups in Texas's population? Did women in other southern states seek similar ideals of womanhood despite the realities of their lives? What about women in western states (as there is some argument that Texas was always more western than southern)?
Other scholars have already begun to replicate Boswell's close analysis of life in one county. For example, excellent work is being done by Francelle Pruitt, who is exploring divorce in Washington and Harrison counties (in the northeastern section of the state) between the 1840s and 1880s. Angela Boswell's findings are compelling and well-argued. Her Act and Deed adds significantly to our understanding of life on the Texas frontier and illustrates the staying power of gender ideals in the face of very different realities.
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Kelly McMichael Stott. Review of Boswell, Angela, Her Act and Deed: Women's Lives in a Rural Southern County, 1837-1873.
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