Masterful Women: Slaveholding Widows from the American Revolution through the Civil War / Edition 1

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Many early-nineteenth-century slaveholders considered themselves "masters" not only over slaves, but also over the institutions of marriage and family. According to many historians, the privilege of mastery was reserved for white males. But as many as one in ten slaveholders—sometimes more—was a widow, and as Kirsten E. Wood demonstrates, slaveholding widows between the American Revolution and the Civil War developed their own version of mastery.

Because their husbands' wills and dower law often gave women authority over entire households, widowhood expanded both their domestic mandate and their public profile. They wielded direct power not only over slaves and children but also over white men—particularly sons, overseers, and debtors. After the Revolution, southern white men frequently regarded powerful widows as direct threats to their manhood and thus to the social order. By the antebellum decades, however, these women found support among male slaveholders who resisted the popular claim that all white men were by nature equal, regardless of wealth. Slaveholding widows enjoyed material, legal, and cultural resources to which most other southerners could only aspire. The ways in which they did—and did not—translate those resources into social, political, and economic power shed new light on the evolution of slaveholding society.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
How did slaveholding widows in the American South exhibit mastery, a decidedly masculine trait, over slaves and households while maintaining their status as ladies? This is the question explored by Wood (history, Florida International Univ.) in this fascinating study. Specific examples from diaries, letters, and personal papers reveal the complexity of individual women's circumstances while showing that slaveholding widows generally did not challenge gender norms or demonstrate a feminist sensibility. Instead, they used a variety of strategies, including their status as ladies, to exert the authority necessary to maintain stewardship of their husbands' property and business interests. Their ability to achieve at least "fictive mastery" depended not only on the usual factors of gender, class, and race but also on kinship and political connections, individual personality, and geographic location. This book, which builds on the work of historians such as Drew Gilpin Faust (Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War), is a necessary addition to women's history collections in all types of libraries.-Linda V. Carlisle, Southern Illinois Univ., Edwardsville Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
From the Publisher
"A positive contribution to women's and Southern history for demonstrating the complexity between the reality of female lives and the rhetoric of prescriptive literature."
Florida Historical Quarterly

"Well-written and painstakingly researched. . . . As a study of slaveholding widows in the antebellum South, Masterful Women is a very important contribution to the field."
Register of the Kentucky Historical Society

Wood demonstrates that slaveholding widows enjoyed material, legal, and cultural resources to which most other southerners could only aspire. The ways in which they did and did not translate those resources into social, political, and economic power shed new light on the evolution of slaveholding society.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780807855287
  • Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press
  • Publication date: 6/21/2004
  • Series: Gender and American Culture Series
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 5.70 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Kirsten E. Wood is assistant professor of history at Florida International University, where she is also affiliated with the women's studies and African/New World studies programs.

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Table of Contents

1 Broken reeds 15
2 The management of negroes 35
3 The strongest ties that bind poor mortals 61
4 A very public road 83
5 The leading men and women 103
6 Worried in body and vexed in heart 131
7 What will become of us! 159
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