Documenting the difficult class relations between women slaveholders and slave women, this study shows how class and race as well as gender shaped women's experiences and determined their identities. Drawing upon massive research in diaries, letters, memoirs, and oral histories, the author argues that the lives of antebellum southern women, enslaved and free, differed fundamentally from those of northern women and that it is not possible to understand antebellum southern women by applying models derived from New England sources.
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From the Prologue:
What of the relations among the women themselves? Sharing the domination of white men--of the master--did slave and slaveholding women share bonds? participate in a sisterhood? The simple and inescapable answer is no. The privileged roles and identities of slaveholding women depended upon the oppression of slave women, and the slave women knew it. Slaveholding and slave women shared a world of mutual antagonism and frayed tempers that frequently erupted in violence, cruelty, and even murder. They also shared a world physical and emotional intimacy that is uncommon among women of antagonistic classes and different races. Slaveholding women were elitist and racist. With some pain I am compelled to express my considered opinion that, in some essential respects, they were more cruelly racist than their men. Yet they could deeply mourn the death of a favorite slave, who might have nursed them or their children or whose children they (less frequently) might have nursed. Life would be easier if we could dismiss them as oppressive tyrants or exonerate them as themselves victims of an oppressive system. We cannot. By class and race, they were higly privileged ladies who reveled in their privilege, but many were warm and attractive women, and by their own lights and the standards of their society, God-fearing, decent women. They were women who owned--whose husbands, fathers, and sons owned slaves in a world that increasingly recognized slaves as a moral evil and a political danger. Many of them were also women who loved their families, tried to care for their slaves, attended to their own and their slaves' immortal souls, and wrote sometimes entrancing, sometimes moving diaries, journals, and letters. Slaveholding women, like all groups of women, ranged from loving to vicious, from charming to unlovable with all the ordinary human in-between.
Slave women, who displayed the same variation in personality, lived on the opposing side of those antagonistic class and race relations and confronted the inescapable consequences of their condition. Some would like to see them as having enjoyed an autonomy that was denied to the white women of their day, but autonomy may be a misleading word. Slave women lived free of the legal constraints of marriage and lived with the necessity to work as hard as men, frequently at tasks considered inappropriate for white women. At the limits of resistance, they lived with a sense of isolation. Yet many of them loved their men and children, tried to meet their obligations to God and the other members of the slave community, and struggled to create the strongest possible legacy for the next generation. Their isolation resulted from the extreme consequences of the oppression against which they struggled. Beyond resistance itself, the goals of that struggle pointed toward the strengthening of a community in which they could be women among their own people.
Table of Contents
|Chapter 1||Southern Women, Southern Households||37|
|Chapter 2||The View from the Big House||100|
|Chapter 3||Between Big House and Slave Community||146|
|Chapter 4||Gender Conventions||192|
|Chapter 5||The Imaginative Worlds of Slaveholding Women: Louisa Susanna McCord and Her Countrywomen||242|
|Chapter 6||Women Who Opposed Slavery||290|
|Chapter 7||And Women Who Did Not||334|
What People are Saying About This
Mechal Sobel, The New York Times Book Review
Elizabeth Fox-Genovese undertakes the enormous tasks of telling the life stories of the last generation of black and white women of the Old South, and of analyzing the meanings of these connected stories as a way of illuminating both Southern and women's history--tasks at which she succeeds brilliantly.
[A] well-written and thoroughly researched social history.New Yorker
We have to thank a daughter of the Deep North for digging up and presenting more neglected testimony of plantation mistresses and their servants than has ever before been assembled so fully or organized and analyzed so cogently and provocatively.C. Vann Woodward, New York Review of Books
Elizabeth Fox-Genovese undertakes the enormous tasks of telling the life stories of the last generation of black and white women of the Old South, and of analyzing the meanings of these connected stories as a way of illuminating both Southern and women's historytasks at which she succeeds brilliantly.Mechal Sobel, New York Times Book Review
An ambitious book that succeeds as history and as historiography. Weaving together multiple strands of analysisincluding the psychologicalElizabeth Fox-Genovese elevates American women's history to a new level of sophistication.Nell Irvin Painter, Princeton University
Virtually every sentence stimulates and every page challenges. . . . With a graceful and intelligent narrative, the author shows how and why Southern women did notindeed could not'participate in a sisterhood.' A vivid, extensive chonicle of Southern women's daily existence . . . is documented by passages from letters, diaries and oral historiesselectively and, consequently, effectively.Publisher's Weekly
Asks us to put aside simple generalizations and explore the complicated world that masters and slaves built together on their terms, not ours. . . . Fox-Genovese provides a rich analysis . . . without losing her critical eye or her amazing capacity for empathy. Like no other historian before or since.Civil War Times