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Neither Lady nor Slave: Working Women of the Old South

by Gillespie, Michelle and Delfino , Susanna
Publisher: University of North Carolina Press
Retail Price: $ 19.95
Issue: Winter 2003
ISBN: 0807854107

From the shadows of history


Work rediscovers toil of forgotten laborers

One of the most exciting developments in the recent scholarship of antebellum Southern society has been the exploration of the lives of white, free black, and Native American working women, the subject of this outstanding collection of essays edited by Michele Gillespie and Susan Delfino. Michele Gillespie is associate professor of history at Wake Forest University. She is the author of Free Labor in an Unfree World: White Artisans in Slaveholding Georgia, 1789-1860 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2000). Her co-editor, Susanna Delfino, professor of American history at the University of Genoa (Italy), is the author of numerous articles on antebellum Southern society and culture.

As the authors of Neither Lady nor Slave attest, Southern society was much more than a community of slaveholders and slaves. Indeed, as contributor Thomas Lockley points out, three-quarters of all white Southern families did not even own slaves. For decades, late twentieth-century historians painstakingly documented the working lives of plantation mistresses and female slaves while the worlds of yeoman women from the yeomanry and laboring classes remained virtually untouched.

Of course, the experiences of ordinary working women were not totally neglected. Three ground-breaking works Stephanie McCurry's Masters of Small Worlds (1995), an excerpt of which appears in Neither Lady nor Slave), Victoria Bynum's Unruly Women: The Politics of Social and Sexual Control in the Old South (1992), and Paul Escott's Many Excellent People: Power and Privilege in North Carolina, 1850-1900 (1985) exposed the working experiences and grim realities of yeoman and poor white women.

The international group of scholars contributing essays to this collection make the point that Southern women of the middling and lower classes were integral participants in the South's market economy. As the editors (and contributors) Michele Gillespie and Susanna Delfino argue in the introduction, white, free black, and Native American women in many regions of the South struggled, and in many cases, were able to exert control over the marketing of their work. Although their labor and work products were often not as visible or as easily traceable as men's, women's work was critical to the survival of their families and their communities.

The first group of essays examines rural women's interaction and impact on the market economy. James Taylor Carson illuminates the innovative ways that Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Creek women managed the marketing of their goods in the early nineteenth century while remaining true to their tribal culture. Similarly, Sarah H. Hill's essay on Cherokee women's basket weaving demonstrates the ways in which these women adapted their products to the demands of the marketplace without losing their cultural integrity. Stephanie McCurry's excerpt from Masters of Small Worlds makes the case that the productivity of yeoman farms depended on the labor of yeoman women. Though her work was often invisible, the farm wife's skills and stamina were crucial to the farm's prosperity. The yeoman woman's contributions not only affected productivity directly, such as through her field work and other farm labor, but also through the additional burden of her domestic tasks, which kept all family workers productive.

The working lives of urban wage-earning women are examined in the volume's second group of essays. In an investigation of children's governesses and nurses in the South's northernmost cities from Washington, D.C. to Louisville, Kentucky, Stephanie Cole probes the factors motivating their employers' shift from a reliance on slave women in the early nineteenth century to a preference for white middle-aged women by the 1840s and 1850s. In Thomas Lockley's comprehensive, thought-provoking article on working white and black women of antebellum Savannah, he underscores the restrictiveness of a strong bias in American women's history. He argues that the emphasis on the analysis of women's domestic lives has obscured the presence, importance, and significance of women's interactions in the public sphere. Lockley pays particular attention to race and gender issues as he documents the diversity of women's work in Savannah. In one discussion, he describes slave women's monopoly of vegetable-vending in the city market (a venue dominated by women), based on their ability to undersell the produce of white women. So desperate was one Irish immigrant female vendor to sell her wares that she blacked her face to attract customers. Barbara J. Howe's essay explores the diversity of women's wage work in western Virginia, focusing largely on women's employment within and relating to the textile industry as mill workers, seamstresses, and dressmakers.

Prostitutes, teachers, and black and white Catholic nuns are the subjects of the third group of articles. E. Susan Barber unravels the history of prostitutes in Richmond from the 1850s to the 1870s, attending particularly to the increasing visibility of sex workers and to issues of race and class in the rapidly growing city. Emily Bingham and Penny Richards analyze the teaching lives of the three Mordecai sisters in early nineteenth-century Warrenton, North Carolina. The authors claim that many more women were teachers in the antebellum South than has been previously recognized, in large part due to the invisibility of women teachers operating schools in their own homes.

Emily Clark's and Diane Batts Morrow's articles on Catholic nuns present the self-sufficient and financially independent lives these religious women led. Emily Clark's study of the white sisters of the New Orleans Ursuline order depicts the broad range of their economic activities in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As slaveholders, the Ursulines supervised slave women in the operation of a commercial laundry. The sisters also rented property and invested in real estate, managed a dairy, and ran a school. Diane Batts Morrow uncovers the work of the Oblate Sisters of Baltimore, the first permanent sisterhood composed of women of African descent in the United States. The Oblate nuns kept themselves solvent by sewing, renting rooms, and operating a school for the black children of Baltimore, a fragile enterprise that required the support of African Americans in the community.

Three essays focusing on the working lives of antebellum Southern industrial women conclude the collection. Bess Beatty discusses female textile workers' attitudes toward their work and their employers, noting the women's vocal disapproval and their acts of rebellion and protest against unsatisfactory working and living conditions. Michele Gillespie analyzes the relationships between young female textile mill operatives and factory owners and bosses in Georgia. She also explores how issues of race affected Georgian industrial management. As Gillespie maintains, mill owners preferred to hire the cheapest labor available. White women and children fit the bill best, costing the companies even less than male slaves. Susanna Delfino exposes the labor of white and black women in the iron and mining industries, a much-neglected subject in the history of working women in the South and the North. Although the intensity of the stigma attached to this type of work for women impeded the public's knowledge of it at the time and in decades since, white, slave, and free black women operated furnaces and forges; worked as machinists, mechanics, and nail carriers; and toiled at a multitude of tasks relating to the preparation of charcoal, which fired the furnaces and forges.

Judith E. Harper's Women During the Civil War: An Encyclopedia will be published by Routledge (Taylor and Francis) in October 2003. She is also the author of Susan B. Anthony: A Biographical Companion (ABC-CLIO, 1998). She may be contacted at the following e-mail address: jeharper@ziplink.net.

review of Neither Lady nor Slave: Working Women of the Old South, by Gillespie, Michelle, Civil War Book Review, (Winter 2003).