THE FREE WOMEN OF PETERSBURG: Status and Culture in a Southern Town 1784-1860 by Suzanne Lebsock

THE FREE WOMEN OF PETERSBURG: Status and Culture in a Southern Town 1784-1860

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Complementing Catherine Clinton's recent study, The Plantation Mistress, Prof. Lebsock (History, Rutgers) here examines the townswomen of antebellum Petersburg, Va. More dutiful than highly original, her analysis of letters, diaries, and official town records addresses several ongoing historical debates--central among them, the question of women's status. For Lebsock, her townswomen's activities demonstrate that ""Positive change in the status of women can occur when no organized feminism is present."" Hardly much of an argument. Commercial Petersburg was by 1860 Virginia's second largest city; half of its 18,000 residents were black, and one-third of these were free. Status was based largely on property, and marriage was seen in substantial part as an economic arrangement. While women gained some economic autonomy by maintaining separate estates, husbands still exercised varying degrees of power over wives and their property. ""The only sure way to escape the legal bondage of marriage was to stay away from marriage altogether."" Increasing numbers of women, black and white, did just that. Single white women of property, spinsters and widows, exercised the same legal options as men but were guided by different values, here summed up as ""personalism."" They rewarded favorite slaves and distributed property unequally among their heirs. Lebsock agrees with Clinton that the Southern woman spent much of her time engaged in productive household labor; her townswomen, however, also engaged in a variety of paid employments: factory work, midwifery, teaching millinery and dressmaking, grocery retailing, keeping inns and boardinghouses, and prostitution. For many, the effort at paid employment ended in poverty. More privileged women responded by erecting charitable concerus--a Female Orphan Asylum, a House of Industry--which in due time were taken over by men, much as women's business efforts had been. Overall, then, Lebsock uncovers a mixed record for the free women of Petersburg: ""Neither a permanent retreat into a separate sphere nor a steady march from the confines of the home to the riskier and more varied regions the nineteenth century called 'the world.'"" Another addition to a growing list of studies in women's history, with due and necessary attention to time and setting: here, interesting historical information; involuted and unimaginative analysis.

Pub Date: Feb. 20th, 1984
Publisher: Norton