|Women, gender, families, and households in the southern colonies.
By Cynthia A. Kierner
Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
The Journal of Southern History
FAMILY, GENDER, AND HOUSEHOLD RELATIONSHIPS ASSUME CENTER STAGE in fictional portrayals of southern life from [the bestselling work] Absalom, Absalom to Steel Magnolias. By contrast, historians showed little interest in these topics until recently, and good work was especially wanting for the colonial era. Julia Cherry Spruill's landmark book, Women's Life and Work in the Southern Colonies, and Edmund S. Morgan's brief Virginians at Home were isolated early attempts to address this deficiency. Largely descriptive, both books offered useful and often compelling portraits of women and domestic life, particularly among the gentry, but neither elicited scholarly debate or further study1.
Happily the historiography of women, gender, family, and households now is flourishing, and the contributions of historians of the southern colonies have been especially valuable. Three trends are particularly noteworthy. First, recent historians, informed by the quantitative social histories of the 1970s and 1980s, increasingly have gravitated toward the more qualitative methodologies and approaches of what was once called the "new cultural history." Second, because cultural historians seek to discern meaning in texts, actions, and social exchanges, the study of gender--a cultural construct that shapes the identities and lived experiences of women and men alike--has increasingly complemented and, in some instances, displaced social historians' more specific focus on women's history2. Third, while historians initially used demography to reconstruct family units, more recent studies focus on qualitative relationships in colonial households. The idea of the household as a cultural, economic, and social unit that both included and transcended the white family complements the growing prominence of race as a central concern of historians of gender while aptly reflecting the biracial domestic world of so many early southerners.
Like other early Americanists, historians of the southern colonies initially became interested in family history in the 1970s as part of their more general turn in the direction of social history. The first social histories of the southern colonies were in part responses to innovative New England town studies that cast homogeneous and harmonious Puritan villages--where low mortality rates and a healthful environment resulted in extraordinarily stable family units--as archetypal early American communities. Historians of the "Chesapeake School" used demography, tax lists, probate records, and other quantitative data to recreate early settlements in Maryland and Virginia, where they found high mortality rates and an extreme preponderance of men over women, making family life either nonexistent or unstable for most colonists. These demographic factors, along with dispersed settlement and a continuing influx of white and later black immigrants as bonded labor, made families and communities in the Chesapeake during the first century after Jamestown fundamentally different from their counterparts in Europe and New England3.
Although women's history was not its paramount concern, the research of social historians yielded significant insights into white women's experiences and, in 1977, the publication of one essential article. In "The Planter's Wife: The Experience of White Women in Seventeenth-Century Maryland," Lois Green Carr and Lorena S. Walsh consider the implications of roughly a decade's worth of research, hypothesizing that the social and demographic disruptions that characterized life in the early Chesapeake variously demeaned and empowered women. On the one hand, lacking male protectors, women, especially female indentured servants, often were vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. On the other hand, without parental oversight, young women enjoyed more freedom in choosing spouses, and the scarcity of females enabled some to use marriage as an avenue to upward mobility. High mortality rates meant that Chesapeake wives generally became widows, but as such they wielded considerable authority over family property in the absence of adult male relatives; many widows increased their property by remarrying, often more than once. In this unstable world, personal relationships were typically short-lived, and successive remarriages resulted in complex family structures that included stepsiblings from multiple unions. Cart and Walsh suggest that as Maryland's demography became more stable by the end of the century, women married younger, remained wed longer, bore more children, and perhaps lost influence within the family polity4.
Carr and Walsh use probate records primarily to gauge white women's access to property and to document how their domestic work in housewifery, dairying, and gardening gradually raised living standards for poor and middling farmers. Analysis of estate inventories by other scholars suggests that the material circumstances of these early Chesapeake settlers were as unstable and transitory as the composition of their families. For the seventeenth century at least, material comforts were few and houses were "impermanent," as surviving colonists chose instead to invest their resources more profitably in land and bonded labor5.
The most ambitious applications of these largely quantitative methodologies reveal both their shortcomings and their value. A case in point is A Place in Time, in which Darrett B. and Anita H. Rutman use local records to compile more than twelve thousand biographies of men and women who resided in Middlesex County, Virginia, between 1650 and 1750 "to see how people organize their lives and relationships" under changing social and demographic circumstances. The Rutmans painstakingly chart interactions and transactions among county residents to show how they formed families, neighborhoods, churches, and social hierarchies that gradually solidified as population stabilized and grew, especially after 1700. Their analysis is sometimes remarkably insightful. For instance, by mapping locations of the homes of relatives and acquaintances of one Middlesex woman, they deduce that kinship and friendship networks were "particularly important to the women of the county." The Rutmans provide compelling snapshots of colonists striving to replicate English ways in an alien environment. Yet as they themselves observe, their methodology and sources cannot yield "direct evidence of the minds and hearts of the people of the Chesapeake and of Middlesex6.”
Letters, diaries, and other personal documents reveal much more about people's interior lives and values. Although historians traditionally drew on the papers of famous men to explain their political ambitions and ideals--how, for instance, John Smith established order at Jamestown or how George Washington viewed westward expansion--social historians have come to search the writings of the famous and not-so-famous to gain qualitative insights into the attitudes, behavior, and ideals that shaped early southern family life. In Inside the Great House, Daniel Blake Smith explores the roles of husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, and sons and daughters in elite Chesapeake families and contends that affection displaced authority as the main basis of family relationships over the course of the eighteenth century7. In The Pursuit of Happiness, Jan Lewis uses many of the same sources to describe pre-Revolutionary gentry family relations as "contractual, explicit, and external" and generally lacking in emotional intensity, attributing Virginians' increasingly affectionate and emotion-laden family life to the interrelated political, economic, and religious changes of the post-Revolutionary era8.
Both books are engaging works of family history that prominently feature individual and family stories, which helps explain the continuing appeal of this genre both to historians and to their readers. First published in 1972, The Letterbook of Eliza Lucas Pinckney, 1739-1762, which includes both Pinckney's letters and an editorial introduction that situates her in the context of family networks in the West Indies and South Carolina, was reissued in 19979. Recent monographs by Lorri Glover and Cara Anzilotti use family letters and other personal documents to explore relationships between South Carolina gentry siblings and the roles and responsibilities of South Carolina planters' widows, respectively. Ronald Hoffman's impressive multigenerational study of the Carrolls of Maryland draws on an extensive family archive to tell the transatlantic story of that Roman Catholic family across three centuries10.
Such qualitative research gives us insights into hearts and minds and early southern family life, but this approach is viable only for the last half-century of the colonial era because of the greater availability of both manuscript and printed primary sources for this comparatively later period. By the 1730s newly established newspapers in Williamsburg and Charleston published essays on manners and fashion, which catered to the genteel cultural aspirations of elite provincials, and merchants imported a growing selection of novels and prescriptive literature. Nevertheless, because most people were illiterate and settlement was widely dispersed, print culture generally had limited circulation (and, hence, limited influence) even among the reading population. Consequently, most qualitative studies based on these sorts of sources deal almost exclusively with elites--a leisured subset of a literate minority--who had the time, education, and inclination to read books and write letters, as well as the property to generate wills, inventories, and other documents.
Lacking first-person documentary sources for most non-elite southerners, some historians have used quantitative methods to describe labor and productivity in colonial households, moving beyond reconstituting family structures based on blood and marriage to embrace the more expansive household--which often included servants and slaves--as the basic unit of patriarchal colonial society. The shift in focus from "family" to "household" reflects the economic and legal realities of colonial Americans, whose laws assessed taxes on householders (generally free men) and considered wives, children, servants, and slaves all as patriarchal dependents11. This more expansive focus is especially appropriate for the southern colonies, whose residents were more likely to work and live alongside bonded laborers.
Most studies of southern colonial households focus primarily on labor and productivity in plantation settings and necessarily include significant examinations of women's work, as well as the first important contributions by early Americanists to the field of African American women's history. In 1985 Carole Shammas demonstrated the changing patterns of work among enslaved women in the Chesapeake, most of whom consistently labored in the fields, despite the employment of small but slowly growing numbers in domestic labor. A year later, in a pioneering case study, Joan R. Gundersen examined relations between black and white women, concluding that "shared ties of gender created a community of women but not a community of equals" among those who worked both separately and together in rural King William Parish, Virginia12.
Early American households varied dramatically in size and composition across both space and time. In the early Chesapeake, they ranged from large plantations with their corps of bonded workers--initially composed mainly of white indentured servants--to the family-based operations of poorer planters and tenant farmers. Increased importation of African slaves transformed the region's labor force and the composition of planter households, though few planters assigned significant numbers of slaves to domestic tasks before the mid-eighteenth century. In coastal Carolina, by contrast, Africans constituted the lion's share of the workforce from the early decades of settlement, as emigrants from Barbados brought their slaves to Carolina, where blacks used their expertise to make rice the staple crop of the colonial Lowcountry. In both regions, most slaves lived in quarters separate from their white masters. Completely different arrangements emerged in the relatively understudied backcountry region, where family farms and mixed agriculture predominated and slavery, by comparison, was not widespread until the post-Revolutionary era13.
Allan Kulikoff's Tobacco and Slaves is the most comprehensive account of early Chesapeake households. Citing data from several Maryland and Virginia counties, Kulikoff argues that the attainment of white demographic stability, along with other structural changes in the economy and society, resulted in the establishment of domestic patriarchy and a gender-based division of labor by the mid-eighteenth century. White men managed plantations, worked in the fields, and represented their households in the courts and other public venues; white women "prepared the family's food, washed clothes, tended gardens, made clothes, spun thread, wove cloth, milked cows, ... churned butter," and attended to childrearing14. Kulikoff locates the beginnings of stable African American families after 1740, when slave imports declined, sex ratios became more equal, and blacks lived and worked on increasingly large plantations. Although others dispute this chronology, arguing that for many slaves family life remained elusive or fragile, some African Americans were establishing stable households and kinship networks by the late colonial era15.
Historians of the rice-producing lower South have produced a remarkably rich literature on slave families and households. In 1974 Peter H. Wood showed that enslaved people constituted the majority of South Carolina's population by the second generation of settlement (around 1708), attaining even sex ratios and relatively stable families much more quickly than did their counterparts in the tobacco-producing Chesapeake colonies. Wood also traces the evolution of slave labor, from the fur-trading era through the establishment of rice as an agricultural staple16. Subsequent historians specifically examined the gendered division of labor in the region's slave households. Most notably, Betty Wood's study of Georgia slave families reveals that women's gardening and raising poultry and pigs for their families' use or for the market were "an integral part of their domestic economy" and complemented the hunting, fishing, and other productive labor that men performed on their own time, after their work in the fields was done17.
Lowcountry rice planters organized labor by the task system, which afforded workers more time to devote to their own economic pursuits than did the gang system typically employed in tobacco cultivation. In his comparative study, Slave Counterpoint, Philip D. Morgan contends that the differing demands of rice and tobacco cultivation also shaped the organization and structure of slave families in their respective regions. Because tobacco planters generally had less acreage and fewer slaves than their rice-producing counterparts, he maintains, their bondpeople often chose spouses from neighboring plantations; husband and wife lived apart, making one-parent households the norm among Chesapeake slaves. By contrast, Lowcountry slaves, most of whom inhabited plantations that employed hundreds of enslaved workers, generally married someone from their home plantation, where they established relatively autonomous two-parent households18.
In Slave Counterpoint, Morgan combines the quantitative methods of social history with interdisciplinary insights from cultural historians who, to quote Rhys Isaac, seek "an understanding of the meanings that the inhabitants of other worlds have given to their own everyday customs," ranging from religious rituals to the allocation of space in courtrooms or plantation houses. The relative scarcity of first-person sources for slaves and most other southern colonists encouraged historians of the region to be in the vanguard of those embracing the methodologies of cultural history--drawn from anthropology, archaeology, material culture, and literary studies--to read surviving texts (including non-documentary artifacts more intensively and critically. In face-to-face societies where print is scant and literacy rates are low, Isaac notes, "action in a social context assumes an even more important place in the total process of communication." By interpreting the contextualized actions of historical actors, which Isaac likens to theatrical performances, recent historians have illuminated hierarchies of gender, race, and social rank and other cultural constructions that shaped the values and experiences of inhabitants of the southern colonies19.
Isaac's first book, The Transformation of Virginia, has few women in it, but his probing analysis of social exchanges, rituals, and material culture has important implications for historians' understanding of how southern provincials created, enforced, and sometimes challenged interdependent hierarchies of gender, race, and social rank. Isaac argues that elite white men deployed a material culture of Georgian houses and carefully orchestrated public rituals--court proceedings, elections, church services, balls, and the like--as performances of genteel masculinity, which dramatized their authority over (and putative responsibility toward) their imagined inferiors. At the same time, unequal white men shared convivial rituals of masculinity at horse racesm cockfights, and election "treating" parties, while their women remained for the most part secluded within their houses. Race, like social rank, constructed gender: white exclusion and debasement of black men impugned the masculinity of the latter20.
Gender (and women) figure prominently in more recent studies by scholars using cultural history and its methodologies to explore issues of identity and power. A signal work in this regard is The Devil's Lane: Sex and Race in the Early South, a collection of essays edited by Catherine Clinton and Michele Gillespie. Rather than focusing exclusively on women (or, for that matter, on men) these essays use gender as an analytical category, inviting comparisons between women and men of different races and social ranks, thereby providing a more nuanced consideration of southern identities and consciousness. Several contributors focus specifically on sexuality as a cultural construction and as a key aspect of identity formation and self-presentation. Embracing an expansive definition of "the South" that reaches beyond British America to include nearby Spanish colonies, this volume also reflects an increasing tendency among early Americanists to transcend national boundaries by situating their subjects in the wider context of a multicultural Atlantic world21.
The best of this new scholarship is remarkable for its authors' intensive rereadings of conventional sources--such as court records and travel accounts--to discern both the content and the process of changing assumptions about gender, race, and social rank. The most influential example of this approach is Kathleen M. Brown's Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs, which places gender (and women) at the center of a wide-ranging examination of society and culture in colonial Virginia. Brown explores the intersection of gender and race in creating stable social hierarchies, using the notion of a "gender frontier" to explain how Indians, white settlers, and a comparatively small number of African bondpeople negotiated the roles and rights of women and men in a relatively fluid early colonial society. Following social historians who see declining mortality rates and a generally prosperous tobacco market as the eventual bases of stability in the colony, Brown nonetheless shows that cultural constructs of gender and race intertwined to support the emergence of a mature provincial society based on patriarchy and white supremacy22.
In her gendered reinterpretation of Bacon's Rebellion of 1676, Brown contends that white men emerged from that upheaval determined to assert their masculinity in part by establishing control over white women and people of color. Family life and society in general became more stable, as white male Virginians circumscribed white women's influence both in the family and in the public sphere and regulated their sexuality. At the same time, "racialized legal constructs of patriarchal privilege and female honor" bolstered the impact of new slave codes and other laws that undermined blacks' potential for autonomy and rendered family relationships tenuous for both slaves and free blacks. Brown thus argues persuasively that gender--or, more specifically, the institutionalization of white male privilege--played a key role in the evolution of an unruly colonial outpost into a stable slave society23.
In a complementary study, Terri L. Snyder suggests that controlling women's speech was essential to the attainment of social stability in Virginia. In Brabbling Women, Snyder documents the power of feminine gossip and opinions in a relatively open seventeenth-century society, where the words of women from across the social spectrum affected men's reputations and actions and thus had an impact in the larger colonial community. Snyder, too, sees Bacon's Rebellion as a turning point. Her close reading of a rich array of court records, contemporary fiction (mostly English), and travel accounts reveals how prevailing gender ideals increasingly defined white women as dependent and inferior, effecting and justifying the declining public influence of female voices in the colony24.
Kirsten Fischer's Suspect Relations amplifies and supports this central theme of a gradual solidification of mutually reinforcing gender, racial, and class hierarchies--albeit on a different time line for the later settled and less prosperous province of North Carolinar. Fischer's focus on sexuality and the mounting efforts of courts and lawmakers to define and punish illicit sex yields new insights into the identities and values of Native Americans, blacks, and whites who lived on the margins and often resisted assimilation into increasingly rigid social categories. Placing "ordinary women" and their agency at the center of her analysis, Fischer persuasively asserts that controlling "the sexual behavior of women" of all races "was not peripheral to the project of colonization but rather a crucial part of [elite men's] struggle for control in an expanding slave society25."
Women and gender are likewise at the center of Jennifer L. Morgan's recent reassessment of slavery in the southern colonies. Like earlier historians of Caribbean slavery, Morgan emphasizes the centrality of women's productive and reproductive functions to the New World slave system and argues that those dual functions made women's experience in slavery fundamentally different from that of men. She shows how "[g]ender functioned as a set of power relationships through which early slaveowning settlers and those they enslaved defined, understood, and adjusted the confines of racial slavery." Morgan uses demography to establish the numerical and economic significance of enslaved women and their children, but, influenced by the linguistic turn and other cultural history methodologies, she also deconstructs texts--most notably European words and images--to demonstrate how whites manipulated African women's sexuality to construct moral and social barriers to justify whites' appropriation of enslaved women's reproductive labor. In colonial slave societies, she argues, family life and motherhood were precious but precarious, and enslaved women and men struggled to impose their own meanings on a process of family formation that slave owners saw primarily as a form of venture capitalism26.
Although the main thrust of recent scholarship therefore has been to use interdisciplinary methods to uncover constructed hierarchies that effectively constrained women of all races, the findings of some historians are more ambiguous, at least for gentry women. In Claiming the Pen, Catherine Kerrison shows that the education of elite females improved in the eighteenth century as their families pursued the accoutrements of gentility, though she concludes that women's reading and writing posed no direct challenge to patriarchal power. Linda Sturtz contends that Virginia's propertied women enjoyed "a degree of power" by exercising agency within the hierarchical social structures of the colony. Sturtz' s meticulous research in plantation account books and merchants' records details not only how some women generated income by raising poultry, making cloth, and doing other types of work but also how female members of mercantile families participated in the larger Atlantic economy. Yet gender both enabled and constrained women's actions in business, as in intellectual life: male merchants assumed that women were most adept at certain (often less consequential) tasks, just as booksellers (and male book purchasers) regarded prescriptive literature, devotional writing, and novels as perhaps the only fare suitable for female readers27.
A great virtue of all these recent studies is the inclusion of women's voices--and those of non-elite southerners generally--though great planters and their concerns still dominate the metanarratives of liberty, prosperity, and occasional conflict that structure the history of the southern colonies and of early America generally. In this regard, it may be worth noting that no woman from the southern colonies has been the subject of a book-length scholarly biography, except for Pocahontas, whose story until recently has been much more about race than about gender--and perhaps most especially about the political themes of colonization and empire28. Yet the fact that Pocahontas left no documents belies widespread assumptions about the supposedly insurmountable obstacles facing historians who would produce biographical studies of women or of others outside the ruling elite.
Three provocative biographies of white male slaveholding planters illustrate the centrality of gender (along with race and social rank) to any serious attempt to understand individuals, communities, and households. Kenneth A. Lockridge's insightful analysis of the diary and life of the Virginia planter William Byrd II shows how Byrd defined himself via interactions with women, slaves, and British grandees, exposing overlapping hierarchies of gender, race, and social rank in Virginia and the British Empire and detailing the emergence of Byrd's distinctive identity as a Virginia gentleman. Lockridge's work parallels and adds a qualitative dimension to that of historians who attribute the emergence of stable elites to the attainment of demographic and economic stability after 170029. Trevor Burnard's account of Thomas Thistlewood examines an exemplar of white male independence, egalitarianism, violence, and sexual voracity in colonial Jamaica and explores the implications of this most extreme version of patriarchy for enslaved people--especially sexually abused black women--and their households30. Gender is even more integral to Rhys Isaac's recent work on Landon Carter of Virginia, who kept a revealing diary in which he anxiously chronicled his interactions with troublesome wives, defiant offspring, devious slaves, and disrespectful neighbors – all of whom he believed challenged his patriarchal status and self-image.31.
While these biographical studies offer compelling portraits of elite masculinity and allow readers to enter the world of colonial plantation households, clearly this world would look significantly different from the perspective of Carter's estranged daughter Judith (who married against her father's will) and his enslaved nursemaid Winney (who had children of her own), or from that of Lucy Parke Byrd, whose husband William refused her access to his library and made her pluck her eyebrows32. Biographies, as Carol Berkin notes in her own review of early southern women's history, can illustrate "how the abstract ideas that constitute ideologies take shape in the repeated experiences of a single life, in the repeated choices an individual makes, in her habitual responses to the events and people in her life33." Given their relative popularity, biographies also can use a contextualized life story to bring the findings of social and cultural historians to a wider readership.
Another potentially fruitful approach is microhistory, which tells the story of an interesting (if often seemingly minor) episode to explore its wider cultural and social contexts. Incidents that result in court proceedings--and generate court records--can be especially compelling and useful for colonial historians. For instance, in Anne Orthwood's Bastard, John Ruston Pagan uses criminal and civil cases arising from illicit sex between a gentleman's nephew and a servant woman in 1663 to examine a range of issues relating to sex, gender, community, and the law in early Virginia, via a series of biographical profiles of women and men involved in the affair and its judicial resolution. The strange case of Thomas(ina) Hall, an early Virginia colonist of indeterminate sex, has been the subject of two studies that, together, reveal much not only about popular concepts of sexual difference but also about the respective roles of biology and culture, law and custom, and men and women in monitoring social mores and constructing sexual identities34.
This brief review demonstrates the significant achievements of recent decades, while suggesting that we still know relatively little about particular women and families and about certain aspects of early southerners' daily lives. A crucial question, for example, concerns women's relations with other women. What role did friendship play in the lives of female colonists? How did elite white women and the enslaved women who became domestic workers in the eighteenth century negotiate the movement of the latter from the fields into the great house? In addition, given our growing knowledge of work, it would be good to know more about what colonists did for leisure and how leisure activities contributed to identity formation in colonial communities and households. Studies of horse racing and some other pastimes have begun to address these questions for white men, but we have no comparable treatment of women's needlework or of games women played, either alone or with men35. (35) Finally, war was an intermittent fact of life during much of the eighteenth century, as white residents of British North America fought both European and native foes and lived in occasional fear of slave rebellions. Yet aside from Jean B. Lee's important study of Revolutionary Charles County, Maryland, a chapter in Theda Perdue's superb Cherokee Women, a fine recent article on Georgia women, and choice anecdotes from more general works on the War of Independence, scholars have written surprisingly little about the impact of war on southern women, families, and households36.
That said, this essay should end on a more celebratory note. In the early 1990s, a student asked me for a list of readings on women in the southern colonies. I responded by directing her to Julia Cherry Spruill, Eliza Pinckney's published letters, and a handful of articles. The brevity of this list led me to begin my own research on early southern women, which became Beyond the Household. In 1998 my book took its place in a growing literature on women, gender, and households in the early South--a body of work that has continued to grow in diversity and sophistication ever since.