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Ladies, Women, & Wenches: Choice and Constraint in Antebellum Charleston & Boston.

Ladies, Women, & Wenches: Choice and Constraint in Antebellum Charleston & Boston. By Jane H. Pease and William H. Pease (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 1990. xiii plus 218 pp.).

In 1985, Jane H. Pease and William H. Pease published The Web of Progress, a comparative study of "private values and public styles" in antebellum Charleston and Boston. Examining economics, politics, society, religion, and voluntarism in the two cities, the book combined ambitious statistical analyses based on censuses, tax documents, and wills with interesting descriptive material drawn from the private papers of prominent urban residents. In Ladies, Women, & Wenches, Pease and Pease traverse some of the same ground, focusing their attention specifically this time on the tracks left by women. The result is an oddly unsatisfying book, providing neither the full-scale analysis of women's condition in the two cities that readers of The Web of Progress might expect, nor the breakthrough into rigorously applied comparative analysis that historians of women might want.

In the book's title and subtitle, Pease and Pease foreshadow their approach and conclusions. Choice and constraint provide the analytical poles along which they propose to locate individual women's lives, with some women, especially white "ladies" born or married to wealth and social position, occasionally enjoying something close to "full autonomy," but others, notably black and white "wenches"--slaves, prostitutes, petty criminals--usually burdened by "extreme dependence". Pease and Pease suggest that because "women's history has been largely written within a conceptual framework of conflicting dualities" (p. 1), specifically ones of gender and social class, historians' understanding of the "considerable variation in women's lives" has been "restricted" (pp. 1-2). A focus on gender and social class to the exclusion of other factors such as region and urbanization, they insist, has led historians to obscure the varied choices individual women made and the complex constraints they faced. By examining "both the interactions of marriage and work, the influence of each on women's religious, philanthropic, and reform activity, and distinctively female uses of education and property," as well as the influence of "the new social prescriptions for women's behavior" (p. 2) in two different cities, Pease and Pease hope to "clarif[y] how gender as a force in itself either imposed constraints or gave latitude for choice" (p. 161).

This approach has its parallels in certain literary circles, where scholars Stress "the multiplicity of women's voices," and struggle to give them all a hearing. Insofar as it enables us to discover interesting individuals about whom we knew little, or reminds us of the complexity of women's experience, the call for attention to the variety of the female past is welcome. Indeed, the most interesting aspects of Ladies, Women, & Wenches are precisely those homely and personal portraits of individual women that give luster and texture to the overall panorama. Here we encounter both Fanny Appleton Longfellow, daughter of a well-educated "republican mother" and a pioneer manufacturer and wife of a famed poet, and Mary Douglas, a free woman of color, owner of her own husband, and petitioner to the South Carolina legislature for compensation when her "property" was executed in 1832. Yet, given that literate, articulate, and privileged people most often produce the kinds of sources that offer evidence of women making (or not making) choices, it is inevitably the Fanny Longfellows more than the Mary Douglases whose "voices" dominate the pages of Ladies, Women, & Wenches. And dominate they do, to the extent that Pease and Pease devote five pages in a ten-page discussion of divorce to the very upper-class Ellen Sears D'Hauteville's admittedly "unique" (p. 93) experience in extricating herself from an unfortunate marriage.

All of this underlines the conceptual difficulties that beset a model of women's history focusing on "choice and constraint" or "variation in women's lives." Gender, like race and social class, is not simply a "factor," analogous to region and urbanization, affecting individual lives. It is a social construct that organizes both individual identities and social institutions at their most basic levels. Moreover, gender, class, and race constitute multiple, overlapping systems of hierarchy and power, not merely "constraints" on individual behavior. To a degree, Pease and Pease recognize that the gender systems of nineteenth-century Boston and Charleston made it impossible for even the most privileged white women to achieve anything resembling meaningful "full autonomy," yet their conceptual model makes it difficult for them to present women's actions as anything other than choices. In one paragraph on women's work, for example, they begin by examining "why women chose the work they did," point out that "slave women worked at the jobs assigned them because they had no choice," and conclude that "most women, North or South, had no meaningful employment choices" (pp. 58-59).

If the "choice and constraint" of the book's subtitle are problematic, so too are the terms employed in its title. To be sure, the term "ladies" was widely used in the nineteenth century, both to establish ideals of female behavior and to designate white women of particular social classes. But no woman ever used the term "wench" to describe herself. It was uniformly derogatory, especially toward African-American women but also toward white women who overstepped the bounds of sexual propriety. Historians can, of course, use concepts and terms not employed by--or even available to--the people they study. But in this case, the use of a derogatory contemporary term for only one group of women smacks of selective perspective. That Pease and Pease downplay the significance of slavery in shaping Charleston's gender system, and fail to comment, in a discussion of slave owning women's property rights (p. 98), on how white women's family security often required the destruction of black women's families, reinforces the impression.

We need comparative studies of women's experiences in different locales, and we particularly need works on the antebellum era that will clarify the differential impact of living in a slave-labor as opposed to a free-labor based society. This book offers a start, providing some useful comparisons, for example, between the schooling opportunities available to white girls in Boston and Charleston, and between the two cities' approaches to public charity and private benevolence. By covering Catholic nuns' schooling and benevolent work, Pease and Pease remind us that such activities were not exclusive to Protestant women (although the inclusion of African-American and Catholic laywomen's mutual aid and philanthropic activities would have been equally welcome). But for comparative studies of women to achieve the high standard attained by the most innovative works in women's history, they will need to take gender seriously as a fundamental category of historical analysis, not treat it as merely one incidental factor among many shaping women's and men's lives.

Anne M. Boylan University of Delaware
COPYRIGHT 1993 Journal of Social History
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Author:Boylan, Anne M.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
Words:1117
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