Scarlett's Sisters: Young Women in the Old South.
IN SCARLETT'S SISTERS: YOUNG WOMEN IN THE OLD SOUTH, ANYA JABOUR draws on letters, diaries, scrapbooks, autograph albums and memoirs to focus on her argument for a "culture of resistance," which she traces through the coming-of-age experience of elite young white women in the nineteenth-century South. Handwritten letters, her richest and most often accessed resource, guide her in identifying sub-stages within the larger life-cycle category that we now call adolescence. Jabour explores five overlapping phases of nineteenth-century female youth: adolescence, school life, home-life after school, courtship, and engagement. To help balance and complete her argument that educated, elite Southern girls were groomed to enter--even as they were covertly resisting--the "culture of resignation" (Cashin) characterizing married Southern womanhood, she also includes chapters on marriage and motherhood.
Jabour maintains that Southern girls expressed their resistance to prescribed ideals of Southern femininity most strongly through their "widespread reluctance to come of age" (13). That is, they devised ways to prolong each stage of their youth, particularly their school culture and lives as belles, and negotiated for long engagements in order to postpone marriage and the adult responsibilities that went with it. Girls who came of age during the Civil War, however, broke this decades-old cycle of resistance and resignation; they were able to "critically assess their culture's definition of white femininity"(283) and rebel against it directly by taking advantage of the opportunities opened up by the social and economic upheaval of the war. Jabour lays out this complex argument in her introduction, within the frame of an ingeniously constructed historiography. The book, however, does not fulfill the introduction's promise.
The most troubling problem with Scarlett's Sisters is Jabour's use of substantiating evidence from outside her stated period of study: "the mid-nineteenth century South" (5, 7). The supporting materials which back up much of Jabour's book have been cobbled together from across a span of more than fifty years, and thus recontextualized to support her argument for a cohesive female youth culture in a loosely defined Old South. Jabour defends her expanded geographical and chronological scope by explaining that young women's experience was "remarkably similar throughout the antebellum era"(8) but she often cites Civil War-era and 1870s sources to illustrate Old South social patterns. She also regularly delves into the early national period for examples of courtship and education. The heart of what we generally consider to be the Old South--the 1830s and 1840s--is not well represented in this book and, therefore, Jabour's argument for a longstanding female youth culture does not hold water. Of the three hundred or so young women that Jabour canvassed to illustrate the various stages of coming of age-particularly to illustrate the desire for single life and to provide examples of marriage avoidance---there are very few who came of age in the thirties or forties.
Jabour often quotes out of context from primary sources and, to support her theory, sometimes makes statements and generalizations that are just plain wrong. Her misreading of Penelope Skinner's thirty failed marriage offers, for instance--as an example of a belle's strategy for increased popularity (133)--is the opposite of Skinner's clearly articulated complaint in 1840 that she "had a dull miserable life & shall continue to do so until I am married. I want some one to love & some body to love me. to have had thirty offers & not be married is awful" (Penelope Skinner to Tristrim Skinner, January 15, 1840). Jabour's evidence for "debutantes' 'coming out' balls" (9, 116-20) has also been manipulated out of context and falls apart upon closer examination. The generalization that "most elite girls marked their change in status with a special occasion, such as a fancy ball" (119) is simply not true; this book would have benefitted greatly with the substitution of the word "some" or "many" for "most." Jabour repeats the terms "coming out" and "debut" with far more frequency than they actually occur in Southern antebellum letters, and, by linking these terms with formal balls, imposes the full weight of our contemporary reading of "coming out" onto antebellum social practices. It is unlikely that the concept of the debutante "coming out" ball had yet been socially constructed in America. Similarly, Jabour applies the female academy experience of the specific generation of young women who came of age on the eve of the Civil War to earlier generations of young women in the first half of the nineteenth century and erroneously implies a longstanding school-based "female youth culture of resistance" (14, 82) which did not exist.
One of the weakest arguments in Scarlett's Sisters is that "lengthy engagements were commonplace in antebellum America"(161). First, Jabour never establishes what might be a normal engagement time, so that we cannot know what a prolonged engagement means. She notes, correctly, that proposals usually occurred in person, were not recorded in writing, and were sometimes kept secret, so determining the precise beginning of an engagement is difficult. Most of her evidence for lengthy engagements comes from Civil War-era documents; pre-War examples are few and vague, ranging from a three-year period in which the engagement was broken off twice, to "one or two years," to six months. Other historians of the antebellum South have noted short engagements to be the norm. One conundrum Jabour does not attempt to solve is how her theory of prolonged singlehood and postponement of marriage reconciles with studies that show Southern women marrying earlier than their Northern counterparts (compare Jabour 152, 162, 319 fn 29 to Guion Griffis Johnson 199; Megan Cooper; Clinton 60; Jane Turner Censer 91-92).
In her final chapter on the war, Jabour ignores or minimizes the most staggering effects of the conflict on men---disfigurement, derangement, disease, and death. Any study devoted to the lives of young women in this period should take into account how men's camp and battle experience affected their families at home. Jabour fails to make essential distinctions between the climate of the early war and that of later years and thus does not provide the contextualization necessary for a contemporary understanding of specific letters and diary entries. Jabour speaks of the "supposed shortage" of suitors during the War and insists that the "much-commented-upon (if exaggerated) shortage of marriageable men did not force young women to forego marriage; rather it offered them an acceptable excuse for remaining single"(276). Jabour seems not to know that the "exaggerated" and "supposed" shortage of marriageable men translated into the real deaths of one quarter of the entire Confederate army (see Alexis Girardin Brown 759-78; Christie Ann Farnham 182; Burke Davis; James M. McPherson 42-44; Anne Firor Scott 106).
Jabour appears to have confused the generational experience of the girls who came of age on the eve of the Civil War with a nineteenth-century female "youth culture" and attempts, unsuccessfully, to apply the experience of that single generation to previous generations. She describes this subculture as "not fully conscious," "latent," "safely invisible" and "suppressed,"(9, 12, 13) but such qualifiers cannot save her argument. Scarlett's Sisters lacks the geographical and chronological focus necessary to make sense of the primary sources cited. Numerous quotations from letters and diaries, along with thought-provoking illustrations, provide color, authentic voice and a certain freshness to the book, but they do not support Jabour's theory of a culture of resistance.
Brown, Alexis Girardin. "Women Left Behind: Transformation of the Southern Belle, 1840-1880." Historian 62 (Summer 2000): 759-78.
Cashin, loan. "Introduction: Culture of Resignation." Our Common Affairs: Texts from Women in the Old South. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1996) 1-41.
Censer, Jane Turner. North Carolina Planters and Their Children. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1984.
Clinton, Catherine. The Plantation Mistress: Woman "s World in the Old South. New York: Pantheon Books, 1982.
Cooper, Megan. "Wedding Customs in Antebellum America." May 1, 2008. http://mgagnon.myweb.uga.edu/students/Cooper.htm.
Davis, Burke. "Casualties in the Civil War." May 14, 2008. http://www.civilwarhome.com/casualties.htm.
Farnham, Christie Ann. The Education of the Southern Belle: Higher Education and Student Socialization in the Antebellum South. NYU P, 1994.
Johnson, Guion Griffis. Antebellum North Carolina: A Social History. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina P, 1937.
McPherson, James M. "Was It More Restrained Than You Think?" Rev. of The Civil War and the Limits of Destruction, by Mark E. Neely. New York Review of Books (Feb. 14, 2008): 42-44.
Scott, Anne Firor. The Southern Lady: From Pedestal to Politics, 1830-1930. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1970.
Skinner, Penelope. Letter to Tristrim Skinner. January 15, 1840. Skinner Family Papers. Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.