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The Reconstruction of White Southern Womanhood, 1865-1895.

The Reconstruction of White Southern Womanhood, 1865-1895. By Jane Turner Censer (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2003. xiii plus 316 pp.).

Jane Turner Censer's new book takes an approach to the study of the postwar South that is at once utterly novel and so sensible that one wonders why it has not been more widely applied to other places and eras. Rather than making broad generalizations about the Civil War's impact on white Southern women and on gender roles, Censer offers a nuanced set of interlocking theses based on her generational approach. She divides her subjects--elite white women in North Carolina and Virginia--into three distinct generations. The oldest generation, those women born before 1820 and steeped in antebellum gender conventions, proved most resistant to postwar social change; Censer finds much evidence of continuity in their experiences. The middle generation, women born between 1820 and 1849, who experienced the war as adults but had clear memories of the "Old" South, broke loose in many ways from antebellum constraints and expectations and forged new paths in the realms of work, education, and literary pursuits. They set the stage for the dynamic third generation--women born between 1850 and 1869--whose achievements in both the private and public sphere reflected their ethic of "nondependence" and their willingness to critique as well as reform their society.

This generational approach yields a plethora of insights. On the subjects of labor roles and relations, Censer concludes that while the older generation found the free labor system onerous and met it, oftentimes, with a sort of sullen defiance, members of the second and especially the youngest generation were keen on establishing domestic competence as housewives; for them, in an equation at odds with our modern day sensibility, domesticity connoted independence--freedom from their mothers' embittering reliance on black labor. Censer also weighs in on the longstanding scholarly debate over planter persistence in the Reconstruction South, arguing that scholars have overstated the degree to which antebellum planters hewed in the postwar period to agricultural pursuits. She finds that elite women, again particularly the younger ones, were inclined to forsake the isolation and economic depression of the countryside for the social and cultural opportunities of cities and towns. In this section of the book as in others, Censer is unflinching in confronting the fact that racial prejudice shaped each of the trends she describes; she notes that racial paranoia about rumored black disorder and violence in the rural South was a powerful motivation for women who rejected the "old" plantation life.

Censer's chapter on education shows second and third generation women establishing careers as teachers, with the youngest cohort venturing beyond private academies and taking jobs at public schools in both the South and the North. These women joined the growing number of clerks and librarians in establishing a positive image of genteel female wage-earners and in embracing work as a gratifying career rather than burdensome necessity. As for political activity, Censer finds that the older generation was absorbed in the task of memorializing the Confederate dead, while younger women played largely ornamental roles in the "Lost Cause" celebrations of the 1890s; the third generation found itself drawn into the suffrage struggle, and provided activists both for the women's rights and anti-suffrage camps.

Censer's chapters on literature constitute her greatest contribution and overturning of the received wisdom. She focuses on some thirty-three female authors, a cohort whom literary critics both then and now have roundly dismissed as insignificant. Censer is able both to show that the works of these women are an excellent window into their world, and that many of the works have real literary merit. Authors such as Frances Christine Fisher, Mary Greenway McClelland, Mary Tucker Magill, Julia Magruder, Amelie Rives and Mollie Elliot Seawall were intent on forging literary careers; contributed a great deal to the popularity of the local color genre of realism in the 1870s and 1880s; and offered to readers ambiguous and at times highly critical portrayals of the South and of the Confederate legacy. McClellan, Magruder, Rives and a few others generated their own distinct romances of reunion, in which the diligence, morality, restraint, and virility of Northern men were contrasted with the slothfulness and dissipation of their Southern counterparts. Female authors also experimented with sympathetic portrayals of poor whites; while they did little to revolutionize the image of blacks, they did show a distaste for the kind of racist images of black brutality that white male authors were promulgating at this time. On balance, Censer finds, women's literature of the 1870s and 1880s "celebrated the independence and intelligence of southern women" (p. 273).

Over the course of the 1890s, Censer argues, the tide turned against the progress of elite women. The "great reaction" that brought black disenfranchisement; white terrorism against African Americans; "Lost Cause" reveries among the sons and daughters of the Confederate veteran generations; and a rejection of the excesses of the Gilded Age North also tempered the ambition and optimism of elite women. By the end of the century, elite women's public activism was channeled into the reactionary projects of turning the South into a fortress of white supremacy; women were, Censer writes, "penning their share of the hate-filled articles and novels that characterized the period" (p. 279).

Censer's book ends quite abruptly, leaving the reader wanting to know more about how the promising third generation functioned both as victims and architects of the backlash against women's independence. In general, Censer might have used the analytical categories of identity or consciousness, and of relations between her generations, to greater effect. She has shown that each generation had distinct characteristics but has not said enough about whether identification with one's generational cohort was an essential element of the consciousness of individual women. Moreover, it would have been an asset to future researchers if Censer had gestured at the relations between her third generation and their own descendants. While Censer is generally good about acknowledging differences within each cohort, in the case of her youngest generation, she has perhaps downplayed political differences too much--suffragists and anti-suffragists alike, to be sure, are activists, but their activism has very different wellsprings and implications. As a gulf widened in the early 20th century between the vanguard of Southern progressives, particularly those willing to make efforts at interracial reform, and those conservatives committed to consolidating the gains of the "great reaction," political differences among women, and their divergent political legacies, had new meanings and manifestations.

In sum, Censer's book, written with her characteristic clarity and grace, is a bracing testament to the vitality of the field of social history. Its methodology can enrich other fields in American history, and provide a wonderful object lesson for graduate students about the merits of rigorous empiricism.

Elizabeth R. Varon

Temple University
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Author:Varon, Elizabeth R.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2005
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