Beyond the Household: Women's Place in the Early South, 1700-1835

Article excerpt

Beyond the Household: Women's Place in the Early South, 1700-1835. By Cynthia A. Kierner. (Ithaca, N.Y., and London: Cornell University Press, c. 1998. Pp. xiv, 295. Paper, $18.95, ISBN 0-8014-8462-6; cloth, $55.00, ISBN 0-8014-3453-X.)

Cynthia A. Kierner accomplishes a number of goals in this study of southern, white, mostly upper-class, women and their status and roles from 1700 to 1835. Her work connects the seventeenth century--for which historians such as Lois Green Carr, Lorena Walsh, Kathleen Brown, and Mary Beth Norton have provided pathbreaking insights into southern women's experiences--to the antebellum period, for which Anne Firor Scott, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Catherine Clinton, and Jean Friedman have offered influential analyses. While Kierner grounds her work comprehensively in southern historiography, her primary frame of reference is the historical literature on northern white middle- and upper-class women of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Her main purpose is to determine the extent to which southern women's "place" was different from their northern counterparts', how that changed over time, and why. Her chief primary sources are the private papers of elite families of Virginia and the Carolinas, legislative petitions, newspapers, magazines, and other prescriptive literature published in the region.

Beyond the Household offers many important insights. Kierner's nuanced argument suggests that southern elite women involved themselves in the public sphere throughout the colonial and early national periods despite powerful ideologies that would confine them to domestic interests. She contests the distinction between public and private, as did early southern women themselves, contending that the private could be political. For example, colonial elite women provided essential resources for political networks by entertaining in their homes, collaborating on balls, and similar displays of gentility. …