North Carolina Women Making History

Article excerpt

North Carolina Women Making History. By Margaret Supplee Smith and Emily Herring Wilson. (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, c.1999. Pp. xx, 382. $29.95, ISBN 0-8078-2463-1.)

This book grew out of a museum exhibit that was initiated in the 1980s; it was completed when the North Carolina Women's History Project mounted one of four exhibits on display at the opening of the North Carolina Museum of History's new building in 1994. The authors played key roles in developing the exhibition: Margaret Supplee Smith was its curator, and Emily Herring Wilson wrote the script for its introductory video. However, North Carolina Women Making History is much more than a museum guidebook or souvenir volume. Smith and Wilson rely heavily on secondary sources and construct a narrative that reflects the various themes women's historians have developed during the past three decades. The authors examine the customs and rituals surrounding courtship, marriage, and childbirth; they explore the impact on women's lives of race, class, ethnicity, region, and religion; and they describe women's expanding involvement in reform and public life. The result is a comprehensive, richly textured survey that integrates women into North Carolina's history from the pre-colonial era to the end of World War II.

Smith and Wilson pay close attention to material culture--a logical choice given the book's roots in a major museum exhibition--and they place particular emphasis on two issues. First, the authors show the vital economic roles women played in their families, on farms and plantations, and in industry. Second, they note "women's significance in shaping values, at first in the privacy of their homes, then increasingly in the public sphere" (p. xviii). Smith and Wilson personalize the narrative by introducing readers to dozens of North Carolina women. Within chapters, they use the experiences of particular individuals both to illustrate general themes and to demonstrate variations within the overall contours of women's lives. The story of Hannah Johnston's relationship with Revolutionary patriot James Iredell provides a window into the dynamics of courtship and marriage among white elites in the eighteenth century. …