Domesticity All Dressed-Up: Gender in Antebellum Politics and Culture (We Mean to Be Counted; Home Fronts)

Article excerpt

Tatiana van Riemsdijk, "Domesticity all dressed-up: Gender in Antebellum Politics and Culture," Labour/Le Travail, 42 (Fall 1998), 235-42.

Elizabeth Varon, We Mean to be Counted: White Women and Politics in Antebellum Virginia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press 1998).

Lora Romero, Home Fronts: Domesticity and its Critics in the Antebellum United States (Durham: Duke University Press 1997).

FOR SOME TIME NOW, feminist scholars have redefined the boundaries of politics by theorizing carefully about gender ideologies and household structures, cultural politics and official politics of parties, ballot boxes and talkative cravated men in legislatures. Read together, these two new books evaluate a body of printed artifacts including novels, newspapers, and legislative petitions. In this discursive realm of publicity, public criticism, and publishing, mostly from outside the legislative halls, women could engage in certain kinds of antebellum political and cultural debates. By examining such discourse, two well-trodden topics in antebellum scholarship, slavery and domesticity, receive a stylish new look in the hands of Elizabeth Varon, an Historian at Wellesley College, and Lora Romero, an English professor at Stanford.

Topical similarity and a modern feminist perspective link these books. Besides that, Varon and Romero occupy completely different theoretical fields. We Mean to be Counted places the public words and actions of a select group of elite Virginia women into a Habermasian public sphere of newspapers, novels, reform work, and partisan politics, departing from earlier southern scholarship in women's history, from what she calls "private sphere" histories of family life, mistresses, slaves, and the rhythm of plantation activity. Varon's is an intellectual history of the participation of witty, well-educated, and seductively opinionated women who were complicit in antebellum southern conservatism. In contrast, Romero's Homefronts sifts the ideology of domesticity through the Foucauldian filter of post-structuralism. She argues that domesticity had so many meanings or "pluralities" -- in middleclass homes, on the frontier and high culture, among social reformers and African-American activists -- that there was "a mobility of political meanings produced by the same discourse." (9) Romero places her multivariant interpretation against the binary models of opposition politics, such as feminine resistance/patriarchy and private/public spheres.

Varon's work is both lively and bold. She is forceful about her argument: political conservatism in the South, which shunned feminism and abolitionism, did not equate to women's passivity in the political debates of the day, partisan politics, slavery, and the Confederacy. Varon weaves two important threads of political history together by explaining "a commitment to the traditional gender order, in which women deferred to the leadership of men, with a passion for politics and a desire to be heard." (9) Her book opens with a discussion of benevolent and moral reform, then moves to two centrepiece chapters, one about the American colonization society, and following that, an original interpretation of women's participation in partisan politics labelled "The Ladies are Whigs." The second half of her book analyzes women's literary works for evidence of political expression throughout the late antebellum period, secession crisis, and post-war era.

Varon is zealous in crafting the story of her brigade of informed and politically motivated women. They were everywhere: petitioning for the incorporation of charities, publishing articles, fundraising, and crafting a partisan political identity Varon calls "Whig womanhood." Emerging in the 1840s, Whig womanhood was a particular incarnation of civic duty which "embodied the notion that women could -- and should -- make vital contributions to party politics by serving as both partisans and mediators in the public sphere. …