Gender and the Southern Body Politic: Essays and Comments

Gender and the Southern Body Politic: Essays and Comments

Gender and the Southern Body Politic: Essays and Comments

Gender and the Southern Body Politic: Essays and Comments

Excerpt

In May 1865 headlines screamed that Jefferson Davis was captured in women's clothing. Cartoonists depicted Jefferson Davis running in a hoop skirt, tripping over a sword suggestively caught between his legs. Others cried foul play and claimed that Davis simply grabbed his wife's shawl for warmth as he went out into the cool night air. Though facts of the case may appear trivial, the Davis incident embodied an important struggle over social memory. As historian Nina Silber has eloquently argued, the controversy centered on who had the right to tell the nation's story. Would the Confederacy be forever emasculated in the public memory, or could the South redeem its manhood and claim the right to self-governance? It all hinged on Davis's gender identity.

The work of feminist historians demonstrates that gender is a constitutive element of social power. Gender “naturalizes” power relations, providing a structure and a metaphor for contesting or upholding social order. Until recently, most historians overlooked gender narratives such as the Davis incident. These stories reeked of gossip, rumor, and slander—distracting tangents to serious political history. Yet, as French historian Lynn Hunt suggests, all politics has a family model and every revolution its family romance.

Southern historians are at the forefront in revising political history. Proving that gender is a “useful category of analysis, ” feminist historians significantly challenge our understanding of the most hallowed subjects in southern history—the origins of slavery, Bacon's Rebellion, the Nullification crisis, the origins of the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Lost Cause, Populism, and Jim Crow. By and large, the historical profession listens to these voices, granting many of these authors the top prizes awarded by the discipline. Individually each of these authors has been lauded . . .

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