Masterful Women: Slaveholding Widows from the American Revolution through the Civil War

Masterful Women: Slaveholding Widows from the American Revolution through the Civil War

Masterful Women: Slaveholding Widows from the American Revolution through the Civil War

Masterful Women: Slaveholding Widows from the American Revolution through the Civil War

Synopsis

Many early-nineteenth-century slaveholders considered themselves "masters" not only over slaves, but also over the institutions of marriage and family. According to many historians, the privilege of mastery was reserved for white males. But as many as one in ten slaveholders--sometimes more--was a widow, and as Kirsten E. Wood demonstrates, slaveholding widows between the American Revolution and the Civil War developed their own version of mastery.

Because their husbands' wills and dower law often gave women authority over entire households, widowhood expanded both their domestic mandate and their public profile. They wielded direct power not only over slaves and children but also over white men--particularly sons, overseers, and debtors. After the Revolution, southern white men frequently regarded powerful widows as direct threats to their manhood and thus to the social order. By the antebellum decades, however, these women found support among male slaveholders who resisted the popular claim that all white men were by nature equal, regardless of wealth. Slaveholding widows enjoyed material, legal, and cultural resources to which most other southerners could only aspire. The ways in which they did--and did not--translate those resources into social, political, and economic power shed new light on the evolution of slaveholding society.

Excerpt

Ask people in the United States today to name a famous woman in early American history, and many if not most will mention Martha Washington, who in fact owed her fame to her husband. Thanks to George Washington, Martha played a small role in the Revolutionary War, became the nation’s first First Lady, and helped set the tone of national politics in the 1790s. in both our time and her own, Martha Washington’s prominence reflected her husband’s. Martha was hardly unusual in this way; in her day and age, most adult women’s social position derived largely from their husbands. This book asks what happened to women like Martha Washington after their husbands died.

In the decades after the American Revolution, widowhood made most women socially marginal and even destitute. Some widows, however, retained considerable economic, social, and political privilege; they lost their husbands but not all of their husbands’ reflected glory. in Martha Washington’s case, her lofty position owed much to being a president’s widow, but it owed something as well to owning over one hundred slaves. Being slaveholders—and especially planters—made widows independent and powerful to a degree usually thought impossible for women in the early United States, especially in notoriously conservative Virginia, North and South Carolina, and Georgia. More important, slaveholding placed widows squarely among the ranks of the masters, a group usually associated with white men.

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