Southern Women in Revolution, 1776-1800: Personal and Political Narratives / She Left Nothing in Particular: The Autobiographical Legacy of Nineteenth-Century Women's Diaries

By Terry, Gail S. | Journal of the Early Republic, October 1, 2002 | Go to article overview

Southern Women in Revolution, 1776-1800: Personal and Political Narratives / She Left Nothing in Particular: The Autobiographical Legacy of Nineteenth-Century Women's Diaries


Terry, Gail S., Journal of the Early Republic


Southern Women in Revolution, 1776-1800: Personal and Political Narratives. By Cynthia A. Kierner. (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1998. Pp. xvi, 253. Illustrations. $34.95.)

She Left Nothing in Particular. The Autobiographical Legacy of Nineteenth-Century Women's Diaries. By Amy L. Wink. (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 2001. Pp. xxxvi, 162. $25.00.)

At first glance, Cynthia A. Kierner's presentation and interpretation of eighteenth-century petitions submitted by women to the legislatures of the southern states during and shortly after the War for Independence and Amy Wink's intensive analysis of mid-nineteenth-century women's diaries appear to have little in common. Taken together, however, they expand our knowledge of women's lives, of women's writings (broadly defined), and of the relationship between the two during the chronological period covered by this journal. Although both scholars acknowledge the political and social constraints under which eighteenth- and nineteenth-century women lived and labored, their scholarship-and the documents themselves-- forcefully remind us that ordinary women were neither quiescent nor invisible as they carved out lives for themselves in their own place and time.

In some ways Kierner's task is the more difficult of the two; petitioning, especially by women in the eighteenth century, has been studied much less systematically than nineteenth-century diary writing. Kierner's interest in the petitions grew out of a more general concern with the changing relationship of eighteenth-century women to the public sphere, and although her research for the broader study informs this volume, it also has been published separately in Beyond the Household: Women's Place in the Early South, 1700-1800 (1998). Southern Women in Revolution offers a selection of 98 women's petitions to the legislatures of North and South Carolina (chosen from a total of 240) edited, annotated, and introduced by a series of original interpretive essays. Kierner organizes the petitions into five groups-Families at War; The Cost of Liberty; The Loyalist Legacy; Women, Allegiance and Citizenship; and The Limits of Revolution-and her introductory essays are designed to illuminate the broader historical context that produced the petitions within a particular group or to interpret the common theme that unites them. The essays draw on an array of primary sources from Virginia and Georgia as well as the Carolinas, but although Kierner analyzed petitions from the former two states, none are included among the edited documents in the volume.

Kierner's analysis of the petitions builds on earlier scholarship by Linda K. Kerber, Mary Beth Norton, Constance B. Schulz, and Patricia Higgins on women and petitioning and by Alison Olson and Raymond Bailey on eighteenth-century American legislative petitioning specifically. She finds, not surprisingly, that most petitioners were widows, single women, or the wives of Loyalists. A vast majority were literate, at least to the extent that they could sign their own names, and, surprisingly, "roughly half penned the entire text of the documents they submitted for the legislators' consideration" (53). Although levels of "worldly experience and financial knowledge" varied among the women, Kierner concludes that most "who remained at home in wartime knew what property their families owned, what compensation soldiers received, and what the government paid for produce" (52). She also maintains that "some of the most effusively deferential supplicants used the conventional language of feminine innocence and dependence to mask genuine understanding of their family's economic circumstances and interests" (52). Kierner's principal concern in analyzing the language of the petitions is to determine the extent to which women considered themselves citizens of the republic. She concludes that even the most verbally assertive petitioners were reluctant to claim the rights and obligations of citizenship. …

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