Stepping out of the Shadows: Alabama Women, 1819-1990

By Mary Martha Thomas | Go to book overview

1
Stewards of Their Culture Southern Women Novelists as Social Critics

ELIZABETH FOX-GENOVESE

The temptation to view southern women as committed, if frequently secret, social critics has been strong but may rest on a misunderstanding. For the view of women--any women--as social critics too frequently rests on the assumption that women will, first and foremost, criticize their own social subordination. There is, in other words, a strong tendency to associate women as social critics with the emergence of feminism. This tendency especially derives from the pioneering work in women's history that linked the rise of feminism to women's associations for the moral reform of society, particularly to the rise of antislavery, which, it is argued, provided women with a powerful analogy for their own subordination.1 It rests on the further and palpably false assumption that women, as social critics, inevitably favor an expanded democratization of society and politics.

One premise of this argument, at least, is compelling. Feminism as a social movement has, as its most vociferous critics have always insisted, tended to promote the leveling of hierarchies, beginning with that most resilient of all, the hierarchy of gender relations within the family. But the argument also rests upon a serious fallacy, namely the assumption that all women equate social criticism with feminism. It ignores, in other words, the evidence that many women, like many men, criticize society from a conservative position; it assumes that women's social criticism necessarily presupposes a commitment to women's equality--either with men or among themselves.

Today we are beginning to understand that women may criticize as

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