Women, Work, and Family in the Antebellum Mountain South.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Sager, Robin
Pub Date: 06/22/2010
Publication: Name: Journal of Social History Publisher: Journal of Social History Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: History; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2010 Journal of Social History ISSN: 0022-4529
Issue: Date: Summer, 2010 Source Volume: 43 Source Issue: 4
Topic: NamedWork: Women, Work, and Family in the Antebellum Mountain South (Nonfiction work)
Persons: Reviewee: Dunaway, Wilma A.
Accession Number: 230778719
Full Text: Women, Work, and Family in the Antebellum Mountain South. By Wilma A. Dunaway (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. vii plus 301 pp.).

Not content with worshipping at the interpretational altars of the "cult of domesticity" and "separate spheres," Dunaway's book explores the ways in which antebellum Appalachian women were not bound by elite gender conventions. As Dunaway effectively demonstrates, Mountain South women encompassed a broad array of ethnic, class, and racial combinations. Based upon a database of nearly 20,000 households as well as a wide assortment of primary documents, the book provides striking new information on numerous understudied areas, such as women and work, indigenous mountain women, and Appalachian women in general.

The book is divided into two halves. In the first section, Dunaway argues that, "women did not share a unified gendered space." (15) Poor white, Cherokee, free black, and enslaved women did not feel drawn together by a shared "sisterhood of subordination," (98) thus limiting the possibilities of group resistance based upon common concerns. The second part of the hook follows these same categories of women as they defied elite gender conventions by working outside of the home and venturing regularly into the public sphere. These economic activities led to certain women being labeled by those in authority as "dangerous" and as targets for a regulation of motherhood.

Dunaway finds that the antebellum Mountain South was a region in which racial, ethnic, and class "cleavages" (1) were ever-present. Euroamerican women were divided by religious differences as evidenced by the anti-Catholic publishing policies of local newspapers. Indigenous women struggled to resist cultural change while simultaneously catering to the international fur trade through their labors. At the same time, black women fostered a liberation theology out of conjuring and Christianity, yet were unable to see how women in other groups might yearn for liberation as well. By avoiding the "class-blind mistakes" (100) of other scholars, the book also shows the polarizing effects of class on all groups of Mountain South women. However, while those individuals in the highest classes constructed the measures of respectability, those ideals were not hegemonic.

The everyday labor decisions of Appalachian women proved that no "clear male public sphere" (129) existed. Dunaway describes how Mountain South households became "resource pooling units" (148) which women contributed to via their agricultural and nonagricultural labors. Forced into the fields by a husband's death, to produce goods for a landlord, or for a variety of other reasons, women of all types found themselves with calloused hands and suntanned faces. In addition to field work, Dunaway astutely observes that women engaged in "diverse portfolios of nonagricultural labors aimed at the marketplace." (192) The women of the Mountain South produced one-third of the cloth used in the U.S. in 1810. In addition to suffering from "superexploitation" (169) due to their productive and reproductive capacities, these women proved unable to protect their families from regulation by outsiders.

Venturing into the public sphere to protect their families from poverty, they unwittingly provided cause for elites to label poor white, Cherokee, free black, and slave women as "dangerous classes." (195) Female-headed households, Cherokee women who showed measures of marital control, and free black families without the protection of white benefactors all were subjected to regulation at the hands of local court officials and sheriffs. Not content with merely 'fixing' those families already in existence, elites took if one step farther and sought, to control motherhood itself. Childbearing and rearing by women of the "dangerous classes" (195) was "neither equally valued nor equitably protected." (230) Slave women often bore children without the most basic of prenatal care while the offspring of poor whites fed a burgeoning system of indentured labor.

Women, Work, and the Family demonstrates the possibilities for the study of women, gender, and sexuality within the Mountain South. Not simply a region defined by homogeneity, this area clearly has much to teach us about how elite ideals held tip in the lace of diversity. The book serves as a model for scholars interested in approaching well-worn concepts such as the existence of "separate spheres" from new directions.

Robin Sager

Rice University
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