Analysis – Southern Women and the Revolution

Southern Women and the Revolution – Mary Beth Norton

1.   Thesis: The Revolutionary War transformed the social role of women. Depending on which region (North or South) a woman lived in and to which class (rural poor, urban, wealthy white) a woman belonged, their level of dependence to men dictated how they reacted to the war and led them to question what social roles they aspired for after the war.  “During and after the war the more highly educated and reflective among the white women began to raise questions about the social role to which they and their northern counterparts long had been confined…it shows that, contrary to what historians usually have maintained, women did not simply ‘quietly sink back in their places and take up the old endless routine of their existence’ after the war.” (p. 189-190)

2.   Structure of supporting argument: The author offers three obvious sets of women (and one subtle set) and compares how each lived before, during and after the war.  These obvious sets include 1) women of the poor, ‘middling’ class, 2) women of the urban class, and 3) women of the large wealthy, multi-racial households.  The fourth set is comprised of black slave women. The author also explains the differences in the roles of women in post-war North and South.

3.  Evidence in support of that argument:

Before War:

Ø  Poor rural women – could not write, cared for house, children, worked in fields, tended livestock, routine and redundant tough life, multiple burdens, lacked proper clothing (p181 – accounts of Hart, Fithian, Woodmason)

Ø  Urban women – more independent, less burden, less time with children (schools), more likely to engage in business activities on their own or with husbands (grocery stores, midwifery, taverns)

Ø  Multi-Racial Large Households (rural/urban) – free from monotonous duties thanks to slaves, were “good managers” and “remarkable Economists” (p182), had an air of authority and command, good at giving orders, delegators – had more time with children to cultivate/educate

Ø  Black Slave Women – extended family connections, kinship ties, more attuned to various skills

Ø  See also Venezuelan comment about women subservient to husbands (p.184)

During War:

Ø  Poor rural women – widows in countryside (lost husbands, sons, brothers), gathered together to help defend each other from foreigners/soldiers (p187)

Ø  Urban women – Kept doing what they had been doing, not interfered with.

Ø  Multi-Racial Large Households (rural/urban) – New challenges for those who had depended on the men…had to take up all of the duties when men away for long periods of time

Ø  Black Slave Women:  Learned spinning due to need for local cloth sources, opened skilled work to Negro slave women.  Also chose to help loyalists in exchange for freedom (some 50,000 slaves estimated lost – p.187)

Ø  Susannah Marshall example (p.189)

After War:

Ø  Poor rural women – had problems but landed on feet more

Ø  Urban women – much easier time, landed on feet easily, took initiative, independent

Ø  Multi-Racial Large Households (rural/urban) – lacked success handling “difficulties of which she had no experience in her former life” (p188)


North vs. South:

Ø  North – more changes/opportunities, less focus on households due to factory/industrial progress

Ø  South – brunt of the devastation, huge losses of men – focus was entirely on maintaining patriarchal society and rebuilding the South – women retreated to homes: “women’s control over manners equally important as men’s control of laws” (p193)  Needed to rebuild/replace dead with new sons that could carry on the legacy.

4.  Is it convincing?  Are there criticisms?

This essay is convincing.  It fits that prior to the Revolutionary War that there was an accepted way of life where women were completely dependent on the patriarchal society that existed.  It also fits that the war would alter this fundamentally, destroying the patriarchy and forcing the shift of burden to women.  Taking on new challenges most likely empowered women to realize that they could do more and contribute more than simply being “slave to their husbands” (p. 183).  In the North, industry provided opportunity for those already with initiative and independent lifestyles.  It is extraordinary that the War caused women of the South to retreat further into the “monastic seclusion” and “confines of their households”, as observed by the Venezuelan on page 184.  The war seems to have polarized women into two different camps of mentality that reflect the conditions of each region – those who wished to move on and progress (like the industrial North), and those that wished to re-enforce and revert to tradition.

Posted in History - Pre-Civil War South.