420 pp., 81/2 x 11, 12 color illus., 238 b&w illus., 1
table, notes, bibl., index
Published: Spring 1999
Supplee Smith and Emily Herring Wilson
(c) 2002 by the University of North Carolina Press. All
North Carolina history books for most generations of students contained the names of very few women Queen Elizabeth and Virginia Dare come to mind. Of course, students had grandmothers who told them stories and mothers who taught them, but when they got up from the supper table to read their schoolbooks, they entered a house of history unlike any house they had ever lived in: where were the women? Seventeen women were among the settlers of the Lost Colony; between 1830 and 1840 women became a majority of North Carolinians; in 1920 more women were employed in textiles and tobacco in North Carolina than in any other southern state; and by the end of the twentieth century women made up about half of the state's workforce. Like most things taken for granted, women's roles in the making of North Carolina and other states of our country went unexamined for a very long time.
By contrast, this book draws together research on North Carolina women over centuries into a comprehensive narrative. As such, it goes against the trend in current historiography to take one segment of the past and illuminate a larger picture by thoroughly analyzing a microcosm. We have tried to see as much of the whole as possible because so much has been missing. Since we started this book almost a decade ago, new research and scholarly interpretations on women have been published and more are in the works, so that in the future the picture begun here will be redrawn in ever more detail and complexity, reinterpreted, revised, and expanded.
This first-ever history of North Carolina women, like its subject, evolved slowly. We began by trying to educate ourselves, reading as much as we could about American women and North Carolina women. Like most historians, some days we felt that we were in a race against time. The project to gather what had already been researched, to stay current with recent scholarship, and to weave it all together into a readable history was daunting. By the time we had written our way from prehistory to the end of World War II, we had to impose limitations: the second half of the twentieth century was so monumental that it would require a book of its own. There was more than enough to do between the first chapter on Native American women and the last chapter on women during World War II.
From the beginning we relied on the work of many scholars. Our method was twofold. A great deal of research had already been done; it not only put in our hands the materials we needed, but also in citing our sources we would be able to recognize how early and how long researchers had worked. Then, as time and resources permitted, we could conduct our own research to fill in some of the missing pieces.
Although we learned from many historians, we relied especially on the work of two scholars who published in the first half of the twentieth century and two who published in the second half. Guion Griffis Johnson's Ante-Bellum North Carolina: A Social History (1937) and Julia Cherry Spruill's Women's Life and Work in the Southern Colonies (1938) have been for us, as for many other writers, essential and incomparable. Two later books helped shape our understanding of the broader themes of women's history. In At Odds: Women and the Family in America from the Revolution to the Present (1984), Carl Degler considered how women's growing individuality in terms of activities outside their families whether volunteer or paid conflicted with their conventional role in the family. Sara M. Evans's Born for Liberty: A History of Women in America (1989) posited an active role for women in shaping their own history. She explored a major theme in women's history: women's roles in the private and public spheres, not as irreconcilable opposites but as opportunities for women to transform public life through an awareness of the traditional concerns of the home education, health, and welfare. In developing this theme in our own research, we learned how the movement from the home into public places changed North Carolina as well as women's lives.
Despite the work of many historians, however, there were missing chapters, especially in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. Even in later periods, information was not uniformly available on all groups of North Carolina women. To try to complete the picture, we turned to many different kinds of information. In using visual images from the North Carolina Women Making History exhibit, we created an illustrative history: needlework, clothing, jewelry, and household furnishings help us see the way women lived. In analyzing the architecture of houses and the composition of paintings, we discovered places where women worked and lived and ways in which they were represented. Archaeological shards, baskets and bowls, public records and oral histories, statistical data and demographic studies all supplied vital evidence.
At the same time that we tried to create a sense of the sweep and flow of a long, complex historical narrative, we attempted to mention as many individual women as possible. Present throughout our narrative are vignettes of many lives. Because written records favor white literate women and women in public life, they occupy a disproportionate share of the history. Nineteenth-century gentry women left copious journals and letters, whereas slave voices were heard in less obvious ways but not widely until oral interviews with former slaves were undertaken and published in the 1930s by the Works Progress Administration. During the same period sociologist Margaret Jarman Hagood documented the lives of tenant farm women. More recently, historians Lu Ann Jones and Anne Radford Phillips researched the lives of yeoman farm women, and Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore and Anastatia Sims studied middle-class clubwomen, black and white.
Women were not always on the same side: Native American women saw their land and lives destroyed by the arrival of settlers, whose women helped establish permanent homesteads; white women slaveowners controlled the lives of black slave women; women suffragists were opposed by women antisuffragists; the wives of millowners had little in common with women who worked in the mills. Only by considering the particular contours of individual lives as well as the broad constraints of gender, race, class, religion, and geography can we begin to understand the complexities and diversity of women's history.
With women at the center, the conventional pace of history changes. Anne Firor Scott has observed that many of the activities with which women are involved maintaining households, rearing families, educating children, caring for the sick and the elderly are long-term, private, and incremental rather than public and dramatic. To become aware of a history that is as familiar to us as our own lives, we asked basic questions. What did women do in North Carolina? How were their lives different from men's? How did women's lives differ from one another? What perspectives and experiences did race, class, geography, marital status, religion, and age impose? What impact did women have on the values and life of the state?
As we began to move through the centuries, two important themes emerged: first, women's importance in the economies underlying North Carolina's agrarian history and urban development, and second, women's significance in shaping values, at first in the privacy of their homes, then increasingly in the public sphere. Religion was central in most lives, and women became the mainstay of congregations. Because North Carolina remained a rural state well into the twentieth century, many women continued to practice the time-honored traditions of an agrarian society. When the farm could not support the family and wage work was necessary, women became the largest and the lowest paid labor force in the tobacco and textile industries. Even as women gave up their independence on the farm for dependence on paid jobs in small towns and cities, they gained access to more opportunities and activities. But the public life available in towns and cities was controlled mostly by men in government and business. Women found themselves in low-paying jobs at the same time that urbanization offered more housing, more consumer goods, and more entertainment all of which cost more money. Having less and wanting more was common for many women, and the conservative and religious values of rural families were sometimes at odds with the values of a growing urban economy.
This history is presented through chronological narratives followed by biographical essays, fleshing out as fully as possible a small number of lives, not completely representative of many others but the most representative that we could find. We did not choose anyone now (1999) living as a subject for biography, and in selecting only twenty-two women from the past, we knew that our choices would sometimes be questioned, especially by readers who have their own favorite North Carolina women. But we were forced to impose limits on ourselves and hope that each woman whom we did include would, in various ways, be representative of many others. And we also made a great effort to include by name hundreds of women throughout the narrative chapters, often speaking in their own voices, from every part of the state, and from as many different homes and backgrounds and occupations as we could document. From these examples, we hope that other historians will find a rich field for further biographical research.
The book begins with an examination of the essential role that women Native American, European, and African played in settling North Carolina. Chapter 1, "The First Settlers of This Land," looks at Native American women, who lived in a culture in which they were the farmers, kinship and property were traced through the female line, and men and women played different but equally important roles. Following the narrative is a biographical essay on Cherokee War Woman Nanye'hi, later called Nancy Ward, whose native culture underwent dramatic changes after the arrival of Anglo-American settlers. Chapter 2, "The Most Industrious Sex in That Place," considers women and settlement and hypothesizes that white women settlers probably did not envision the New World as men did, that is, as "a Golden Age" or "Paradise," but in terms of what the new land offered them: smaller dreams of establishing families, building homes, planting gardens. On the North Carolina frontier in the Albemarle, men and women shared the same hardships and responsibilities, and the scarcity of people and the struggle to survive meant that gender and race did not always determine who did what. In that early society the boundaries between public and private, family and institution, owner and slave were still somewhat fluid.
By the eighteenth century North Carolina society had become more complex, and Chapter 3, "A Pattern of Industry," establishes something of a dialectic between women on the settled coast and those living in the backcountry; between those who purchased household items and those who engaged in home production; and among those who were slaves, those who owned slaves, and those who did not own slaves. Eighteenth-century rhetoric lauded the "notable housewife," and despite women's contributions to Revolutionary struggles, by 1800 women were less visible in the public sphere than previously. The biographies that follow this narrative are those of Rebecca Bryan Boone, who, as the wife of Daniel Boone and the mother of ten children, was a hardworking frontierswoman, and Ann Matthews Jessop, a Quaker minister in the New Garden community of present-day Guilford County. Enslaved women at Somerset plantation in the eastern part of the state and Moravian women in the Piedmont community of Salem represent women who lived collective lives.
The historic narrative continues with an examination of the lives of women in the traditional slaveholding agrarian society that was antebellum North Carolina and the ways they responded to the changes brought by the Civil War, Emancipation, and Reconstruction. Chapter 4, "A Hardier Mold," explores the centrality of family, kin, and church in black and white women's lives, whether slave or free, and considers the development of education and religion as they opened new horizons for some women, particularly those living in towns. Chapter 5, "The Labor of Her Own Hands," analyzes women's work on the farm, in the house, and in schools; it argues that women's domestic, agricultural, and industrial labor slave and free black, planter and yeoman undergirded Carolina's antebellum economy.
Chapter 6, "Women Enter the Struggle," focuses on women's role in the Civil War and after, from their support for the war within the gentry to yeoman resistance to the black sense that the end of slavery would bring opportunity with freedom. Women's "proper place" was challenged by their visible actions on the homefront, on the battlefield, and in new occupations. The hope of former slaves that education, industriousness, and justice would guarantee their civil rights was jeopardized by the unwillingness of whites to consider blacks as anything but inferior. The biography of Harriet Jacobs, who left Edenton and escaped to the North, where she joined the abolition movement, tells the story of how she came to write Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, under the name "Linda Brent." Although Jacobs's narrative contains fictionalized elements, it contributes to our historic understanding of enslaved women's lives in North Carolina. Other women in this period are Catherine Devereux Edmondston, who kept a journal about her life as a plantation mistress in Halifax County during the Civil War; Cornelia Phillips Spencer, who wrote and advocated for the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, where she lived, and for public education statewide; and Rhoda Strong Lowry, who as the wife of a guerrilla Indian fighter in Robeson County persevered through the tumultuous days of Reconstruction.
As the narrative moves into the modern period, we see that by 1920 North Carolina, though still predominantly rural, had become the most industrialized state in the South, based on a significant workforce of women. Race and class, as well as gender, strongly affected the opportunities available in this changing world. Chapter 7, "The Task That Is Ours," looks at how family life and women's work were reshaped by the realities of a different economy, New South industrialization, and the increasing urbanization that occurred between the end of Reconstruction and the first decade of the twentieth century. A biographical essay tells the story of Anna Julia Haywood Cooper, who graduated from St. Augustine's College in Raleigh, a recently created institution supported by the Freedmen's Bureau for the education of newly freed African Americans. Sallie Southall Cotten was inspired by her role as "lady manager" of North Carolina's exhibit at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair to return home and organize white middle-class women in a federation of women's clubs. A woman's entry into business is represented in the life of Julia Westall Wolfe, whose Asheville boardinghouse figures prominently in her son Tom's novel, Look Homeward, Angel.
Chapter 8, "More Was Expected of Us," explores how some women continued to stake out a feminine domain within public life by using the strategy of "organized womanhood" in suffrage, World War I activities, and labor reform and other social movements. Race and class dramatically affected the opportunities each had. Charlotte Hawkins Brown returned from Massachusetts, where she was educated, to her native North Carolina as a teacher for the American Missionary Association and stayed to build Palmer Memorial Institute for black children. Jane Simpson McKimmon pioneered in the state's home demonstration movement for women. Olive Dame Campbell, instrumental both in preserving folk traditions and in introducing new concepts into mountain life, and Mary Martin Sloop, concerned for children isolated in mountain communities, founded schools in western North Carolina. Active in support of many progressive causes woman suffrage, voter education, child labor reform, and collective bargaining Gertrude Weil was a well-known public woman who enjoyed family wealth and status. At the other end of the spectrum, Ella May Wiggins worked in textile mills and was a labor organizer. A popular balladeer, Wiggins was murdered on her way to sing for the union.
Chapter 9, "Turning Point or Temporary Gain," examines North Carolina women's role in World War II, a time that some historians consider a period of revolutionary change for women but others see as a period of only temporary change. Despite extraordinary events, some women continued to live as they had always lived: Minnie Evans, self-taught artist, and Elizabeth Lawrence, gardener and garden writer, fulfilled their ambitions in private lives. The postwar landscape for African Americans began to change under the leadership of early civil rights protesters like Pauli Murray, who later challenged laws and customs affecting blacks and women. Gladys Avery Tillett became a quintessential public woman, her life's work spanning the years between woman suffrage and unsuccessful efforts to pass the Equal Rights Amendment in 1982.
With the conclusion of the narrative and biographical essays, we move into an Epilogue, where, stepping back from history, we write in our own voices about the last half century. As children born just before America's entry into World War II, we have been part of the changes since that conflict and recognize the obstacles still faced by many women. In 1998, while others were perhaps looking ahead to the twenty-first century, we found ourselves looking back and seeing history as connected to the present in ways we had not even begun to consider.
After almost a decade of work, we are exhilarated by the realization that we have completed our journey; we have walked in many women's footsteps and have hoped to leave a few of our own. Although neither of us is a native of North Carolina, we have lived and worked in Winston-Salem for many years. In the course of our studies, travels, and conversations, we have come to feel at home in the state, on familiar ground. As women, we have had the intense satisfaction of knowing our own history. When Dorothy Spruill Redford "began as a woman alone, drifting in both time and place" to discover her African American roots in the eastern North Carolina slave community of Somerset, she said, "By traveling backward I had found an entire community of relatives I never knew existed." We hope our readers will find just such a community of kinfolk in this history.
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