May 2, 2009
West Virginia History: A Journal of Regional Studies
Emerging from the Southern Conference on Women’s History (supported by the Southern Association for Women Historians), this volume puts to rest any lingering notions of the passivity of women in the southern United States. Each essay examines lives spent actively shaping their worlds. This focus on activity—the “creating and confronting” in the title—gives the volume its coherence. Boswell and McArthur’s claim that southern history has often been “recounted from the top down, relying upon political and economic models to explain historical changes,” and directly leading to a focus on elite political, business, and military men, sets up their counterclaim that women also shaped and confronted major events in the South from the ground up (2). For those of us persuaded by the past decades of feminist social history, it feels unfortunate that such a point must still be made. Given the sales of presidential histories, popularity of cable television’s war-strategy shows, and salaries of corporate executives, perhaps it still does. Fortunately, the articles in the collection also offer intriguing theoretical models to refigure the South with such a shift in mind. Beginning with the Revolutionary era, Philip Hoffman studies elite women left behind by their political office-holding husbands. Running plantations and households, these women forged roles for themselves in the young nation. Some years later, a similarly elite woman played a much larger role than has been recognized in our memories of that young national period. Jean B. Lee recovers Jane C. Washington’s work to preserve Mount Vernon, preparing the first president’s homestead to go to the more studied Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. In one of the most interestingly sourced farmworkers. Perhaps Montrie, or some other capable scholar, will further explore these schisms between man, work, and nature in a future volume. A more thorough volume analyzing one topic over time rather than numerous essays would be a stronger contribution to the literature and would be more apt to achieve the author’s earlier goal of bridging the gap between environmental and labor history.