Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the South. By Elizabeth Fox-Genovese. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.
xvii, 544 pp. $34.95 cloth; $12.95 paper.
Elizabeth Fox-Genovese's Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of
the Old South argues that for mistresses and slave women, gender conventions, like those
of race and class, came rooted in household productive relations. Household is a
carefully defined central concept: it refers to a fundamental social and productive unit
and to all those who contributed to or identified with it in some way. Significantly,
households did not necessarily involve kinship. Difference is emphasized; of women and
their interrelationships, of their interactions with different men, of relationships borne
to societies they inhabited. Women's history, as Fox-Genovese stresses, "cannot be
written without attention to women's relations with men in general and with 'their' men
in particular, nor without attention to other women" (p. 42).
This rich and complex analysis, alive to ambiguity and contradiction, examines two
general types of gender experiences spawned within plantation households. Ultimately,
common household membership for women who occupied clearly inimical social realms
required peculiar subordinations of both, though in radically different ways and with
dramatically different results. Mistresses lived within a "seamless wrapping" of gender
that formed the core of their identities and came fortified by class and race. Gender for
slave women was far more shifty and complicated. They lived between two contending
sets of gender conventions, one created by slaveholders and another melded from their
own heritages and needs. Slaveholders' manipulations of that nexus resulted in unique
and familiar tyrannies. Moreover, the trinity of gender, class, and race functioned
differently for slave women and could abandon them altogether. They perforce tailored
resistance along fluid individualistic lines, but their efforts could culminate in cruel
isolation, as they did for Harriet Jacobs, a remarkable slave woman whose recently
revivified narrative occupies a key place in the argument. Slave women's predicaments
about gender underscored as much as anything the degree to which slaveholders
dominated their female slaves' lives.
Mistresses' collaborations in that domination consisted in helping to construct
gender, as they did race and class, in order to protect the institution from which they
derived their powers and identities. Diarist Mary Boykin Chesnut, whose abiding
racism fueled aversions to slavery, grumbled about but never really challenged the
obligation to reproduce plantation households along these lines. Reformer Gertrude
Thomas sought merely to curb slavery's excesses. Polemicist Louisa McCord unabash-
ediy defended the interdependency of gender conventions and proslavery. Sometimes
mistresses, Reagan-like, enlisted the language of northern bourgeois feminism when it
was helpful, but the individualistic essence of that ideology unleashed their piteous scorn
and gave them a cherished enemy. Abolitionism was scarce as homespun their wardrobes.
The strengths of this book are plentiful. Fox-Genovese's analysis of bourgeois
feminism and its influence on women is fascinating. Comparative readings of Jacobs's
and Frederick Douglass's narratives show how gender conventions prevented the former
from fashioning arguments based on the contradiction between slavery and individualism,
even while she endorsed true womanhood for the edification of her audience. The
bibliography is exhaustive, and the notes, particularly for the theoretical and historiographical
chapter, are gold mines.
Weaknesses result periodically from sources and conceptualization. Fox-Genovese
plumbed the record well. The book on balance relies heavily on diaries and letters from
mistresses, however, and thus it explains more about them than slave women.
Moreover, the invaluable primacy of household analysis partially obscured slave
women's presence, chiefly because of the unpredictable relation it bore to home, or
kinship. Family was a critical issue to slave communities, and the search for home was
a central theme in Jacobs's writing. Focusing the beam of "household" on the quarters
illuminated the precariousness of slave family life and relegated slave gender conven-
tions to the shadows, preventing in turn a clearer understanding of how gender in the
cabins shaped gender in the Big House.
Within the Plantation Household amply rewards its readership. Impressive in depth
and scope, elegant in presentation, fresh in approach, and provocative in conclusions,
the book will become an indispensable touchstone of debate. It adds to the growing
number of stimulating works that have moved beyond the "women worthy" stage to
become studies of theoretical and empirical sophistication, rooted in a dynamic
conception of gender as a cultural construct in profound league with race and class.
Most important, the book provides another exemplification of the centrality of African
American to American history by illustrating how critical it is to eschew the notion that
women are bound transhistorically by gender.
Lynda J. Morgan, Mount Holyoke College
Reviewed in the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, v.98 no.1 (January 1990)