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Mothers of Invention: Women of the…

Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American…

by Drew Gilpin Faust

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I found the material interesting yet I did not find that these confederate women truly reinvented themselves-they adapted. The title led me to expect something more momentous. ( )
  Cricket856 | Jan 25, 2016 |
I read this book because it won the 1997 Parkmqan Prize. It is the 22nd such winner I have read. The book is based on solid and extensive research in original materials. One has to conclude that Southern women were devoted to being cuddled by the care of their husbands and by the slaves who did the work which should have either been done by the women themselves or by servants who were paid. Apparently the women of the South never doubted the wisdom of having people be property who did the work which the women did not want to do and did not want o pay to have someone else do. So, there was a lot of suffering by Southern women but I felt that they brought it on themselves by their blindness to the evil which slavery was and which Jefferson long before had pointed out was a source of danger to the South. ( )
1 vote Schmerguls | Sep 10, 2014 |
5/20 Fantastic. One of those beautifully written histories that reads like literature. Faust is a great writer, and an amazing historian, and through her book, the struggles of the women in the south come alive. It's one of those books that reminds you that men aren't the only ones who made history, and it's certainly a book that enlightens a subject we don't often think about. The subject is gripping: What would you do if your husband went off to war and you were left alone, with children to take care of, a plantation to manage, and slaves who could run off or revolt at any minute?
What's particularly interesting about this book is that it explores how people's notions of womanhood and "being a lady" changed through the war, and how they were tailored to fit different circumstances. Women's attempt to reconcile the disparate elements of what being a woman was in wartime is poignant; especially as you realize that these issues haven't disappeared in the modern world, but are still being examined, questioned and changed.
Highly recommended, particularly when paired with Fausts' other brilliant book "This Republic of Suffering" (which handles how concepts of death and killing were dealt with through the civil war) ( )
  Stormrose | Feb 3, 2010 |
  OuterBanksHistory | Jul 2, 2009 |
In her study, Faust focuses narrowly on women from the slave-holding stratum of Southern society, the elite, during the American Civil War. Her point of view is the way in which these women--pre-and post-war--viewed themselves, and the consequences of changes in those views brought on by the war.

Pre-war, elite Southern women defined themselves, not as women, but as “ladies”, which involved definite and rigid preconceptions of race, class, and gender. White was superior to black, the upper socio-economic class was dependent on slave labor which women took for granted, and being a woman from an elite background meant near-total dependency on and submission to men as the superior gender.

But practically from the beginning of the war, the definition of what it meant to be a “lady” became impossible to maintain. An extraordinarily high number of white Southern men went off to war, leaving behind, in the case of the elite slaveholding-families, women who were unequipped by training or emotional background to oversee plantations of slaves, for example, and to cary out hitherto unimaginable tasks such as spinning and weaving the cloth that pre-war had been scorned as fit only for slaves but was now essential due to the Union blockade. Few had any idea how to cook even the simplest meals.

Faust exhaustively looks at the massive disruptive effects that the depopulation of the South of white men meant to women. One of her most telling phrases is that pre-war elite women had an unconscious contract with men--submission and dependency in exchange for men’s support and protection. As the war progressed and the suffering and fear went on, as the losses mounted, women felt betrayed--the contract had been broken. But what Faust makes clear is that this did not lead to a demanding of rights or increased independence in the way it had already started in the North on the part of southern elite women; “progress” is usually never linear, and this was no exception. There were shifts, there were consequences, but there was backing and filling as well.

In reality, almost every aspect of elite female life was torn asunder by this one primary cause--the lack of white males to carry out the perceived responsibilities of their class. Faust looks into all these aspects in chapters on women’s frustration with restriction in actions due to gender expectations; the whole complicated issue of slavery and women’s ambivalent attitude towards the institution; the desperate economic conditions that forced these women to do the unthinkable--take positions outside the home for paid wages; the strains that the war’s demands on women placed on their marriages; women’s relations with one another; their reading and literary aspirations; the change in attitudes towards God and religion as the war ground on; attitudes towards Yankee men; a striking chapter on the symbolism of clothing ; the shift, if not entirely conscious, from the assumption of abnegation and self-sacrifice in the cause of patriotism to a consideration of women’s own needs and rights; the role women played, in their increasing insistence that their men return from the carnage, in the Southern military defeat.

An excellent epilogue on what Faust calls the burden of Southern history revisited, gives a brief look at the results of these powerful shifts in women’s attitudes on, in particular, the suffragette movement in the South. In her last chapter, Faust makes an excellent case that the suffragette movement in the South had different roots than that of the North, and grew out of women’s disdain for the men who had failed to protect them and by women’s sense of their own limitations, far, far different from their Northern counterparts. But, in one of her most striking conclusions, a real eyebrow raiser, Faust argues that women’s desperate need for some return to the old order where being a “lady” meant a certain status caused elite Southern women to support even more strongly than the men the suppression of African-American men, in particular. Women were a powerful driving force committed to black disenfranchisement.

All throughout the book, Faust uses extensive quotes from hundreds of letters, diaries, and memoirs of Southern elite women drawn from all over the Confederacy. The best known of these is South Carolinian Mary Chestnut’s diaries. But by the time the book is finished, we feel as if we have met and gotten to know women like Sarah Morgan from Louisiana, Mary Lee from Virginia, Lizzie Neblett from Texas and scores more.

Which rings up the question of Faust’s writing style, which is superb. The best way that I can describe is to call it “quiet”--there is nothing shrill or edgy about it Yet, Faust is never, ever dull. The only quibble I have--and it is truly minor--is that when she deviates from the solid, powerful evidence of women’s own writings and speculates on psychological effects from feminist principles, the book loses impact. Fortunately those instances are few.

Included are a number of excellent photographs and reproductions of drawings from periodicals such as Harper’s Weekly. The photographs help to bring to life such women as Mary Lee, Sarah Morgan, and Kate Stone, and are welcome touches.

This is a superb book and should not be limited in interest just to American Civil War readers. Anyone who is interested in women’s history and roles will find a wealth of information in a book that is scrupulously researched and written in an extremely accessible way. Highly recommended. ( )
3 vote Joycepa | Jan 12, 2009 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0807855731, Paperback)

When Confederate men marched off to battle, southern women struggled with the new responsibilities of directing farms and plantations, providing for families, and supervising increasingly restive slaves. Drew Faust offers a compelling picture of the more than half-million women who belonged to the slaveholding families of the Confederacy during this period of acute crisis, when every part of these women's lives became vexed and uncertain. Faust chronicles the clash of the old and the new within a group that was at once the beneficiary and the victim of the social order of the Old South.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:16:31 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

When Confederate men marched off to battle, white women across the South confronted unaccustomed and unsought responsibilities: directing farms and plantations, providing for families, and supervising increasingly restive slaves. As southern women struggled "to do a man's business," they found themselves compelled to reconsider their most fundamental assumptions about their identities and about the larger meaning of womanhood. Drew Faust offers a compelling picture of the more than half-million women who belonged to the slaveholding families of the Confederacy during this period of acute crisis. According to Faust, the most privileged of southern women experienced the destruction of war as both a social and a personal upheaval: the prerogatives of whiteness and the protections of ladyhood began to dissolve as the Confederacy weakened and crumbled. Faust draws on the eloquent diaries, letters, essays, memoirs, fiction, and poetry of more than 500 of the Confederacy's elite women to show that with the disintegration of slavery and the disappearance of prewar prosperity, every part of these women's lives became vexed and uncertain. But it was not just females who worried about the changing nature of gender relations in the wartime South; Confederate political discourse and popular culture - plays, novels, songs, and paintings - also negotiated the changed meanings of womanhood. Exploring elite Confederate women's wartime experiences as wives, mothers, nurses, teachers, slave managers, authors, readers, and survivors, this book chronicles the clash of the old and the new within a group that was at once the beneficiary and the victim of the social order of the Old South. Mothers of Invention show how people managed both to change and not to change and how their personal transformations related to a larger world of society and politics. Beautifully written and eminently readable, this study of women and war is a pathbreaking and definitive study of the forgotten half of the Confederacy's master class.… (more)

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