Southern States Issues, The American Civil War and its Aftermath: Heath Hardage Lee, Kate Cote Gillin and Blain Roberts

The following reviews will be published in the journal. However, because of their particular relevance, they appear in the blog as part of the WHN contribution to Black History Month.

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Heath Hardage Lee Winnie Davis Daughter of The Lost Cause, United States of America: Potomac Press, 2014. US$29.95, 978-1-61234-637-3 (hardcover), pp.214

Kate Cote Gillin Shrill Hurrahs Women, Gender, and Racial Violence in South Carolina, 1865-1900, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 2013. US$39.95, 978-1-61117-294-1 (hardcover), pp.171

Blain Roberts Pageants, Parlors, & Pretty Women Race and Beauty in the Twentieth Century South, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 2014, US$39.95, 978-1-4696-1420-3 (hardcover), pp.363

Winnie Davis, Daughter of The Lost Cause, Shrill Hurrahs Women, Gender, and Racial Violence in South Carolina, 1865-1900 and Pageants, Parlors, & Pretty Women Race and Beauty in the Twentieth – Century South reflect not only the powerful influence of Southern mores encapsulated in ‘the Southern Belle’ but the profound embedding of those values arising from the South’s loss of the American Civil War. Together the three books cover the American Civil War from early 1865 and its aftermath to the Civil Rights era. At their heart is the legacy of the ideas given legitimacy by the South in its quest for an identity as an escape from a devastating military defeat. Women’s role and racial conflict are at the core of each of the books, ending with Blain Robert’s study of beauty pageants and parlours well after the initial conflict ended. Heath Hardage Lee has written a version of the aftermath American Civil War with Davis’ biography central while expanding to enhance further understanding of the war. Kate Cote Gillin takes a broader approach in her particularly thoughtful study of the politics of gender and racial violence in the south after the Civil War. Each of the books is a worthy read as a stand-alone work. However, together they accomplish a valuable trio of approaches, accessibility and style which provide effective explanations of the feelings and motivations that impact on contemporary Southern women and black Americans.

 

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Although the birth of Varina (Winnie) Davis in June 1846, is at the centre, her life is not the whole of the ideas and events covered in Lee’s work. The forward compels the reader to look further than a biography of a Southern daughter, linking Winnie’s birth with the death of the General J.E.B. Stuart, a young and revered commander of the Northern Virginian cavalry. As much a representative of the post-war era as Stuart was of its battles, Winnie grows up with the full mantle of expectations of Southern womanhood upon her. Southern archetypes about race and gender embellish these expectations, to the detriment of Winnie and her right to a life independent of the South’s past and her parentage.  She is described by Lee as being ‘a wistful, nervous heroine such as one might find described in the novels of Kate Chopin (The Awakening) or Charlotte Perkins Gilman (The Yellow Wallpaper)… ‘fitting the cultural mold of the times’ (p.67).  As the Daughter of the Confederacy Winnie’s life culminated in her devotees’ destruction of her relationship with a man with Northern sympathies. The stricken South demanded ‘a goddess or an angel, someone otherworldly who was above banal domestic occupations’ (p.80). Winnie’s novels, written in the 1890s demonstrate the conflict over women’s attempts to gain independence, the impact of the war on their aims and her own experiences as a victim of the control the South demanded of her as the embodiment of the lost cause.

The later years of the senior Davis family and last years of the war are also described, including another part of the puzzle of  associated with the way in which women were perceived. Lee describes the way in which the Northern papers controlled images of Southern devastation using gender as a weapon of denigration: graphically described in female images in the capture of Jefferson F. Davis in May 1865 (pp.24-26). In this image, together with the way in which Winnie was viewed by her admirers, Lee presents the complexities of demands upon women by both North and South. In the South if women were Daughters of the Confederacy or associated with ‘the cause’ they represented the antidote to the loss of the war. If they deviated from this image in behaviour, class or race they could be treated with violence. The North’s use of women’s attributes such as clothing or demeanour as a method of denigration is a further example of the complexity of women’s position.  Lee’s story of one woman’s role as a daughter of the lost cause raises through her some of the issues which are the basis of Gillin’s and Roberts’ work.

Gillin’s book is the most complex of the three and begins with the most appalling image of the impact on a woman who deviates from a role as a daughter of the lost cause. In 1871 the Klan’s treatment of a white woman who helped three black men was well beyond that meted out to the men. Together with the overtly sexual nature of the attack this example establishes the impact on women of the ‘undeclared racial war’ (p.1) which is the theme of this book.  This war impacted on the relationships between black and white women, as often their perceived interests were in conflict. White women who believed the myth that black women were willing participants in their domestic slavery in tasks undertaken for women were disillusioned. ‘They assumed they knew them well’ (p.25) but the women freed from slavery were keen to adopt their freedom and claim wages for their work and the status to which they were entitled. Despite maintaining trappings of the past in their demands toward their former slaves the myth about Southern white woman is also questioned by Gillin. She suggests that ‘few women were the demure, fainting victims of an oppressive northern regime and its black allies, as they would later claim. Most championed the interests of their race and class with vigor’ (p.26).

 

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Violence was not only inflicted by men against women as black and white women struggled to deal with their own challenges arising from the end of slavery. The salient point made here is that where one group of people has control over another violence is a likely consequence, as Gillin observes, ‘dramatic exchanges [between women]  were emblematic of the battle to determine the future of land and labor and of the war over gender and the power of womanhood’ (p.29).  Beyond the domestic challenges they encountered, women became involved in politics and ‘White women were a constant and accepted presence at Democratic functions throughout the state … [entering] the traditional male arena of political meetings, rallies, demonstrations, and even coercion’ (p.94). However, their image recalled the past: ‘white women brought their sense of presentation and decoration …women and girls became living representations of the cause for which they were fighting’ (p.95). While Gillin establishes the continuation of women as the embodiment of virtue during and after the American Civil War her reflections on lynching also establish the role of violence, not only as male but female. It was ‘the final stage in the white man’s campaign to completely expel blacks from the world of southern manhood and restore… gender roles’ (p.130) and ‘black and white women best distorted the antebellum roles by adopting lynching as their own crusade’ (p.130): ‘violence became a universal and interracial tool’ (p.131).

Gillin concludes with one of her underlying themes, the appeal of vigilantism as one consequence of ungendered acceptance of violence as a response to racial tension in South Carolina. Vigilantes reacted immediately to slaves winning their freedom and their claims to economic recompense for their labour; secondly, vigilante action  centred around blacks’ claims to electoral independence demonstrated by their voting  Republican; lastly, where black parents sought education for their children vigilante violence was enacted against them, the schools and teachers. Her claim that where ‘men and women changed the nature of violence, and violence changed the nature of men and women’ is challenging but Gillin makes a compelling argument.

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Blain Roberts reaches back to the Civil War to explain modern ideas of beauty in the South. In her lively description and explanation Roberts demonstrates how the manifest influence of racism intensified in responses to the war impacts on understandings of feminine beauty. Her study also shows how, while continuing to impact on twentieth century ideals, racist reflections on beauty have had to adapt to the modern love of sunbathing and tanning. White as beauty was a universal imposition on all Southern women.  Advertisements for whitening products ‘absolutely monopolized the women’s sections of southern rural periodicals, playing on an undercurrent of perceived insecurity among rural women’ (p.40). Diverging from the demand that women should beautify themselves was the idea that ‘the use of beauty products [was] a sign of an unforgiveable artifice rooted in female rebellion (p.17). Blain’s work constantly raises conflicting images and understandings of the way in which beauty is imposed on women, but also about the way in which they respond, giving the work a wonderful complexity. The reader is constantly kept alert to new ideas and possibilities about the meanings associated with women and their ideas of ideal beauty.

With her detailed examination of beauty parlours Roberts continues to raise diverse ways of considering women and their relationship to images of beauty and enhancement. In particular, she addresses the conflict between ideology and the economic issues associated with black women’s embrace of beauty parlours as a business or employment. Her claim: ‘I am careful to balance the insights of feminism with the demands of my evidence’ (p.9) is also an important factor in her work, in which she argues that contemporary concerns about female subordination through beauty practices may not hold true for all circumstances and times. In the south, in the interwar years, they were seen as ‘instruments of female liberation’ (p.9) by conservatives.  Beauty contests are also given a different perspective when Roberts claims that celebrations of black southern women through this medium ‘were more than a demand for recognition…[they were designed to do ‘the race proud’ (pp.149-150). The gauntlets she throws down makes the book an invigorating read.

Each of the books has a useful bibliography and index. Lee’s bibliography, while concise, includes some primary sources which are evidence of the period of over twenty years in which she worked with private collections and their owners and interviewed relatives of the Davis family. Harding’s rich bibliography provides the opportunity to further engage with her complex study. Roberts’ bibliography provides evidence of the wide range of contrasting ideas, many  controversial, which provide this book with its impact.

 

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