Reading Women

By Ta-Nehisi Coates

A quick shout-out to historian Anya Jabour. It's not like I know her or anything, but yesterday's post on abortion was heavily influenced by her 1999 article, "Albums Of Affection." The piece looks at the autograph albums of young, privileged white women who were moving out of southern seminaries and off into plantation life. The albums are filled with premonitions of doom, and plaints of dread over being forced out of their sanctuary. 


The women were headed off into ladyhood, which meant marriage to a slaveholding man. That prospect necessarily carried with it the threat of early death. Marriage meant repeated exposure the potentially lethal work of pregnancy. It also meant sleeping with someone who may well be transmitting venereal disease between the slave cabins and the big house. This in an era without penicillin. And then upon that was the sheer isolation of plantation life. Leaving seminary meant breaking bonds with people whom you'd boarded with for years, and, in all likelihood, never seeing them again. What awaited you was privilege, but privilege of a peculiar, almost bonded, sort.

As an African-American, it's been particularly fascinating to look at the lives of plantation white women. There is a constant conflict: White slaveholding women are alienated just enough to see some hint of the error in the world, and yet still invested enough to believe the bedrock of that world (slavery, for instance) should remain untouched. Their brand of women's rights is wholly reformist. Southern white women look to education and reading, for instance, in the hope of improving themselves and becoming better ladies. But in the North, among black women, improvement is not simply a means of reforming ladyhood, but a tool of liberation., It is not simply reformist, but revolutionary.  From Mary Kelly's article, "Reading Women/Women Reading"

Free African American women designed their self- education to serve the same larger social purpose. Those who joined the New York City Ladies Literary Society were told that mental cultivation challenged "our enemies [who] rejoice and say, we do not believe they have any minds; if they have, they are unsusceptible of improvement." 

In dedicating themselves to that same mental cultivation, the members of Philadelphia's Female Literary Society stressed "that by so doing, we may break down the strong barrier of prejudice." Simultaneously, they made the plight of enslaved African Americans a signal concern and transformed their societies into vehicles of resistance to slavery. Sarah Mapps Douglas, one of the founders of the Female Literary Society, registered its impact on her perspective. Before her involvement with the society, she told the members, she had "formed a little world of my own, and cared not to move beyond its precincts." Now, however, "the cause of the slave [has become] my own."

Reading for these was an act of radicalism, a weapon to destroy that same bedrock which many Southern white women wanted preserved--no matter how much it might constrain them.

I don't say this to exalt the innate revolutionary spirit of black women. I firmly believe that people reflect geography, in both the literal and metaphorical sense. The radicalism of a Sarah Mapps was forced by her condition, just as surely as the reformism of Southern women was forced. More than that, I don't think reformism deserves all the negative connotations it's frequently award in conversation among lefties. Slowly, but surely you see the South changing in the run up to the Civil War. They know change is for the good, but they are desperately afraid of parting with their traditions. This resulting conflict is often tragic in gripping ways.



In another article "Grown Girls, Highly Cultivated" Jabour chronicles the travails of the Wirt family. The patriarch, Attorney General William H. Wirt is a man who is about as liberal as his time, station and disposition will allow. He lives in Washington D.C. He is an urban slaveholder, but not a planter. He has several daughters and immediately notices in them a voracious intellect which puts demands on his own. He sincerely wants to feed that intellect. Here Jabour writes about the eldest daughter achievements and the pride they instill in the father, William:

As Laura began to undertake more advanced subjects, she looked more and more to her father for direction. By the time his daughter was eight years old, William boasted to casual acquaintances that she easily outpaced boys' academic achievements. "Tell Laura," he wrote in a let- ter home in 1812, "there was a gentleman here to-day with a pretty lit- tle boy nine years old who was only learning to read english and tell her how proud I felt to be able to boast that I had a daughter not yet nine years old, that was reading Erasmus."

Laura admired her father and wrote to him frequently about her studies and to request his assistance with difficult passages in "my Caesar." In late 1817, when William accepted the position of U.S. attorney general, fourteen-year-old Laura was eager to continue her studies in the Wirts' new home. "I am deter- mined to study very hard after I get to Washington," she promised her father.

But the customs of the time demanded that William Wirt make his daughters into "ladies." And while education was increasingly entering into the sphere of ladyhood, home-making was still the priority:

William, whose faith in the value of female education remained strong, hoped for more success in combining intellectual and social achievements with the Wirts' younger daughters. His letters took on a contradictory quality as he encouraged Liz and Catharine to work to their full capacities, yet continually reminded them of the need to har- monize high academic standards and feminine "graces." "Quiet and un- pretending simplicity of disposition and manners" were essential to the "secret of female power and witchcraft," he began one of his lengthy letters to Liz. 

Echoing his letter to Laura at the conclusion of her schooling, he warned: "a rattling and voluble tongue, with rattling and volatile spirits, and noisy grace and brilliance, demanding admiration and exacting homage as their right, may strike and gain eclat and even admiration & external hommage, but they will never win hearts." Mod- esty, however, did not mean that Liz, then fifteen years old, should shrink from rigorous standards of learning. "Cultivate solid judgment, solid graces, solid kindness and goodness," William urged, "and leave light, frothy, brilliant affectations and pretensions to others-at the same time, cultivate the solid graces and valuable accomplishments- this is your father's advice."

This is the same dude, who a few years earlier, was bragging that his daughter was smarter than the neighborhood boys. The results of this schizophrenic approach were tragic. The Wirt girls, perhaps buckling under the pressure of two callings, became physically and mentally ill. They were diagnosed as "nervous" as having "an affection of the muscular system." Meanwhile, all their parents could think about was marrying the daughters off.

I don't know how useful it is to see these young women as victims of a vicious patriarch. The father comes across as a seeker who simply can't bring himself to acknowledge the logical conclusions of all his questioning. The mother is just as--if not more--invested in ladyhood as the father. Beyond that, there is a slow grinding progress happening here, that should not be written off. It's progress to see even a potential equality of mind in women and men. It's progress to try nourish the mind of your daughters. That the progress didn't go as far as we would like, is tragic, but I don't think it should be casually dismissed. 

Here are the questions that preoccupy me: Leaving aside a revolution, can a society truly change on terms that are not native to its underlying structures? Could the education of women been pushed in the South in any other way, besides as a vehicle to improve the intrinsically elitist, sexist and racist notion of ladyhood? When you look at turn of the century white Southern suffragists, is it wrong to be horrified by them making their case on the grounds of white supremacy? Where there really other grounds? The great pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey arrogantly named himself President-General of all of Africa, and like his intellectual ancestors, announced his goal to civilize Africans through Christianity. Is Garvey any different?

These are the questions that preoccupy me these days. I have found that is is insufficient to examine slavery, and leave the society which built up around it untouched. Slavery was so much more then owning people. It was part of a different world. One that I endeavor to understand.

Some notes on my sources:

Jabour, Anya. "Albums of Affection: Female Friendship and Coming of Age in Antebellum Virginia." Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 107 (1999): 125- 158.

Kelly, Mary. "Reading Women/Women Reading: The Making of Learned Women in Antebellum America." Journal of American History 83 (Sep. 1996) 401-424

Jabour, Anya. "'Grown Girls, Highly Cultivated': Female Education in an Antebellum Southern Family." Journal of Southern History 64 (1998): 23-64.

I got all of this through JSTOR, which very few people have access to. That pisses me off. But it's also the subject of another post.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/02/reading-women/71053/