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…On Suzanne Lebsock's The Free Women of Petersburg…

You know how when you’re watching a movie that takes place in, say, King Arthur’s time, and you can’t stop noticing those little things that give away that the film was made in a certain time period?  Not even necessarily anachronisms, just little markers of the time that the film was produced– the colors used in the set design, a hair style, a certain type of make-up…  Why does Lancelot have a perm?  Why is Guenevere wearing blue eye shadow?  Why is the castle court in almost the same color scheme as my grandmother’s kitchen?

That’s the rough equivalent of the feeling I got reading Lebsock’s The Free Women of Petersburg.  Don’t get me wrong– it’s a fascinating book, dealing with an interesting topic, and honestly a pretty entertaining read for a book that’s based largely on quantitative analysis of probate law.  But I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was looking at two times at once.  Just like Lancelot’s Christopher Atkins hairdo won’t let you forget that you’re looking at Medieval Britain through the lens of the 1970s, Lebsock’s antebellum South is constantly filtered through rhetoric that reveals her own placement in history at the time the book was written. 

Free Women of Petersburg is a product of an author at a particular moment in time– specifically, she is coming from the world of academic feminism in the early 1980s.  It was a heady time, to be sure– momentous, even.  But it colors the text in ways that seem strange to someone like me, who grew up in the age of third-wave feminists and post-queers.  The main conclusion that Lebsock draws– that women’s social conditions in the antebellum South improved in some ways despite the lack of overt feminism– is something that I wouldn’t have thought to bat an eye at.  Of course social conditions change, with or without overt activism– both for the better and for the worse.  Social conditions are inherently fluid, and any study over time will reveal shifts, advances, backsliding… it’s just the nature of the beast.  Overt activist approaches can have amazing power to affect change, but they are not a precondition to change, nor are they always successful– they can have negative or positive results.  Backlash is just as much a part of social protest movements as positive change. 

But to Lebsock and others in her time and milieu (academic feminists of the time) this was a surprising result– so surprising it bears repeating multiple times throughout the book.  When you’re still near the high-water mark of second-wave feminism, and haven’t yet encountered the lion’s share of the backlash against the advances of the Civil Rights Movement through the 80s and 90s, social activism doubtless seems the necessary tool to affect social change.  It was a different world, and the lenses they looked at things through were different.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the reading of gender relations in the book.  Lebsock often seems to assume that the natural state of affairs between genders is one of barely-concealed competition and animosity.  Men are sometime vilified unfairly, and women are sometimes just as unfairly valorized. 

In one chapter, we hear the story of the widow Eliza Ruffin, who, while legally independent, was horrible at running her affairs, resulting in her repeatedly and frequently having to turn to her brother for loans.  Lebsock, in taking account of the situation, looks at the brother’s role in this relationship and sees him as part of the problem, for reinforcing her "diffidence."  In the same chapter, Lebsock describes the somewhat better situation of Mary Strange, another widow, who when made the administrator of her late husband’s estate,  found it a "most lucrative task."  While she quotes Strange’s collecting over $200 in 1811, as her legally-sanctioned administrator’s 5% of collections made for the estate, she fails to comment on the fact that 5% of the collections that year would have only constituted around $157… either Strange was skimming off the top or she was mismanaging funds– either dishonest or incompetent, two traits ascribed to a goodly number of men in the book, but seldom any women. 

Likewise, in a section on women’s organizations, she looks at the rise in active engagement in what had previously been "women’s" causes by men, and sees more an attack on women’s autonomy and public voice than, say, a growing concern on the part of men, who may have actually been prodded to the task by their wives, or at least made conscious of the cause by the women around them.  Cooperative and general-cultural hypotheses are pushed aside for ones that support a vision of open gender conflict, of men as active agents who sought to suppress women’s rights and their autonomy.  And I won’t even get into her spiel about antebellum slaveholding women as crypto-abolitionists…

It’s forgivable, of course– the book is a product of the time in which it was produced.  In an age of consciousness-raising and "political lesbianism," Lebsock was hardly an extreme voice.  Nevertheless, it’s an interesting window into two time periods at once.


All in all I liked the book, despite this criticism.  But it got me thinking about the nature of the old "New Social History," and about its limits.

Lebsock is taking hundreds upon hundreds of documents, here, and weaving them into an analysis of the time.  She paints a surprisingly vivid picture of Petersburg’s women, of their lives and their struggles.  She is able to find historical trends in the town, of certain types of freedoms being increased over time, or certain kinds of wills becoming more or less common.  But it got me thinking– something that I’ve never really thought about reading other social historians, for some stupid reason– can any of these trends be trusted to be true anywhere other than Petersburg?  Does the book really tell us that much about the antebellum South?  The sample size is very small.  And of course the sample is very geographically isolated. 

The real problem here, is not that Petersburg may or may not be historically "typical" of any particular time or place, but simply the depth of research.  Would anyone want to put the years of research into another small Southern town, with an eye to similar historical questions, when they knew they ran the risk of coming to the conclusion that, yes, Petersburg was pretty typical, and that there is little that can be said about their town that Lebsock hasn’t already said about Petersburg?  Moreover, would anyone bother to support a grant to fund research where that was the possible outcome?

I guess that what I’m wondering here isn’t whether or not if this book presents any definitive answers about the time and the area, other than the specifics of Petersburg; but whether this type of research can possibly have the effect of inhibiting similar research, becoming one of the only works on the topic, and thus de facto authoritative.

I’m starting to wonder if the "New Social History" might not be the History field’s equivalent to "New Criticism"– insightful and in-depth, but sometimes slightly myopic.