The Modern Historiography of Women and Reconstruction

Pat Young

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#1
Women, Gender, and the Boundaries of Reconstruction by Catherine A. Jones in the The Journal of Civil War Era. 8.1 (Mar. 2018): p111 gives an overview of the historiography of woman during the Reconstruction Era. The essay looks at the growth of publications about women during Reconstruction that occured from the 1990s onward. According to Catherine Jones:

Historians of women were largely absent from the renaissance in Reconstruction scholarship of the 1960s and 1970s. Women's exclusion from the post-Civil War expansion of suffrage was a historic loss with historiographical consequences; it helped make Reconstruction, a period largely defined by electoral politics, appear to be inhospitable terrain for U.S. women's historians. Beyond the important work Ellen Carol DuBois and others did in the 1970s to write the history of the era's suffrage movement, there seemed little else to say. In the 1990s, however, an outpouring of research on women, gender, and Reconstruction began to appear.
 

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Pat Young

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#2
Jones writes that "Three big questions inform much of this literature: To what degree did the abolition of slavery transform women's lives and gender relations? Did the postwar revolution in citizenship curtail or expand women's capacity to shape the postwar world and their own lives? And to what extent did the consolidation of U.S. sovereignty depend on women's subordination and the promotion of white supremacy?"
 

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#3
Jones discusses how books published over the last three decades open up questions about the participation of white women in the post-war white supremacist restoration in the South:

By foregrounding white women's retreat from politics, historians may have underestimated their roles as bulwarks against Reconstruction. Scholarship on white southern women largely characterizes Reconstruction as a period of retrenchment, when gender conventions loosened by the war were reimposed. In Drew Gilpin Faust's influential interpretation, elite white women conceded to gender subordination in order to preserve racial and class superiority. Yet, gender scholarship also highlights the importance of relationships among women in sustaining hierarchy. For example, Thavolia Glymph's analysis of white women's violence against black women within households suggests that a bargain between elite white men and women does not capture the full story. There is still much we do not know about white women's involvement in elevating white supremacy in the postwar South. Elaine Frantz Parsons analyzes Klan members' engagement with varied discourses of masculinity in her excellent cultural history, but largely leaves the intriguing glimpses of women's involvement in the organization for further examination. Stephanie McCurry's extraordinary analysis of white working-class women's politics within the Confederacy invites postwar scholars to investigate whether white women drew on their wartime political repertoire to promote or challenge Redemption. As LeeAnn Whites has demonstrated, white supremacy was central to white southern women's activism in the late nineteenth century, but the extent to which this constituted a departure from their Reconstruction-era politics needs further investigation.
 

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#4
Jones writes that expanded studies of the uses of sexual violence by whites against black men and women help us understand the constinuity of this violence as a means of social control against black people during both slavery and Reconstruction and Redemption:

Scholars who have integrated analysis of postwar violence and the history of women's citizenship demonstrate the value of writing history in the mode of reckoning, that is, confronting historical suffering, including the ethical challenges of representing and interpreting the meanings of violence in individual lives. While popular Reconstruction historiography foregrounds white reactionary violence in explaining Reconstruction's demise, scholars like Kidada Williams emphasize violence as a point of continuity in black women's lives across the nineteenth century. Williams argues that suffering was central to the vernacular history African Americans created by testifying to their experiences of racial violence, from emancipation through the Great Migration. Williams's emphasis on suffering challenges the narrative of discontinuity Reconstruction usually serves by underscoring the persistence and mutability of white supremacist violence, as well as the cumulative impact of black testimony as a strategy of resistance. Significantly, recent scholarship treats suffering not as the negation of agency but as the painful foundation on which women built demands as citizens. Hannah Rosen and Crystal Feimster argue that by publicly testifying to their experiences of sexual assault, freedwomen transformed their suffering into an expansive understanding of citizenship that included bodily autonomy. Their scholarship demonstrates the radicalism of freedwomen's insistence on their right to withhold consent to sex. Further, Feimster and Estelle Freedman argue, freedwomen's resistance had far-reaching consequences for women's political activism later in the century by making rape a central concern for both racial egalitarian and white supremacist feminists. Recent scholarship on the sexual abuse enslaved men suffered points to the need for research that considers men as potential victims of sexual violence in the postwar context as well. While scholars have focused on the right to withhold consent, sexual citizenship, as a framework, invites more expansive exploration, for example into reproductive politics and even ideas of sexual freedom that were circulating in other parts of the country. Were sex-radical publications and ideas really as absent from the South as they appear? How did emancipation shape the criminalization of abortion in the South?
 

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#6
Jones also discusses the rejection by modern scholars of the idea that women's political movements can be assessed primarily by looking at the struggle for the right to vote. She writes:

The most compelling evidence of Reconstruction's importance in the history of women's rights lies in the sprawling women's movement that was taking up issues such as equal wages and freedom from sexual violence across the country in the 1870s. As Lisa Tetrault explains, contemporary feminists debated the extent to which their movement should focus on the vote. Tetrault describes the postwar women's movement as "a vibrant chaos" that encompassed working-class immigrants in the North, African American women in the South, and suffragists across the Midwest. She suggests that narratives built around the struggle for the vote at the federal level have obscured the breadth of women's activism and some of the gains it achieved, for example voting rights on school-related matters in some jurisdictions. Like Dudden, she argues that Reconstruction created distinctive opportunities for women's political activism but also suggests that the contraction of its radical potential in the late 1870s did not produce a deep lull in feminists' activity. By carefully reconstructing how activists alternated among strategies aimed at federal, state, and local objectives in response to the rapidly shifting political terrain of the postwar era, Tetrault links women's local activism to national political developments. Further, by explaining how and why a particular narrative of the women's rights movement became ascendant, she shows how historical consciousness shaped activists' strategies and narrowed historians' understanding of women's postwar activism. Rather than viewing Reconstruction as a disappointing non-event in women's history, Tetrault's work suggests that there are worlds of women's postwar activism still to be pieced together. This work is vital not only for understanding how women created political openings in the immediate postwar era but also to discovering how their actions continued to shape American politics even in the absence of the vote.
 

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#8
Jones also discusses the rejection by modern scholars of the idea that women's political movements can be assessed primarily by looking at the struggle for the right to vote. She writes:

The most compelling evidence of Reconstruction's importance in the history of women's rights lies in the sprawling women's movement that was taking up issues such as equal wages and freedom from sexual violence across the country in the 1870s. As Lisa Tetrault explains, contemporary feminists debated the extent to which their movement should focus on the vote. Tetrault describes the postwar women's movement as "a vibrant chaos" that encompassed working-class immigrants in the North, African American women in the South, and suffragists across the Midwest. She suggests that narratives built around the struggle for the vote at the federal level have obscured the breadth of women's activism and some of the gains it achieved, for example voting rights on school-related matters in some jurisdictions. Like Dudden, she argues that Reconstruction created distinctive opportunities for women's political activism but also suggests that the contraction of its radical potential in the late 1870s did not produce a deep lull in feminists' activity. By carefully reconstructing how activists alternated among strategies aimed at federal, state, and local objectives in response to the rapidly shifting political terrain of the postwar era, Tetrault links women's local activism to national political developments. Further, by explaining how and why a particular narrative of the women's rights movement became ascendant, she shows how historical consciousness shaped activists' strategies and narrowed historians' understanding of women's postwar activism. Rather than viewing Reconstruction as a disappointing non-event in women's history, Tetrault's work suggests that there are worlds of women's postwar activism still to be pieced together. This work is vital not only for understanding how women created political openings in the immediate postwar era but also to discovering how their actions continued to shape American politics even in the absence of the vote.
 

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#9
Reconstruction historiography goes beyond the borders of the South, write Jones:

Policing households was a transnational as well as a domestic project. As legal scholar Kerry Abrams suggests, the Fourteenth Amendment's promise of birthright citizenship made some policymakers especially eager to exclude Chinese women. In this context, liberationist language of abolition became a favored idiom for Americans promoting Chinese exclusion. Californians who wed universalist free labor discourse to particularist critiques of Chinese households suggested that barring Chinese women from the country was the best way to protect women and the state from prostitution. Stacey Smith notes that when California senator Horace Page looked to federal law to effect Chinese exclusion, he made the traffic in enslaved Chinese women the centerpiece of his appeal. Ostensibly designed to prevent coerced migration and labor, the 1875 Page Law made Chinese women targets of vigorous policing on both sides of the Pacific by casting them as likely prostitutes. Treating this law as an important piece of Reconstruction legislation offers an unsettling portrait of how policy crafted under the banner of freedom to protect marriage and free labor made some women's dependency the basis of their exclusion from the nation.
 



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