Drew Gilpin Faust, Mothers of Invention


Drew Gilpin Faust, Mothers of Invention Discussion August 1996

Editor's Note: Shannon Stoney's reaction to Drew Gilpin Faust's new book, Mother of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1996) provides an opportunity to discuss the history of white women in the 19th century U.S. south, and to contemplate how or if well-meaning people may be "duped" by their times. Do historians have a special responsibility to judge "intent" as well as actions? Thank you Shannon, for sharing your thoughts. Any comments? KL


>From Shannon Stoney sstoney@midtenn.net 08 August 1996

Kriste asked me to write a few paragraphs about Mothers of Invention. I wrote a long letter to a friend last night about it, so I'm going to "paste" dome of what I wrote into this message, edited a little. Hope you all don't mind the informal style of writing. It was a personal letter, after all.

White ladies didn't know how to do much of anything when the war came along. They couldn't cook, they couldn't make clothes, they didn't even know how to control and discipline and train their own children. And in addition to all that, they were supposed to run farms. They just about went crazy, and felt really bad about how stupid and incompetent they were, as well they might.

But, you know, there's lots of things people don't know how to do now, because our energy slaves, as Amory Lovins terms them, do it for us. (He says we each have the equivalent of about 300 human beings working for us, in the form of electricity, gasoline, etc.) Is that bad? I don't know. Everybody is caught up in the economic system that is there when they are born, and I don't know to what extent we are morally responsible for it. Like, it may be really bad that we drive around in cars all the time--maybe we are wrecking the climate forever--but that's just how it is here. As my friend Fuzzy says, "It was like this when I got here."

I wonder what it would have been like to have been deeply implicated in the pre-war slave economy, and at the same time realize you were creating some really bad karma down the road for yourself and your kin and your children and everybody. Nobody seems to have thought about it much though, at least in the South, except for the famous Grimke sisters, who were prophets without honor.

The thesis of this book is that the civil war profoundly upset the old race, class, and gender hierarchies of the Old South. It doesn't talk much about what happened after the war, but you and I know that white people pretty much succeeded in putting the old racial hierarchy back, in the form of tenant farming, Jim Crow, etc. And the old gender hierarchies got put back, too, until the Depression and WWII, I think, when women again, because of national crises, had to assume more responsibility and independence. But then, in the fifties, they tried to put it back *again*! And thus you have the strange phenomenon of my super competent grandmother who produced enough food on her farm to feed three families and a 20 bed hospital, plus a lot of our clothes; followed by her daughter, my mother, who pretty much acts like an antebellum white lady and does as little as possible. I think she is the last of her breed, though. There are some things that they can't put back like they were, but it's amazing how hard people try.

Is hierarchy an ineradicable part of human society? Would it even be *desirable* to get rid of it entirely? Is the centrality of the power to human relations also inevitable.? Is it bad?

Mothers of Invention is typical of other women's history books that I have read, in that it makes you feel as if the women it describes, by showing excerpts from their letters and journals, were hopelessly duped by the system. I mean, they bought into an ideology that really was not good for them, and they seem utterly unaware that it even *is* an ideology. At first you think, "How could they be this stupid. Good thing we're more sophisticated now." But this leads to a truly frightening thought: "In a hundred years, when people look at my journals and letters, will they laugh out loud at what a deluded pawn of the system *I* was? And will they rejoice that they can see through all the propaganda that i totally bought into?" Ack! This makes you either paranoid, constantly questioning your own most dearly held beliefs and goals as maybe unworthy of your own true interests (maybe it's just internalized oppression!), or it makes you think that you might as well resign yourself to false consciousness because you are a prisoner of your times and your culture. Either way madness lies.

Faust quotes an apparently famous Faulkner saying about the famous burden of Southern history, saying that "for southerners...the past is never dead or even truly past; for every white southern boy, it is always two o'clock on July 3, 1863, just a moment before Pickett's charge dealt a fatal blow to the cherished myth of southern invincibility." Is that true?

End of that letter. Here is something that I posted to the weaving and spinning list, a quote from the book itself:

The last few pages of the book points to some really interesting possible directions that further research could take, about the differences between twentieth century feminism in the north and in the south, and how these differences were shaped by the war and the memory of it.


>From Margaret Susan Thompson msthomps@maxwell.syr.edu 09 August 1996

Thank you, Shannon Stoney, for your comments. Near the end of your message, you noted that a book like this also raises questions about directions for "future" research...One question...and I have no ready answers, needless to say--that I think deserves attention is that of why *some* women (and men) weren't "duped"--and did understand what was going on.

The Grimkes are the most famous, perhaps, but were hardly alone. One women who deserves attention in this respect, I think, is Margaret Mary Healy-Mercy, Irish immigrant and wife of slaveholding mayor of Corpus Christi, Texas. Even while her husband was alive, she devoted her time to teaching the slaves on the plantation; after she was widowed, she used the money her husband left her to build what was essentially a settlement house in San Antonio to serve the African-American community and founded a (Catholic) religious order devoted to working with African- and Mexican-Americans: The Sisters of the Holy Ghosts(now Spirit) and Mary Immaculate.

The Healy-Murphy Center on the original site of her settlement still serves disadvantaged youth; the sisters still work primarily with Africanand Latina/o populations(and, during the 1980s, their motherhouse was a sanctuary for undocumented persons from El Salvador and Nicaragua)...Having been to the congregation's archives, however, I still don't know too much about Healy-Murphy's motivation...what differentiated her and others, from so many of their peers?

>From Randolph Hollingsworth rholl00@ukcc.edu 09 August 1996

Thanks for bringing up this issue. I was excited to read Mothers of Invention since it was so hyped in the national mainstream press that I thought it was going to be really pathbreaking. Instead I was bashed in the head as an intellectual Southern white woman, again! Stupid me! How could I imagine that white women of wealth were of any value whatsoever to our historical past, or to our country's triumphant march into the present? Faust reminded me that, of course, white Southern women were idiotic pansies and black Southern women were rape victims. Silly of me to try to imagine that black Southern women might have individual voices and that white Southern women were not a monolithic mass of whiners. Ah, the nation's intelligent readers feel more secure when they read in the NY Times Review that Bertram Wyatt-Brown praises her extracts of white women's letters as the finest portraits of upper-class women.

In Faust's revolt from Simpkin's heroic Confederate knitters and bandage wrappers she has simply cast the same stereotype in a negative, neo-Freudian light that sickens the reader even further than today's sensationalist TV talk show hosts have done in the portrayal of powerful and/or wealthy women. She shows no difference between her Texas or Louisiana or North Carolina women's relationships with slaves (no free blacks around, I guess, and surely no ethnic mix!); she doesn't mention the upper South much at all since the greater complexity in the picture of men's politics makes it harder for Faust to anchor her mythic little women weeping with frustration for her absent cavalier.

Faust has, I think, mis-used the letters in order to portray elite white women as a conservative drag on the US trying to "modernize". The excerpts ring true when you've got the correct theoretical mode in gear, but if you're really wondering what women were actually doing during the Civil War (and what they were "inventing"), I don't think you'll learn much of anything new from Faust's book.

>From Shannon Stoney sstoney@midtenn.net 09 August 1996

Thank you Margaret Thompson for your great story about Margaret Mary Healy-Mercy.

I have been thinking about the question of why some people wear the blinders of their race, class, gender, and historical situation, and other people seem able to see things from a broader perspective. I think it comes down to a few rare character traits: plain old courage, and absolute loyalty to one's own truth. I think if the penalties for *saying* what you perceive to be true are very harsh indeed, eventually you stop even thinking those subversive thought, unless you are very brave and/or stubborn. I don't know much, really, about the Grimke sisters, but I know they had to leave the south, and that they sometimes had to contend with angry mobs, both in the north and south.

Here's a little story that my partner told me when we were discussing this, the question of how people become hardened to the inequities around them until they no longer even really see them. When he was a child on a farm in Jackson, TN, one of his jobs was to assist with the castration of baby pigs. He absolutely hated this job because to him it seemed so cruel. But this job didn't bother the adults around him at all, it seemed. He thought that when they were children, they were probably initially horrified by it also, but since the adults around them didn't seem bothered by it, their childhood sensitivities gradually gave way to adult cynicism. It's a rare person who can hold onto her own truth in the face of a whole society's gainsaying of it.

At one point in the book Faust does concede that there are differences of opinion about what exactly privileged white women were doing with their time prior to the war, i.e. whether or not they were idiotic whining pansies. She says that Elizabeth Fox-Genovese portrayed them as busy with managerial tasks, not as lazy bums. I haven't read Within the Plantation Household yet, but that is next on my list.

On the one hand, I do know a lot of women, southern and not, who would love to do nothing but shop and dress up and visit each other, so it's not hard for me to imagine that there might have been a lot of women like this in the antebellum period. And men seemed to have enjoyed the idea of their wives as people who did nothing. In one section of the book that was particularly interesting to me as a weaver, she quotes from mens' letters to their weaving and spinning wives. (The blockade prevented cloth from getting to the south, so there was a campaign to renew home production of the cloth.) The men were "mortified" that their wives were spinning and feared such heavy work (believe me, it's not that bad) would ruin their good looks and their soft hands! So it seems that men reinforced the ideology of female idleness.

On the other hand, many white women lived on small farms with few slaves, if any, and I am sure that these women worked very hard indeed, not only as managers of households, but as farmers and food producers and storers and processors of food and fiber themselves. I have a big book that is full of handspun, handwoven coverlets that women like this made for their families during and after the war; beautiful, useful things that women apparently enjoyed weaving, even in addition to all their other responsibilities.

Still, evidently, there was an ideology that a man of means should be able to have a sort of trophy wife that did not even care for her own children, much less cook or produce textiles, or garden. She could embroider, play the piano, and maybe read a little, but not study or write seriously. I think this idea was not unique to the antebellum south, but rather, has been a part of patriarchy all over the world for a long time. Obviously, it is very limiting to women and makes the lot of privileged women very narrow despite their "privilege".

Faust does say that the war created a need for female teachers in the south, and this led to better education for southern white women after the war. She also talks about how nursing was also a new work calling for a few white women.

In response to Randolph's comments: "Faust doesn't mention the upper South much at all since the greater complexity in the picture of men's politics makes it harder for Faust to anchor her mythic little women weeping with frustration for her absent cavalier." I actually found this aspect of the book kind of moving. It seems that although the marriages portrayed in this book were so fraught with power imbalances, the men and women in them genuinely loved each other and missed each other. They even obliquely talked in their letters, in a coy nineteenth-century way, about their sexual frustration, being separated from each other! It's kind of amazing that human love can survive despite all the anger and resentment and fear that women felt about being left alone in a war-torn country, and despite the violence and worry that men were subjected to.

I was also amazed at the confidence the husbands expressed in their wives' ability to handle the duties of running and protecting farms and households alone. They say thins like, " Why should I tell an experienced farmer like you what to do about this. You decide." Women, apparently, did not share their husbands' confidence in their abilities. They say they miss their husbands' authority and decision making.

This seems like poor self-esteem or something to us, but maybe we fail to understand how much more difficult and labor intensive nineteenth century farming and household management was. Maybe anybody would have felt overwhelmed doing it alone during a war, even if they had the experience managing a farm before the war. And Faust points out that the whole slave economy rested on the threat of violence, and violence was purely a man's perogative. Women were not used to, and did not like to, threaten slaves or children with violence. One of the saddest parts of the book is about how Lizzie Neblett ended up beating her nine-month old baby in frustration.

A woman farmer I know told me about how, when the farm wasn't making enough money and her husband took a job in town, she cried all day on the tractor. I couldn't imagine why; I would be so pleased to even own a tractor! She said, "Because I have to do it all by myself." She missed somebody else to make decisions with, talk to about the work, etc. If it is that lonely managing a relatively mechanized farm, imagine how lonely it must have been to manage a nineteenth century farm, which ran on mule and human power.

Again re: Randolph's comments: "Faust has, I think, mis-used the letters in order to portray elite white women as a conservative drag on the US trying to "modernize". The excerpts ring true when you've got the correct theoretical mode in gear..."

What would be a correct theoretical mode?

>From Randolph Hollingsworth rholl00@ukcc.uky.edu 15 August 1996

Thanks, Shannon, for your response to my outpouring on the Faust book. I'd like to reply to your last query...When you said: >I was also amazed at the confidence the husbands expressed in their >wives' ability to handle the duties of running and protecting farms and households alone. They >say things like, "Why should I tell an experienced farmer like you what to do about this? You >decide." Women ,apparently, did not share their husbands' confidence in their abilities. They say >they miss their husbands' authority and decision making.

>This seems like poor self-esteem or something to us...

This, I think, was the "correct" theoretical mode in which to empathize with what Faust was saying about what her women meant when they wrote of their frustrations. Faust expected us to be surprised that men would think more highly of their women than we have been taught they did. I am not so sure, though, that this was so rare a phenomenon that is assumed by Faust. I think that these letters were written by women who wanted to complain about a losing war effort, who wanted to complain about a losing economic effort that their husbands had taken up without their assent (See Joan Cashin, A Family Venture), and had to couch all of these complaints in terms that were of the public discourse since the letters would be read over and over again, and surely shared with others.

In other words, I think that Faust reflects our assumption about private letters: they are private reflections not for public consumption. I think that letter-writing was done much like what I'm doing now...knowing that lots of folks will see this and react to it in a quasi-public arena, yet I'm writing this in my own private room...

Regarding my off-handed remark about correctness:

>Faust has, I think, mis-used the letters in order to portray elite white women as a conservative

>drag on the US trying to "modernize". The excerpts ring true when you've got the correct >theoretical mode in gear.

>What would be the correct theoretical mode? ---Shannon Stoney

This is exactly the problem I found with Faust's book...too many simplistic answers written in a narrative that declared what was reality rather than a discussion that either challenged or acknowledged alternative viewpoints. Thanks for the chance to reply.

>From Anita S. Goodstein mgoodste@seraph1.sewanee.edu
15 August 1996

I have recently reviewed for the TN Historical Review A Plantation Mistress on the Eve of the Civil War: The Diary of Keziah...Brevard, 1860-1861by John H. Moore, Ed, (U of South Carolina Press). This slim volume throws a good deal of light on what a plantation mistress actually did each day and offers some provocative ideas about what she thought during those months of political crisis. It should help!

Subject: A belated comment on Faust's Mothers of Invention

I was hoping to hear from more subscribers about Drew Gilpin Faust's book, particularly in response to Shannon Stoney's questions and comments by others. I pulled the book out of the stack by my bed and just finished reading it.

First, I approached the book as I generally do all scholarly work...with the anticipation that I would find facts presented in a way I could place them in the context of whatever historical knowledge I already have about the subject. That done, I expected Faust's interpretation/explanations to also place the information she put forth in an historical context...hopefully adding insights I don't already have, or opening up questions I might not have already considered. I expected to find fairly meticulous end notes and a solid bibliography. And finally, I expected the book to interest me enough to prompt me to do more research on women in the Confederacy.

In all these areas I feel no disappointment, no let-downs. I enjoyed the book, read some things I already knew, learned some things I didn't, and am going to do some additional research based on questions I have, or that Faust raised for me.

I cannot buy into the ideas put forth earlier in this discussion that Faust has done some unspeakable damage to the reputation of elite white women of the south, nor that she has piled more stereotypical, simplistic theories on the heads of these women. In fact, as Faust quoted from women's dairies, letters, etc, she seemed to bend over backward to put each of these writings in the proper context.

No, Faust doesn't mention much about what happened after the war...but that's not the topic of this book. Certainly, I have no problem connecting the title Mothers of Invention to the life these women lived...and the reinvention of gender roles in their personal lives, in society as a whole, and in southern society in particular. I did not feel that these women...any of them, were portrayed as lazy, incompetent, stupid, or societal "dupes." They played the hands that were dealt them, and many had the courage to break out of their expected molds/roles and deal themselves into a new game(so to speak).

I think Shannon's question:

Is hierarchy an iradicable part of human society and
would it even be *desirable to get rid of it entirely?

is an excellent question...to which I only have my own theories and nothing to really prove them. As far as I can tell, history has always recorded the existence of some kind of hierarchy. To my personal dismay, human beings seem unable to function without a system where everyone has their foot on the neck of someone "below" them. I would love to see this kind of destructive hierarchial system done away with, but don't ask me what would replace it....I was hoping someone on this list would have suggestions for us to consider.

Re: Randolph's comments about this book just being another portrayal of black women as rape victims and white women as a monolithic mass of whiners...I missed that part, I will admit. I feel, that taking the quotations from these women at face value, factoring in what was happening in the south during the Civil War and deciding for myself (without relying on some book reviewer from the NY Times) how much of Faust's interpretations are accurate gave me a good overview of *some* southern white women...and I just didn't see them as Randolph apparently did. I don't believe Faust "mis-used the letters" to portray white women as idiots...although I will acknowledge that any historian can research and study a topic, and then manipulate what they've found to prove an hypothesis. I just don't believe it was done with this book.

I don't understand Randolph's reference to "the correct theoretical mode" of the reader or of Faust? And I admit I may never understand it. While Shannon expressed surprise that the men at war wrote of their confidence in their wives' abilties to run the farm, make decisions, etc, Randolph then said that was what Faust *wanted* us to be surprised about. I don't think Faust researched this topic and wrote this book with any ulterior motives, including *wanting* us to be surprised by men's support of their wives. First of all, men knew very well that their wives were capable of making decisions, running farms, etc. If anything, men were the "dupes" in this whole system....buying into false assessments of women's abilities so they could continue to hold the reins of power. But, from their personal experience, even though they might not admit it outside the house, these same men knew full well their wives were capable human beings. Second, these men were writing letters home during lulls in battle, during battles, etc. What were they going to say to a wife expressing doubts about her abilities..."Well, honey, just hold on. I'll turn in my rifle and be right home"...? These were private letters between husbands and wives, and precisely because they were private, the men could speak truthfully about their wives' talents. Sorry, but that's no surprise to me.

Finally, yes...a number of women kept diaries and journals hoping that one day they would be read and would stand as a record of the confederacy at war. But far more women wrote as women always have.. to pass the time,.for solace, for companionship(even tho-from an inanimate object), for reassurance, for a way to express pain and sorrow privately, for a way to thrash out thoughts and ideas that might not be acceptable if uttered in public, and not for publication.

I think, if there are questions to be raised about Faust's writing/research methods, or questions about alternative viewpoints (as Randolph would like to see in the book), the classroom seems to be the perfect setting for those discussions. I would hope some of you on this list would indicate whether, after reading this book, it is one you might use in future classes...and why or why not. That would be very helpful...at least to me.

Thanks very much.
Maria Elena Raymond