'We Mean to be Counted':

File Name: 0010.FEM

  Msg#: 636                                          Date: 05-28-98  03:57
  From: Grant Karpik                                 Read: Yes    Replied: No 
    To: All                                          Mark:                     
  Subj: 'We Mean to be Counted':
@MSGID: 1:153/831.2 56d18ef1
@PID: timEd 1.10.y2k
Published by H-Women@h-net.msu.edu/H-Sawh@h-net.msu.edu (May,

Elizabeth R. Varon.  _We Mean to Be Counted:  White Women and
Politics in Antebellum Virginia_.  Gender & American Culture.
Chapel Hill and London:  The University of North Carolina Press,
1998.  x + 234 pp.  Notes, bibliography, and index.  $45.00
(cloth), ISBN 0-8078-2390-2; $16.95 (paper), ISBN 0-8078-4696-1.

Reviewed for H-Women/H-Sawh by Elizabeth Bramm Dunn
, Duke University

               The Ladies are Political

Elizabeth Varon, assistant professor of history at Wellesley 
College, successfully refutes the notion that elite and 
middle-class white women were uninvolved in the politics of 
antebellum Virginia.  To be sure, they were not allowed to vote or 
hold public office, but they wrote, spoke publicly, raised money, 
and lobbied powerful men in support of their civic and political 
causes.  As Varon explains in the introduction, "Rather than define 
politics narrowly, as the business of running the government, or 
broadly, as a signifier for all power contests and relations, I 
have sought to recover the antebellum meanings of the term" (p. 2).  
She designates as "political" the most important of the activities 
taking place in the public sphere, in both the literal sense of 
physical spaces outside the home and the figurative senses of 
published texts and the social entity constituting "the public."  
Women began their public activities as participants in benevolent 
work, but as the scope of their volunteerism broadened, the line 
between nonpartisan altruism and political involvement quickly 
became blurred (p.  2).  By the beginning of the Civil War, 
partisan politics among women was the rule.  Postbellum Virginia 
saw a return to the more traditional volunteer endeavors 
characteristic of the early decades of the century.  The structure 
of _We Mean to be Counted_ effectively mirrors these 

Participation in certain civic activities was viewed as a logical 
extension of women's domestic roles of nurturing children and 
providing for their educational, spiritual, and moral guidance.  
During the first decades of the nineteenth century, women 
established boarding schools for poor white girls in five Virginia 
cities.  Organizers sought funds both locally and from the Virginia 
General Assembly.  An array of societies to aid the poor and 
orphaned followed.  Prescriptive literature of the period 
encouraged women to contribute to such good works as evidence of 
their piety, compassion, and civic-mindedness.  Many women were 
swept up in evangelical religious movements and participated in the 
local branches of national religious societies or in local groups.  
Temperance societies began to attract large numbers of followers by 
the middle 1820s.  Efforts to build a memorial to Henry Clay and to 
preserve Mount Vernon engaged a number of women.  Issues related to 
slavery preoccupied many white Virginia women.  A few elite ladies 
appealed directly to the General Assembly to assure that their 
freed black servants be allowed to remain in their employ despite 
the 1806 rule requiring their departure from the commonwealth 
within a year of manumission (p. 15).  By the 1830s a decidedly 
controversial group was attracting hundreds of female followers.  
Founded in 1816, the American Colonization Society (ACS) promoted 
the emigration of slaves and freedmen to Liberia.  This would serve 
the dual goals of ending a practice which many found troubling, and 
"seeding" Christianity in Africa.  Scores of women devoted 
considerable time, energy, and money to the ACS and to Richmond's 
Virginia Colonization Society (VCS), established in 1828.  In the 
aftermath of the 1831 rebellion lead by Nat Turner, however, 
women's involvement in colonization societies and their efforts to 
prepare slaves for freedom was viewed by some, including Virginia 
Governor John Floyd, as subversive (p. 48).

Turning to more traditional political involvement, Varon observes 
that women were extraordinarily visible in Whig politics, beginning 
prior to the 1840 election.  Although earlier scholars have noted 
this in passing, this author looks below the surface, finding that 
women were important and influential players in the political 
drama, in both the public and the private spheres.  "The Virginia 
evidence suggests that to characterize women's partisanship as 
passive or ephemeral is to obscure the transformation in women's 
civic roles that the election of 1840 set in motion.  Newspapers, 
pamphlets, and speeches, taken together with women's diaries, 
letters, and reminiscences, charts this transformation" (p. 72).  
Whigs claimed that the majority of women favored their party and 
established a public rhetoric in which women were empowered and 
encouraged to contribute to party politics as both partisans and 
mediators.  They could influence the thinking of voting males and 
by their very presence cast the party in a superior moral light.  
By 1852, the ascendant Democratic Party strove to acquire women's 
support and participation as the Whigs had done previously.  
Influential secession leaders worked hard to garner female support 
as the Civil War loomed closer.

Varon has a profound knowledge of the scholarship relevant to the 
issues treated here and has also immersed herself in the diaries, 
letters, newspapers, literary periodicals, and novels of the 
period.  Her familiarity with the primary sources leads her to 
question many common assumptions related to antebellum Virginia 
women.  For example, she asserts that it is overly simplistic to 
polarize Southern elite women into only two distinct groups 
according to their feelings about slavery.  She sees distinctions 
among the women of different geographical areas and also considers 
changing views as the decades of the 1800s advanced.  While some 
women defended slavery, a great many opposed the institution, often 
supporting colonization as a compromise solution.  They readily 
expressed this view through writing and speeches (p. 42).  During 
the 1860 election a great many women supported the Constitutional 
Unionist Party, which promised to maintain both slavery and the 
union.  She questions the assertion of historians that the majority 
of Virginia women supported the Confederacy long before the state 
seceeded from the Union and provides a beautifully nuanced view of 
the process through which the ideology of Confederate womanhood--an 
ideology that demanded the unanimous support of secession--was 
established during the winter and spring of 1860 (p. 154 ff.).  
Throughout _We Mean to Be Counted_ Varon notes subteleties, 
ambivalence, and conflict in women's attitudes towards political 
questions.  Activist women strove to reconcile the conflict between 
their loyalty to the traditional place of females in antebellum 
society with their profound interest in politics and desire to have 
a public voice.  Through the colonization movement, they tried to 
reconcile their opposition to abolition and their abhorrence of the 
institution of slavery.  As secession became increasingly 
threatening, they tried to reconcile their role as mediators with 
their sectional loyalty.  A number of historians have investigated 
Southern women's participation in benevolent, memorial, and 
political organizations.[1]  Elizabeth Varon contributes to this 
rich area of scholarship by extending her exploration into the 
first half of the nineteenth century, closely examining the 
evidence of political participation, discussing the political 
divisions among women, and questioning many of the assumptions of 
other scholars.  _We Mean to Be Counted_ is original, insightful, 
impeccably researched, and gracefully written.  This is an 
important book that will change forever a number of commonly-held 
assumptions about antebellum women in Virginia.


[1].  Some of the best recent scholarship treating Southern
women's public contributions:  Anne Firor Scott, "Most Invisible
of All:  Black Women's Voluntary Associations,"  _Journal of
Southern History_ 56 (February 1990):  3-22; Anne Firor Scott,
_Natural Allies:  Women's Associations in American History_,
(Urbana:  University of Illinois Press, 1991); and Anastatia
Sims, _The Power of Femininity in the New South:  Women's
Organizations and Politics in North Carolina, 1880-1930_,
(Columbia:  University of South Carolina Press, 1997).

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                   Grant {Internet: karpik@sprint.ca}

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