The Big House After Slavery: Virginia Plantation Families and their Postwar Domestic Experiment by Amy Feely Morsman. University of Virginia Press, 2010. Cloth, ISBN: 0813930030. $45.00.
Amy Feely Morsman’s The Big House After Slavery examines changing gender relations amongst married elites in postemancipation Virginia. Drawing from family papers, diaries, newspapers, and periodicals, Morsman argues that the dire economic straits of former slaveholding elites during Reconstruction prompted an important transition in the gender dynamics of planter households, as husbands and wives moved from the rigid hierarchically-based relationships of the antebellum era to more mutual partnerships. These changes within the household had significant implications for how relationships between men and women were then articulated within the public spheres of agricultural organizations, churches, and the traditionally masculine arena of politics.
The study begins with a close examination of the changes that occurred in plantation households after the Civil War. Morsman documents how the loss of an enslaved workforce forced many planters to become laborers themselves. Elite women, in turn, assumed the tasks of domestic laborers within their own households. Indeed, asserts Morsman, the contributions of women became vital to the survival of the family. As husbands struggled to make crops profitable, wives grew vegetables, raised chickens, and milked cows. In doing so, elite women provided food for their husbands and children, with any remaining product sold for profit. Womens’ roles in the household economies of postemancipation Virginia prompted a change in gender roles, Morsman offers, one in which men slowly acknowledged the value of what women could contribute to the family. Men gradually accepted women as mutual partners, rather than subordinates.
In spite of the actual changes taking place within households, Morsman observes that Virginia planters—especially men—remained concerned with “keeping up appearances” beyond the home (54). Irrespective of their financial circumstances, planters continued to spend money that they did not have on items that enhanced their status, such as new clothes. At the same time, planters found themselves trapped within a rhetoric that constructed the ideal citizen as a male head of household, expected to be the sole provider for his family. Yet, the more a planter spent to maintain the appearance of his status, the greater the strain on his limited financial resources. Accordingly, the contributions of planter wives became even more important to the sustenance of the household. Even as elite male planters moved towards more mutual partnerships with their wives, there continued to exist a tension between what they desired—the continuing hierarchical relationship of the antebellum era—and practice.
Morsman contends that the importance of women’s new role was recognized within some forums beyond the home. Agricultural organizations such as the Grange and the Farmers’ Alliance, for example, encouraged men to embrace the new responsibilities assumed by women, recognizing the importance of domestic production to struggling families in postbellum Virginia. The farming organizations also encouraged women to join as members, allowing them to serve within some leadership positions. Local churches did not embrace women as leaders, but did encourage elite Virginians to accept greater fluidity in gender roles after the War. Indeed, churches began to rely on the labor of elite white women as a means of raising money. Yet, as Morsman notes, neither churches nor farming groups advocated for greater political equality for women, even as both institutions recognized the benefits of enabling women to make greater economic contributions to the family.
The fourth chapter of Morsman’s study is the strongest, as she persuasively demonstrates the significance of the transformations in gender relations within the domestic sphere to broader political debates. In particular, Morsman focuses on Virginia’s debt crisis during Reconstruction, and the ways in which the party supported by elite planters, the Funders, employed gendered rhetoric as a means of appealing to their supporters. As Morsman deftly illustrates, the debt crisis was the issue on which Virginia planters’ new vision of gender relations foundered. No matter the partnerships elite men were forging with their wives in their own homes, within the political arena, planters understood that it was a matter of honor and reputation to meet their obligations as men and repay the state’s crushing debt.
The transformation in labor relations within planter households, argues Morsman in her concluding chapter, irrevocably shaped the lives of future generations. The children of the elites who lived through the Civil War accepted the necessity of labor for survival. Yet, where parents had remained on the farm, the children moved to the cities, finding work in offices or schoolhouses. Amongst this generation, gender relations transformed again. With the labor of middle-class wives less vital to the ongoing sustenance of the household, there was a shift away from mutual economic partnerships toward a more strict bifurcation between public and private with the husband as head of the household. When women intervened in the public sphere, it was in the context of women’s organizations such as the YWCA or the suffrage movement. Yet, Morsman sensibly avoids drawing a direct causal relationship between the move to the cities and the change in gender relationships. As she observes, numerous factors, including the invention of labor-saving devices and the greater availability of domestic servants in the cities, informed changes in gender roles in the late nineteenth century.
Morsman acknowledges that the story she tells of the planters’ frustration at the decline they suffered in status and fortunes is “certainly not new” (6). Yet, the extent of the changes she documents, particularly the emergence of relationships between husband and wife based on mutual economic partnerships, provides an important framework for reassessing the crisis of masculinity suffered by elite planters in the postbellum South. As Morsman illustrates, even if gender relationships based upon mutuality did not persist in the same form amongst the children of planters, the gender relations that emerged after the Civil War represented a significant break with the past. Indeed, Morsman’s skill in delineating the nature of the transformation in gender relations in Virginia after the Civil War should ensure her book holds appeal for those interested in the scholarship of the New South, gender, and the Civil War and Reconstruction period.
Felicity Turner is the Law and Society Fellow at the University of Wisconsin Law School for 2011/2012.