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Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the Old South (1988)
by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese
Twenty years after its initial publication and two years after the death of its controversial author, Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the Old South (1988) by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese remains an influential work. Much like Eugene Genovese’s Roll, Jordan, Roll (1974), Within the Plantation Household presents a broad range of strong arguments that modern scholars continue to refine and refute. Although some of Fox-Genovese’s conclusions have not worn as well as others, Within the Plantation Household remains a must-read for students of slavery and gender history alike.
Using slaveholding women’s diaries, letters, and postbellum memoirs, along with the Works Progress Administration’s slave narratives, as her principal sources, Fox-Genovese argues that both enslaved and slaveowning women lived and worked within a single household that comprised the basic unit of “a unique form of modern society that no familiar theoretical categorization captures” (57). She identifies the household, “a basic social unit in which people, whether voluntarily or under compulsion, pool their income and resources,” as the irreducible unit of a non-capitalist Southern slave society (31). In this telling, it is the household as a “social system,” rather than the plantation as a place of agricultural production, that defines antebellum slavery. Within this household, enslaved and slaveowning women imagined themselves as members of “one family, broadly construed,” although hierarchies of race and class ensured that their relationships were fundamentally antagonistic (133). Though they “shared a world of physical and emotional intimacy,” black and white women did not enjoy a “sense of sisterhood” (35, 184). Fox-Genovese’s long and detailed chapters trace the daily lives of plantation mistresses and the slaves who worked in their houses, devoting sustained attention to the tasks they performed, the expectations that others held for them based on their race, class, and gender, and the identities they imagined for themselves.
While several of the debates that Fox-Genovese engages continue to drive productive scholarship, others are not as pressing as they were in the 1980s. At the time of its publication, Within the Plantation Household made a substantial contribution to the move from an essentialist “women’s history” to a more theoretically rigorous “gender history.” In the 1970s, feminist scholars of women’s history tended to extrapolate broad conclusions about American women’s experiences from studies of white, middle class New Englanders, a propensity that was strengthened by their avowed political project of uniting all women behind a feminism that was still not fully conscious of its racial and class privilege. Fox-Genovese drew a distinction between white women in the North, whose urban, bourgeois culture valued individualism and the redeeming power of domestic work, and white Southern women, whose hierarchical, dependency-based culture judged women’s worth on their success in conforming to the ideal of the “lady,” rather than on their thrift, industry, and devotion to all-sacrificing motherhood. By arguing that white, Southern women’s history “does not constitute a regional variation on the main story; it constitutes another story,” Fox-Genovese joined women of color and labor historians who were offering critiques of both the white, middle-class feminist movement and the histories it produced (42).
Her exploration of slaveholding women as active and enthusiastic proponents of the slave system also delivered a heavy blow to the theses of C. Vann Woodward and Catherine Clinton, who argued that white women were secretly opposed to the system of slavery that oppressed and confined them as completely as it circumscribed the lives of slaves. Rather than reading the complaints of women like Mary Boykin Chestnut as expressions of their contempt for slavery as a system, Fox-Genovese interprets them as personal frustrations resulting from highly privileged women’s day-to-day difficulties in managing a complex household that “never amounted to a concerted attack on the system” (335).
In addition to her contributions to women’s and gender history, Fox-Genovese stakes a claim in some of the major ongoing debates in the history of slavery. Arguing in concert with Eugene Genovese’s claims in Roll, Jordon, Roll, Fox-Genovese defines the Southern slave system as “in but not of the transatlantic capitalist world” (98). Since she understands slavery primarily as a social system in which a hierarchical network of patriarchal dependency, rather than the contractual exchange of free labor, governed relationships between individuals and classes, slavery cannot be a capitalist enterprise. Neither is it precapitalist nor feudal. Instead, Fox-Genovese describes slavery as “a system of social relations of production historically associated with the precapitalist era but nonetheless extruded by capitalism itself and therefore in essential respects congruent with capitalist forces of production” (58). Though she repeats and restates this definition several times, it is unclear whether her evidence supports such a forceful denunciation of slavery as a capitalist system. Since Fox-Genovese’s argument depends on such a precise and peculiar definition of both “slavery” and “capitalism” and because she makes no attempt to investigate economic aspects of slavery (cotton production, the slave trade, debt and credit, etc.), her sweeping conclusion seems unwarranted. Her evidence does indicate that the relationship between slaves and slaveowners went beyond a simple contractual interaction, but that alone does not preclude capitalism.
Within the Plantation Household makes other lasting contributions, including its insistence that white and black Southerners enjoyed/endured intimate relationships that were neither uncomplicatedly affectionate nor unrelentingly inhumane. While early twentieth-century historians like U. B. Phillips had portrayed relationships between slaveowners and slaves as essentially harmonious and historians of the post-World War II generation had emphasized the dehumanizing brutality of the slave regime, Fox-Genovese argued for a middle ground that recognized oppression and even cruelty while giving due consideration to the intricate human relationships among the members of the plantation household. Similarly, she tried to find a middle ground between depicting slaves as paralyzed by their suffering and exaggerating the extent of resistance. Her instincts toward moderation in these areas are admirable, though her dependence on slaveowning women’s writing leads her to imagine female house slaves as individuals isolated from larger slave communities, a proposition that does not bear scrutiny. Some secondary arguments are also notable, particularly Fox-Genovese’s exploration of how Southern women defined their identities through writing journals and reading proscriptive literature in a way that echoed, but did not emulate, Northern women’s use of slightly different sources.
Some of Within the Plantation Household’s weaknesses can be attributed to its age. While a modern reader might wish that Fox-Genovese had applied a keener post-structuralist eye to her relentlessly orthodox sources, it is unfair to demand that an older work conform to the standards of a later era. Other methodological failings cannot be so easily forgiven. As part of her argument against capitalist slavery, Fox-Genovese rejects the methodology of the new social history and its use of quantitative methods. Her one foray into statistical analysis is dreadful; she spends eight pages arguing that the North was more urban than the South, an uncontroversial claim rendered curiously tenuous by her insistence on comparing frontier states in the Southwest to the oldest settlements in New England and her exclusion of Louisiana from her data set because “the presence of New Orleans . . . heavily skewed the data” (71). More substantially, Fox-Genovese’s near total reliance on the writings of slaveholding women render her interpretation of enslaved women’s behavior incomplete at best. While she does devote substantial attention to Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl in her epilogue, most of Fox-Genovese’s evidence attesting to enslaved women’s actions and intentions comes from slaveowners’ writings and the recollections of ex-slaves who were children during the antebellum period, supplemented with an often intrusive layer of psychoanalysis.
Perhaps the most glaring weakness of Fox-Genovese’s work is her refusal to engage with the topic of sexuality. In nearly four hundred pages of text on the relationships among the members of the plantation household, she devotes a scant two paragraphs (and fewer than ten oblique references) to the sexual assault of slave women by white men and even less attention to any other types of sexual relationships (325-6). On the few occasions when she is forced to take notice of rape, Fox-Genovese demurs, coyly maintaining that a slave master was “trifling with” or “distracting himself with” an enslaved woman (96, 238). Her refusal to acknowledge sexual violence is a glaring omission with political consequences. Moreover, it weakens her argument. If indeed both enslaved and slaveowning women’s “complex and frequently conflicted relations with the premier custodian of their own specific and different subordinations lay at the core of their identities and informed their everyday lives in innumerable particulars,” the sexual/political dynamics within the household are crucial to understanding those immensely fraught relationships (101). Since she does not grapple with this aspect of life within the “family,” Fox-Genovese is reduced to blaming conflicts between mistresses and slaves on “incompatible personalities” and “normal mood swings on both sides” (135). In her prologue, Fox-Genovese defends her “conscious choice” to ignore sexuality, arguing that the available sources do not allow for responsible exploration of sexuality on antebellum plantations and dismissing other scholars’ work as “speculation” (34).
Another troubling aspect of Fox-Genovese’s analysis is her penchant for soft-pedaling the violence and persecution inherent in the slave system. In order to maintain the idea of the “household” as a meaningful unit of analysis, Fox-Genovese is forced into untenable understatements of conflict, such as, “Southern slaves strenuously differed with slaveholders about ‘household’ decisions that affected the size of rations or, especially, the sale of family members” (67). Although she does pay serious attention to oppression elsewhere in the book, this and similar statements, coupled with her avoidance of rape and her insistence on referring to slaves as “servants” make Fox-Genovese’s portrait of the plantation household overly sympathetic toward the slaveholders.
Within the Plantation Household is a work of substantial scholarly (and physical) heft that is still useful to historians of slavery. Although he disagrees with her conclusions, Walter Johnson’s consideration of the rancorous intimacy between masters and slaves in Soul by Soul owes something to Fox-Genovese’s argument that those relationships were social and complicated as well as economic and coercive. Fox-Genovese’s focus on women helped to uncouple the terms “slaveowner” and “slave” from earlier historians’ uncritical use of those terms to denote male slaveowners and male slaves, just as her insistence on drawing distinctions between Northern women and Southern women undermined universalist assumptions about women’s shared experience, even when those women enjoyed the same racial and class privilege. Although the modern reader will no doubt encounter many objectionable assertions in Within the Plantation Household, it is too important a work to bear hasty dismissal and should be read with an eye toward what it can still offer after two decades of intense scholarly revision.