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Old Salem is certainly among the most apt of locations for conferences and symposia pertaining to the history of the early American South, and on March 9, I attended a day-long symposium there devoted to the achievements of “Working Women of the Early South.” Presenters from Old Salem Museums and Gardens figured prominently, but speakers from Wake Forest University and Colonial Williamsburg contributed substantially as well to the program.

Dr. Michele Gillespie, Kahle Associate Professor of History here at WFU, provided the keynote address, an engrossing account of “Enterprising Women: A New Look at the Daughters of the Early South.” She summarized the record of scholarly inquiry and emphases of recent decades including the newer arenas of research and investigation, thus providing an academic basis and context for more specifically focused talks that were to follow. Not surprisingly, she commenced by noting how little attention has been paid to women’s work, its diverse nature and worth. Although there has been a veritable explosion of books about women in the early South, the locus of interest has been largely the plantation world, i.e. plantation mistresses and slaves. Challenging Tara-esque stereotypes, these studies have drawn substantially on a legacy of educated and literate women who wrote letters and diaries that have long since formed the core of collections of family papers and subsequently, university and state archives. These surviving private genres have revealed that long-standing stereotypes have been false, that these women frequently lived difficult rather than romantic lives running households, managing servants, even making business decisions–all punctuated of course by childbearing and by disease. Furthermore, these elite women were often lonely, depressed, overburdened, and oppressed by a sense of an imprisoned existence.

Slave women have only recently been discovered in the historical record. Until the 1980s the attention paid was “gender oblivious:” the slave experience was perceived as if it were exclusively male, and female slaves were regarded as genderless workers in fields and in houses.

However, Professor Gillespie pointed out that the vast majority of southern women obviously did not reside on plantations, and moreover, that this large segment of the population was in fact central to a developing southern economy. These women in the middle were mostly white (approximately 1% were free black) and generally have been omitted from the historical record, inhabiting instead a rather shadowy realm apparently invisible to historians’ eyes. Part of the problem is that women have been defined by men and valued only in relation to men. (I once heard another historian recount how difficult it was to track down archival records pertaining to women, since they were buried there only under the names of the men whose mothers, daughters, and wives they were.) But in fact, despite constraints imposed by both their reproductive and other productive labor, the roles they played in the development of the southern culture and economy form a rich and diverse mosaic of contributions.

Alluding to the much-lauded Jeffersonian ideal of yeoman farmers, Gillespie emphasized the centrality of these farmers’ wives and daughters in attaining and sustaining the sufficiency essential to the independence of this population. Women worked alongside men in the fields as well as in household production. In addition, early industrialization in the South benefited from women’s hands at the looms, utilizing poor white women and children as a labor force–as was also the case in New England, where farmers’ daughters worked in the Lowell mills. Thus, there was an early and significant working class that was in part a feminized force at the forefront of the transition from an agrarian to an industrialized economy. Lines separating white from black women were not universally clear; color boundaries were permeable. Black as well as white women owned shops, and even the world’s oldest profession could at once observe racial distinctions for clients, but also could offer cross-racial services!

This new area of women’s historical scholarship must rely perforce on records of business transactions and similar types of data as sources for research into the achievements of working women. Lamentably, there is for this group a dearth of private writings which exist for other, literate groups of women possessed of a modicum of leisure, and consequently the personal voice is clearly missing as is any account of working women’s interior lives.

The remainder of the symposium consisted of more specific accounts of working women who labored either singly or in groups. Johanna Brown, Director of Collections and Curator at Old Salem, described the work done by the women of the Single Sisters’ House. Deeming no task too menial, these women spun cloth, did needlework and laundry, gardened, worked for families, and taught school. So successful were they that they paid off Single Brothers’ debts no less than three times.

Sandy Hegstrom, Education Associate and Tour Manager at MESDA, spoke about some women who achieved a bizarre celebrity of sorts due to physical deformities and essentially gave (paid) performances demonstrating feats such as cutting silhouettes minus the benefits of fingers or hands. Strange as this seems to the modern sensibility, Ms. Taylor characterized this as an instance of a deformity permitting certain women to perform outside the constraints usually imposed on young ladies’ occupations.

A dramatic interlude came in the form of a theatrical interpretation in the St. Philips African American Church by Valarie Holmes of Colonial Williamsburg. She presented an interpretation of one Lydia Broadnax, a slave of George Wythe, who confronts the possibilities and challenges of new-found freedom. But she will not feel truly liberated until she finds her young daughter, from whom she was separated when the girl was 4 years old. Her account of this physical and emotional journey, which morphs into an intense experience of the present moment, received a standing ovation from the audience.

The final event of the day was an optional tour of the Single Sisters’ House, which is in the process of restoration. It will be used in part as office space for Salem, and in part as another site to visit in Old Salem. Interestingly, the House will not be entirely restored to pristine condition; rather, portions will remain “as is” to reveal old German construction methods: wood and brickwork, plastering, even eighteenth-century graffiti that has been exposed on early layers of plaster. (And there will be a re-creation of the original Lovefeast for the Single Sisters’ House on April 22, at 3 p.m. in the Old Salem Square.)

I always find it very enriching and exhilarating to attend occasional conferences outside of the borders of library land. They always underscore the point of so much of what we do here. This symposium fulfilled all such expectations.