Bridging the old South and the new: women in the economic transformation of the North Carolina Piedmont, 1865-1920

UNCG Author/Contributor (non-UNCG co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
Angela P. Robbins (Creator)
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG )
Web Site:
Lisa Levenstein

Abstract: In the post-Civil War North Carolina Piedmont, hardship visited all Southerners, and cast unprecedented numbers of women from every socioeconomic level, not merely the lowest ranks, into roles as providers. Increasing numbers of women sustained alternatives to the traditional patriarchal household and challenged conventional notions regarding a woman's nature and place by serving as breadwinners and courtroom advocates for themselves and their families. During Reconstruction, women gained legal recourse for protecting their assets as well as their individual freedoms, and the courtroom became an important site of their economic agency. Despite the public discourse that built up an ideal of economic and legal dependency for women, North Carolina's married women's property legislation and other safeguards available to women, including divorce, were avenues through which women could gain control of their assets and income. The imperative among white Southerners to distinguish white women from black women influenced an almost thoroughly racially divided female labor force in Piedmont cities. Increasing numbers of white urban women entered the labor force as small businesswomen, operating boarding houses and working as dressmakers and milliners, while black women worked most often as servants for white families. The race and gender hierarchy that kept black women in a degraded position simultaneously ignored the economic contributions of most white women, who were traditionally portrayed as non-laborers in opposition to the laboring identity assigned to black women, and even when their economic contributions to their families were quite significant. Their concentration in white and "female" occupations ensured that white women's labor reinscribed race and gender hierarchies as they simultaneously gained greater economic independence and challenged conventional notions of their roles. White women did not generally seek to overturn the ideal of white womanhood that ignored their roles as providers for fear that they might slip from the pedestal constructed for them. Nonetheless, their daily lives were marked by demands on their labor and they engaged in a wide range of economic activities that frequently played crucial roles in supporting their families. Although all women were constrained by the race and gender hierarchy, the economic agency of white women reveals how they also benefited from and contributed to that system in the late-nineteenth century Piedmont.

Additional Information

Language: English
Date: 2010
Businesswomen, Piedmont North Carolina, Reconstruction, Southern women, State fair, Women and the law
Women $xEmployment $zNorth Carolina.
Labor $zNorth Carolina.

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