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Mississippi Women: Their Histories, Their Lives
By Martha H. Swain, Elizabeth Anne Payne, and Marjorie Julian Spruill (editors)
University of Georgia Press, 2003
Hardcover, $44.95 (324 pages)
ISBN: 0-8203-2502-3
Paperback, $22.95 (324 pages)
ISBN: 0-8203-2503-1
 
 
 

Describing the subjects of the seventeen biographical essays collected in Mississippi Women, Martha H. Swain remarks: 

What these women had in common is the shared experience of attaining womanhood with all the attendant challenges, pains, and privileges that entailed.  Sometimes upholding traditional notions of gender and race, sometimes striving to overcome tradition, none were free from the social hierarchies.  Neither were they free from what Mississippi writer Eudora Welty once called “the crossroads of circumstance” that defined and still shapes the lives of Mississippi women.   

Mississippi Women’s strength is its attention to such juxtapositions.  The collected essays indeed present women as different as Felicité Girodeau, a free woman of color and a slaveholder, and Winnie Davis, the “iconic Daughter of the Confederacy” who called her politically unsavory engagement to a Yankee.  The only questionable editorial decision, in fact, is the organization of the latter two-thirds of Mississippi Women: the editors break the book into three sections, the last two of which are notable segregated.  Only white women are represented in section two and, conversely, one woman is discussed alongside five black women in section three.  The editors justify this split by noting, “The subjects of the chapters in part 2 were all white…It was not until after World War II that the powerful words and actions of primarily black women would ensure civil rights for all Mississippians.”  Mississippi Women sacrifices some of its nuances by reifying this split; still, the information that the book offers and unpacks by far outweighs any methodological problems that it might have. 

Perhaps most poignantly illustrative of Mississippi Women’s purpose and indeed its value is a quotation from Belle Kearney, a woman whose gravestone reads “Lecturer—Author—Senator.”  I was fairly bound to the rock of hopelessness by the cankered chains of false conventionality, and sacrificed for a lack of precedent.”  Conventionality and precedent are perpetually called into question within the volume, explicitly in relation to women’s suffrage, women’s education, and civil rights.  Mississippi Women also forwards subtler ways that women have called into question conventionality and precedent by looking at private relationships as well as at incongruities—at inconsistencies in particular women’s political alliance and even in their reading habits.  Valuably, the essays in Mississippi Women present dialogues between women and foregrounds connections between teachers and their students, between leaders of organizations and members of opposing groups, thereby demonstrating the active, organic nature of bonds between Mississippi women over the generations spanned by the volume.   

By concluding Mississippi Women with a essay on Vera Pigee—and with Françoise N. Hamlin’s assessment that “Historians of civil rights must make room for the Vera Pigees of the movement, god-fearing mothers with the tools to elicit activism from young and old and the audacity and ability to criticize and berate their own as loudly as they did white opposition”—the volume follows through with its promise to deliver much-needed information about Mississippi women as well as to foster in readers of the volume a sense of the history of women in Mississippi and to encourage further scholarship on these and other peripheral figures in Mississippi’s history.  

Martha H. Swain is Cornaro Professor of History Emerita at Texas Woman’s University, Elizabeth Anne Payne is a professor of history at the University of Mississippi, and Julian Spruill is Associate Provost for Strategic Planning and Research Professor of History at Vanderbilt University.  The authors, along with Susan Ditto, have also edited a forthcoming companion to Mississippi Women that will be topical rather than biographical in scope.    

 
Emily Bowles
Southern Scribe Reviews

 

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