Women’s Life and Work in the Southern Colonies

Women’s Life and Work in the Southern Colonies


Joseph Kaminski

The idea of studying history through a feminine perspective is an interesting, albeit modern, one. With so much of our world’s history being recorded, translated, and basically dominated by men, it is no surprise that the notion of women’s history didn’t come around until more recent events in our society. The first, second, and now third waves of feminism have implemented new thoughts in history—causing the subject itself to be rewritten from an entirely new perspective: one through the records of women.

Although individual women had been making striving steps to record their own personal histories from the very beginning of American history, we as a society lacked an organized effort to approve of, research, and analyze the history of our country through women’s eyes. Individual women throughout our society worked largely on their own until the early 20th century, during the first wave of feminism and the overall enlightenment of equal rights. Of course, we see some of the patriotic women of the Revolutionary War, those women who came together to enforce local non-consumption policies against the British to support their husbands’ push for revolution. However, such political activism is only the first step to acquiring the push to look back and study the women in our world.

Although women have been a fundamental part of our history from the very beginning, the first largely organized effort to record and showcase “women’s history” in America came from the development of the United Daughters of the Confederacy—oftentimes shortened to its acronym of UDC—in the early 20th century. These women understood the “male-washed” history presented throughout the short-lived Confederacy, which urged them to tell the stories of women living on the home-fronts of the South. While the male historians of this time period preferred to focus on the intense battlefields and the biographies of generals, women’s history offered a more domestic look at the Civil War. These women, uniting under the UDC, created a large push for society to begin to accept such activism and leadership from the historically submissive gender.

It wasn’t until the 1960s that the first real breakthroughs for women’s history came to fruition. The work of women scholars and historians went largely unread and labeled as unimportant by society until the second wave of feminism. It is important to realize that the United States of America and the United Kingdom both went through their own forms of radically changing women roughly around the same time. While America witnessed their own women’s history growing from a hobby to a field of study, Britain passed their “Divorce Reform Act”, giving women in relationships more power than ever before. With such groundbreaking activism entering the world of contemporary politics, history began opening itself up to equally groundbreaking research on a relatively new form of historical study: women’s history.

Women’s Life and Work in the Southern Colonies by Julia Cherry Spruill is one of the best examples of this early, modernized research on women in the American south. Born in 1899 in Edgecombe County, North Carolina, Julia Spruill became a figure in early women’s history through her dedicated research—despite having her research be relatively unknown until later in her life. She received her B.A. in English from the North Carolinian College for Women (now the University of North Carolina) in 1920 and went on to receive her M.A. from the same academy. She made an impact on the local education system and became the first woman to win the William Jennings Bryan Prize for Excellence.

It was the contemporary topics of women’s history that transferred Spruill’s interest of English into her love for history. She received grants from the Institute for Research in Social Sciences to research the women of southern American colonies. Her work—Women’s Life and Work in the Southern Colonies—was published by the university in 1930; and, to her dismay, it was treated as the research and activism conducted by the UDC at the turn of the century. It was widely ignored by the “male-washed” elitism of society until well into the women’s movement of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Mrs. Spruill lived through the success of her book, which received a second and third reprint attached with an introduction written by the famed historian Anne Firor Scott. She died in 1986—twenty years after the initial success of her then fifty-year-old book.

Spruill’s Women’s Life and Work in the Southern Colonies is the perfect representation of women’s history. It went widely unknown—unheard of, even—until it became contemporary in terms of social activism, becoming widespread and recommended globally. The content within the book itself is directed towards a target audience—anyone with a background in history would enjoy reading the author’s detailed research on the gender obstruction of the colonial south. However, it is rather clear that a reader must have some background experience in history or, in the very least, extensive reading comprehension before completely understanding the immense detail that Spruill lays out in her four-hundred-plus pages of work.

“Women […] did not wait to come until inducements had been offered and the plantations had become settled and secure, but they were found in each of the colonies almost from its beginning.” Spruill begins her opening pages by expressing to her audience that women are an essential part of American history, even though the subject of understanding women’s role in said history was only a recent “discovery” in her field. When the typical American history class discusses the early American frontiers in terms of colonialism, it oftentimes discusses the native chiefdoms and male-faced pilgrims that dawn the cover of every elementary school textbook. In these opening pages, Spruill shuts down the earlier notations of a male-washed history. As women’s history knows, the imbalanced sex ratio witnessed in the Chesapeake Bay at the very start of colonization was an important factor in distinguishing the differences in life and society between the upper, middle, and lower colonies. With an imbalanced sex ratio came hardship and struggles—from repopulation to filling in the early forms of the “women’s sphere” in society. It should be noted that, in these early days, we began seeing rapid change to “men’s work” and “women’s work” that divided the society’s gender roles. A new world—with new culture, new social roles, and new geographical struggles—brought the foundation to later change in our American society. Spruill outlines this in her first chapter, aptly named “Women Wanted”.

This theme that Spruill outlines in her original work continues throughout the remainder of the book. However, from the beginning to end—It becomes rather clear that women are not just wanted in this American society, they are needed in every way, shape, and form.

The main goal of Spruill throughout this piece was to lay out the foundation of a thesis. Spruill was given a research grant from her college—If you recall, a college that was at the time specifically for women—to write and publish this book. One could question the initial bias of a book concerning women’s history when it was written by a woman, and funded and published by a women’s college. However, from reading the book, it should be said that what she wrote could be considered a properly recorded history of the subject at the time of its conception. She asks questions that revolve around the title of the book—such as how did women live at the time—and answers them through her detailed expository research.

Description seems to be the purpose of Spruill’s research. From describing the period clothing to breaking down the structure of the “typical backwoods home” in the south, nearly every page of this work is completely dampened with extensive and long-winded accounts of historical paraphrasing from primary and secondary sources. One major example would be how she described the typical house of the time, going as far to label the staircases as “well finished” and the bedroom “lined, plastered, and glazed”. It is more than obvious that Spruill felt that her work was a scholarly one, taking the time to answer any figurative question she could possibly have thought of—and she did a fine job of connecting it all together to thoroughly depict the life and society of women in the colonial south.

Her research proved itself to be worthwhile and scholarly as it gained more and more attention in the succeeding decades after her initial publication. As the second wave of feminism ripped through the United Kingdom and the United States, Women’s Life and Work in the Southern Colonies attracted the attention of activists and researchers that were beginning to truly shape the field of women’s history by storm. Her work was spread amongst the movement, and was suddenly reprinted with a brand new introduction—one penned by Anne Firor Scott in 1972. The same edition, complete with introduction, would be reprinted a third time in 1998. Scott, already famed from her work with President Johnson on women’s rights and well-respected in the women’s history community with her own book, titled The Southern Lady: From Pedestal to Politics, 1830–1930, advertised the book to the point where it was globally received as the scholarly work that Spruill had written it as.

One constant reminder I have to give to not only myself but also to any reader of Spruill’s Women’s Life and Work in the Southern Colonies is that the piece is an early one. On a level of historiography, the concept of researching and recording women’s perspectives in history has rapidly changed since the 1930s, when this piece was finished. The level of knowledge that we have today is vastly different than the knowledge presented to Spruill in her earlier days; and it goes without saying that the perspective of women has shifted since the first and second waves of American feminism. A major change would have to be how we view the American south today, and how modern day writing—with much more historical content to look into—might be able to surpass Spruill’s work.

In the early 20th century, tensions between the north and the south were still noticeable in American politics. The “south will rise again” mindset was clearly visible—even more so than in today’s contemporary society. Racial and gender prejudice were still legally on the table in most forms. Prior to civil rights (for both African Americans and women), this book is research of discrimination before the concept of ending discrimination was even brought to the table. I would take this caution to heart, although much of the book coincides with modern classes on the subject at hand. I personally liked how Spruill set up her writing, and I enjoyed her style of sentence structure. I feel as if this book could be used for a textbook—either for the history of women’s history or for the standalone topic of women in the American south.

The book has been well received by other historians. It has been labeled as “a significant bit of social history” within The Journal of Educational Sociology in 1940. According to the journal entry, Spruill’s use of “copious footnotes and documentation provided on every page” presents “a comprehensive picture of womankind” in the colonial days of the American South. I was astonished to read that The Journal of Educational Sociology mentioned the same chapter as a fundamental aspect of what the actual point of her paper was—as it claimed the “Women Wanted” chapter began the logical train of thought for her writing. I believe this source understands the in-depth research required to write such a piece, as it did a great job acknowledging the abundance of references scattered throughout Spruill’s piece. I agree with this source’s style of critique—as it recommended the original edition long before the second wave of feminism popularized it. It laid out its foundation and encourages readers interested in the subject to give it a try.

The North Carolina Historical Review was one of the first sources to review Women’s Life and Work in the Southern Colonies by Julia Cherry Spruill. The original book was published in 1938, and the North Carolina Historical Review decided to discuss it with its readership only a year later, in 1939. It would seem as if most reviews on the book enjoy the wonderful research done into the descriptions on architecture the British-American women of the south lived in, as the North Carolina Historical Review opened with it as well. This review flattered the piece, claiming that “there was no more challenging [or rewarding]” of a subject in the “entire field”. One line that especially rang out to me from this review was that Spruill’s “monograph breaks virgin soil”. It is interesting that a source, even from the time, understood that the topic of women’s history was a brand new one. They understood that Spruill was heading somewhere in her research that very few historians had ever gone before. I enjoyed reading this review almost as much as I enjoyed reading the book, as it offered an enlightening summary through elegant phrases that would have allowed any reader to pick up the book if they had any doubts. The review places the book on a platform, elevating it decades before it would gain global awareness in the field of activism.

Overall, Women’s Life and Work in the Southern Colonies is a groundbreaking book in a field that is still developing into the modern age. From understanding the path of women at the time to viewing the world from a woman’s perspective, Spruill’s work has inspired countless activists and historians in the field. Both reviews gave incredible points that should further intrigue new readers to give such an old book a chance; and the author’s initial interpretation should be viewed as something much more—a historical source on the history of women in the American south.


Joseph Kaminski is a freelance writer and editor with a passion for history and sociology. You can read his latest articles on his personal site, josephkaminski.org, or follow him on Twitter @publishingminds.

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