The Free Women of Petersburg: Status and Culture in a Southern Town, 1784-1860

by Suzanne Lebsock

Paperback, 1985




W. W. Norton & Company (1985), Edition: Revised ed., 352 pages


Focusing on Petersburg, Virginia, Professor Lebsock is able to demonstrate and explain how the status of women could change for the better in an antifeminist environment. She weaves the experiences of individual women together with general social trends, to show, for example, how women's lives were changing in response to the economy and the institutions of property ownership and slavery. By looking at what the Petersburg women did and thought and comparing their behavior with that of men, Lebsock discovers that they placed high value on economic security, on the personal, on the religious, and on the interests of other women. In a society committed to materialism, male dominance, and the maintenance of slavery, their influence was subversive. They operated from an alternative value system, indeed a distinct female culture.… (more)


½ (7 ratings; 3.6)

User reviews

LibraryThing member mdobe
The orthodoxy Lebsock is attacking is that women were steadily loosing their autonomy in the period between the Revolution and the Civil War. She intends to show that the opposite was true in Petersburg, VA. To accomplish this end she has examined official documents such as wills, tax collection
Show More
records, and census data. Her most interesting conclusion is that "women were perfectly wiling to combine family and career when it was possible and when it paid." (xviii)

n Chapter 4, she addressed the status of "Free Women of Color." According to Lebsock, the matricentrical family was not aberrant, rather it was the norm for the majority of free black families (p. 89). May black women had chosen to stay single as a positive act of autonomy (p. 104). Many external factors came into play in their choice for black women. there was a shortage of men. Slave marriages had no legal status, thereby restricting further the pool of eligible bachelors. Marriage may also have impeded a free black woman's effort to buy relatives out of slavery by making her property vulnerable to her husband's creditors (p. 109).

In Chapter 5, Lebsock addresses the single white women of Petersburg. She finds that those women who did have property made wills more often than men, and that often they played favorites in the division of their estates. This she calls "personalism," or an attempt to redistribute wealth according to both who needed it most and who had gained favor with the deceased during her life. Mary Boling, a wealthy Petersburg widow who died shortly after the beginning of the 19th Century. is a particular example Lebsock uses to illustrate this practice (p. 116). With respect to those propertied men who died testate, most felt their wives too fragile for the duties of executorship. If given the choice of administration over their husbands' estates, however, many took on the responsibility (p. 122). Women were also more likely to hive their slaves freedom, perhaps with property, in their wills. Though they may not have been anti-slave ideologues, many women had practical experience with the institution where they showed sensitivity in the individual case (p. 143). From this, Lebsock draws the conclusion that perhaps there is something different about women, maybe a world where women ruled would be a more decent and humane one.

In Chapter 6, Lebsock addresses the nature of women's work in Petersburg. She finds that the women of Petersburg did not see housework as degrading, unlike the women of the 1940s and 1950s, because housework had not yet been trivialized (p. 163). Petersburg women made their family's clothes and grew much of its food (p. 153), and thereby gained a sense of self-worth. Women who actually went into the paid-labor market place, or became entrepreneurs did so out of economic need (p. 185). Small businesses, like that of the milliners and Mantua makers, were common occupations for women until the corporate form of business forced them out of them (p. 176). Single women with children did balance work and family in the 19th Century and they faced many of the same problems faced by women today.
Show Less


Original language


Physical description

352 p.; 5.5 inches


0393952649 / 9780393952643
Page: 0.5437 seconds