How the legendary strength and moral authority of the South's "steel magnolias" inspired turn-of-the-century women to move from the parlor to the political arena
The Power of Femininity in the New South documents the movement of women—both black and white—into a late-nineteenth-century political terrain torn between the tyranny of white supremacy and the promise of Progressive reform. With a comprehensive examination of the women's voluntary associations that proliferated in North Carolina between 1880 and 1930, Anastatia Sims tells how these women came to terms with a sacred cultural icon of the antebellum South—the complex, often contradictory ideal of southern femininity. She describes how organized women, as they called themselves, explored the ideal's possibilities, discovered its limitations, and ultimately transformed it by their actions.
Denied the right to vote or hold office, white and African American women found their voice in voluntary associations. Organized women shaped public policy, brought about social reform, and created a feminine role in politics long before they won the ballot. Looking closely at a diverse range of organizations-including the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, King's Daughters, Daughters of the American Revolution, United Daughters of the Confederacy, Equal Suffrage Association, League of Women Voters, and two federations of women's clubs-Sims weaves a compelling narrative about women who found room to maneuver within the fixed boundaries of racial and gender hierarchies.
White women were able to use feminine stereotypes to their advantage. African Americans, on the other hand, had to fight against prevailing assumptions about black women. White society granted African American women no authority, moral or otherwise; indeed, whites frequently portrayed African American women as immoral or, at best, amoral. These images, deeply embedded in popular culture, doubtless influenced even the most well-meaning WCTU members in their efforts to cooperate with blacks. For African American women, temperance was part of a larger crusade to win white respect for black womanhood and to improve the status of African Americans.
Anastatia Sims is an associate professor of history at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro. Her articles have appeared in the North Carolina Historical Review, Tennessee Historical Quarterly, Tennessee Conservationist, History Teacher, and several anthologies.
"Increasingly scholars are recognizing the power and influence of organized womanhood even before women were enfranchised. Anastatia Sims makes it clear that this was true even in the conservative, strongly antisuffrage South."—Marjorie Spruill Wheeler, University of Southern Mississippi
"This solidly researched study occupies a difficult spot in the field. The Power of Femininity in the New South contributes to the history of class, gender, race, and politics in North Carolina, building on several recent studies."—Journal of American History