Summer Book Club, Week 6

Brown GWNWAnd so we’ve come to the end of the road, a consideration today of the final chapter of Kathy Brown’s Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, & Anxious Patriarchs (the full set of posts is available here). We’ve enjoyed working through the book over the past several weeks, and look forward to a healthy conversation about the final chapter.

Today we’re focusing in on Chapter 10, “Anxious Patriarchs.” Having led us through an examination of gender roles, marriage customs, and the transformation of sixteenth-century English gender categories into seventeenth-century Virginia racial categories, Brown arrives at the dawn of the eighteenth century to find her male planter protagonists in a stable system in which they use their gender and their whiteness to enforce authority over Virginia. With control over sexual access to women, authority over their children, the physical threat of violence against their slaves, and a self-reinforcing political culture, Virginia patriarchs would appear to have been in the catbird seat.

And yet they still felt besieged on all sides. They still didn’t measure up to the gentry in England, or so they thought. The people they held as slaves were a constant threat to revolt and upend the social structure, or so they thought. Women were trying to take control of the household, or so they thought. Enslaved medical practitioners undermined their intellectual authority, or so they thought.

To combat these fears, Virginia planters sought a regimen of self-control, in particular their emotions and their sexual power. Men such as William Byrd wrote extensively and in both public and private forums about their self-governance and seeking ways to control the people around them.[1] As a chapter about social control, the chapter serves as an examination of the ideologies of patriarchy and paternalism. For Brown, the experience of colonial Virginia in the eighteenth century indicates that patriarchy and paternalism were not so much two distinct ideologies as they were nested forms, that is, that paternalism was one manifestation of patriarchy. In so doing, she challenges a raft of scholarship that has tried to distinguish between the two and to determine when a shift from patriarchy to paternalism may have occurred.

In the Afterword, Brown links the connections she drew throughout the book to the forms of government that took hold in the United States during the Revolutionary Era. The gender and racial constructs developed in Virginia by 1750, she suggests, deeply shaped the worldviews of government architects such as Jefferson and Madison. Through their socialization (and through a concurrent process through which the gendered aspects of social control were elided to leave a “pure” racial distinction), they influenced both state and national governments to adopt plans that integrated patriarchy deeply in their systems.

That leaves us with several questions for today. What do you think of Brown’s examination of patriarchy as a concept? Does her prospective look to the Revolutionary generation make sense?[2]

Thanks again to all who’ve been following along with us. There will be one more post in the Summer Book Club. Kathy Brown has graciously agreed to an interview, and we’ll be posting our conversation with her next week.


[1] To this print scholar, there are suspiciously Franklinian elements to all of this. We may have to do a side-by-side reading of Franklin and William Byrd some day, unless someone already has and I’m not aware of it. Though I’m not sure it would be safe-for-work reading.

[2] And if it does, does that mean that Woody Holton’s Forced Founders serves as a sort of sequel to Good Wives?

2 responses

  1. Brown’s prescient focus on emotions struck me as interesting. The history of the emotions has come to the fore in recent years. (See, for instance, the AHR Conversation from December 2012). Brown’s work on what historians are now calling an ‘emotional community’ among Virginia planters therefore seems ahead of its time. And it is quite right to zone in on anxiety as the leitmotif in the emotional lives of this elite. Planters were, almost by definition, uneasy creatures – apprehensive about slave uprisings and other threats to their status emanating from within their households or from across the Atlantic.

    I wondered how far the careful definitions of paternalism and connections to the Founding Fathers position this not so much as a ‘Virginia book’ (a phrase used in some earlier posts) but as a ‘North America book’. The question of paternalism has been framed by Eugene Genovese’s influential definitions of master-slave relations in the Antebellum South, and it is understandable to want to link a study like this to a discussion of those men of the Virginia elite who shaped the American Revolution. Both of those things help make this a book focused on understanding family, slavery and politics in the region that became the USA.

    I have been reading Brown from a different perspective – thinking about Caribbean comparisons. Arguably the real catbird seat in the eighteenth century Atlantic empire was the one occupied by the Caribbean planter class – a wealthier elite than the Virginian and every bit as anxious. It strikes me that as well as thinking forward from Good Wives – towards the Revolution and US South – we can usefully think ‘sideways’, about how this book might serve up suggestions for a further widening of our understanding of colonial planter elites in the eighteenth century . . . including explorations of the gendered social orders, class tensions and emotional landscapes created by planters in other parts of colonial America.


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