"Separate and apart": Women's public lives in a rural southern county, 1837-1873
Boles, John B.
Doctor of Philosophy
Nineteenth-century American ideologies and cultural prescriptions dictated that women leave the public sphere responsibilities of business, law, and politics to men. However, statutes throughout the United States allowed and even required women at times to enter the public sphere. This dissertation examines women's actions in the public sphere in one rural southern county in Texas from its frontier era through Reconstruction. A thorough examination of District and County Court, marriage, probate, bond, deed, brand, and Confederate Widows' Pension records, as well as a few extant Justice of the Peace record books, scattered issues of local newspapers, and letters and diaries, sheds light on the breadth of women's activity in public and private life. Cotton-producing Colorado County, Texas, on the frontier of southern society offers a portrait of the effect that cultural prescriptions, laws, and circumstances had on southern women's decisions to enter and their activities within the public sphere. This study concentrates on four major areas where women often participated in public life: work, married women's property protection, widowhood, and divorce. Frontier conditions both forced and allowed women to take a greater role in financial and legal transactions due to the breakdown of traditional role expectations and the lack of extended male kin to take on the roles when husbands died or deserted. As the county settled into a more typically antebellum and stable society, women withdrew from entering the public sphere, choosing to allow other men to transact their business. During the Civil War as role expectations again broke down, women increasingly performed the male duties on the farms and in the legal sphere. At the close of the war, women withdrew once again from active participation in public activities allowing men to resume their roles as much as the upheaval of Reconstruction would allow. While frontier and war conditions played the greatest role in determining women's activity in the public sphere, race, class, and ethnicity also affected women's willingness to assert their rights in legal and public matters.
American history; Women's studies