Review: The Varieties of Women's Experiences
Larry Eugene Rivers and Canter Brown Jr., eds. The Varieties of Women's Experiences: Portraits of Southern Women in the Post-Civil War Century. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2009. 352 pp. ISBN 9780813034126.
Forty years after women’s history began as a recognized field, much work remains to be done. The efforts of women to raise their families, help their communities, and advance their professions continue to be somewhat unrecognized and largely under-documented. The editors and authors of The Varieties of Women’s Experiences admirably work to rectify this situation by bringing to light the lives of fourteen southern women.
Most of the women in The Varieties of Women’s Experiences are from Florida and Georgia, and most are African American. As indicated in the title, the biographical essays range in time from the early nineteenth century to the 1970s, with the bulk of the topics covering the period between 1875 and 1925. Well-documented and generally well-written essays depict the activism of this group of women in community building, teaching, medicine, and religion. Readers learn about Selena Sloan Butler, who worked tirelessly for reform causes through African American women’s clubs in Atlanta. Elizabeth Benton Moore operated a school in rural Georgia. Readers interested in religion will find particularly rewarding explorations of the lives of Mary E. C. Day Smith, who came to the South to teach but was licensed in the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1894, and Louise Cecilia Fleming, whose medical mission to the Congo was supported by the National Baptist Foreign Mission Convention. Religion weaves throughout many of the essays, demonstrating the ongoing importance of organized religion in southern communities and individual lives.
The editors posit that the diversity of the book is its strength. While most of the essays do focus on Florida and Georgia, the others range geographically across the South. In addition to eight African American women, the subjects also include four privileged white Protestant women, one white Jewish woman, and one Cubana. While the breadth of topics does in fact reveal “the varieties of women’s experiences,” it does not allow the editors to contextualize or theorize the essays in their framing material. The introduction reveals little in terms of Florida history, southern history, or women’s history. Literary theorists refer to volumes such as this as “recovery work”: revealing texts that have for the most part been hidden, and leaving analysis to follow. For their efforts in recovering the stories of these fourteen women, the editors and authors deserve much credit. Now others will be able to examine the lives of these fourteen interesting women and seek larger patterns and themes in southern women’s lives.