Notes on Rival Geographies, 19th Century Womanhood, and Agency

When Edward Said informed the academy that “ideas, cultures, and histories cannot be seriously understood or studied without their force, or more precisely their configurations of power” he advanced an important point of consideration in understanding the historical context of marginality of any given age. Scholarly study devoted to examining the lives of marginalized people requires Said’s suggestion. In Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South, Camp invokes another of Said’s interpretations of what he calls “rival geographies”; a description of resistance to colonial occupation (Camp 7).

In “Closer to Freedom” Camp expands the rival geographies thesis to explain the resistance of enslaved women “in the face of constraint”. This rival geography was characterized by motion; the movement of bodies, objects and information within and around the plantation space. This rival geography provided space for private and public creative expressions, rest and recreation, alternative communication, and importantly resistance to planters domination of slaves every move” (Camp 7). Such an analysis allows a closer look into the private as well as public space in placing a meaningful context into the everyday lives of enslaved women. Because enslaved women’s lives were so severely circumscribed by the chokehold of slavery, their experience is impossible to conflate with free white women of the nineteenth century. Exploring women’s resistance in varying social distances to those outside of the margins helps explain the harsh strictures of paternal control that so characterizes the nineteenth century, however.

For middle class white women of the nineteenth century the centers of “rival geographies” manifested in the private sphere of the home. It was in this fragile space where free white women were relegated to perform the ideals of republican motherhood – an ideology that gave white women a political function, that of raising children to be moral, virtuous citizens of the new republic, without their engaging in political activity outside the domestic realm (Kerber 83). What is important in the function of republican motherhood is the determinism of marriage and how this characterizes the only pathway to white women’s chose role as republican mothers. In this limited scope of utility white women must satisfy the “litmus test” for marriageability- appearing demure, chaste, hopefully comely, ultimately possessing the Victorian qualities of what made white women the perfect bride.

Stephanie M. H. Camp informs that for enslaved women, “the rival geography provided space for private and public creative expressions, rest and recreation, alternative communication, and importantly resistance to planters domination of slaves every move” (Camp 7). Whether taking lunch when they chose to enjoy their cooked food or stealing mistress’ black kohl, enslaved women took the moments when they could to attempt to actualize some measure of agency and control over items, spaces, systems that were not theirs to take or navigate. From clandestine “frolics” in the woods to feigning illness, or assisting a runaway slave enslaved women practiced resistance in many ways. Wallace Turnage a runaway slave who “ran off” several times indicates a moment where he was given shelter by an old enslaved woman who, when asked by the overseer who Turnage was, replied, “He’s my son just coming to visit for the night.”Such a move could have meant a severe beating for this old enslaved women, as she was harboring an enslaved runaway, but her stiff resistance and flair for a good story saved the day (Blight 79).

 

 

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon, 1978

Camp, Stephanie M. H.  Closer to freedom: enslaved women and everyday resistance in the plantation South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press 2007

Linda K. Kerber, “The Republican Mother,” in Linda K. Kerber and Jane DeHart-Mathews (eds.), Women’s America: Refocusing the Past, 2nd ed. (New York, 1987), 83-91

Blight, David, “A Slave No More: Two Men Who Escaped to Freedom” New York: Mariner, 2007

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