The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 106, July 2002 - April, 2003

Book Reviews

Her Act and Deed: Women's Lzves in a Rural Southern County, 183 7-1873. By Angela
Boswell. (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2ool. Pp. xii+224.
Bibliography, notes, index, appendices. ISBN 1-58544-128-7. $29.95,
cloth.)
Angela Boswell's book, Her Act and Deed: Women's Lives in a Rural Southern
County, r837-1873, is part of the Texas A&M University's Sam Rayburn Series
on Rural Life. Boswell's exhaustive study of public records provides a vivid pic-
ture of women's lives in Colorado County, Texas, from its frontier days through
Reconstruction. The focus of her study is the establishment and impact of south-
ern social ideals and laws on the women of this county and includes women of
all classes, races, and ethnicities.
Boswell delves into the Spanish and German influences on Texas law and soci-
ety, but it is the dominance of southern culture that is the focal point of her
book. Court records involving the property rights of married women, divorce,
and women's roles as administrators illustrate the shifting responsibilities of
women and the difficulties of meeting the southern ideals of womanhood. The
hardships of the frontier period, for example, emphasized how dependent on
men and marriage women were, but also created conditions in which they were
required to take a more active role in farming and public life.
The more settled antebellum period saw the establishment of southern cultur-
al ideals with women rarely venturing into the public sphere and a more strict
observance of married women's property rights. Women found their circum-
stances changed once again as the Civil War forced them back into the public
sphere. Many women became agents of their husbands during the war and
actively participated in fiscal transactions. The added responsibilities and hard-
ships brought by the war challenged the ideals of southern womanhood.
The resumption of gender roles during Reconstruction was especially impor-
tant to southerners after emancipation. Married women willingly gave up the
control they held during the war in order to return to the social ideals estab-
lished in the antebellum period. Single women, however, were more inclined to
rely on themselves rather than male relatives after the war. As Boswell empha-
sizes, "Women were not just passive recipients of the defining characteristics of
their lives, whether it be ideology, politics, or law; they made active decisions
within the confines of the factors governing their society." (p. 11)
Boswell's chapter on slave women provides an illuminating view of the con-
trasts between the experiences of white and black women. As slaves, black
women were viewed as property and the ideals of womanhood were not extend-
ed to them. Their masters controlled all aspects of their lives, including mar-
riage and family life. After emancipation, black women, like white women, strug-
gled to maintain their families. Racism and poverty, however, made it difficult to
withdraw to the domestic sphere but forced many into the work force.
Boswell's carefully researched and fascinating account of women in one
southern county is a significant contribution to the field of women's history.
The extensive use of court records, tables, and meticulous notes provides a
detailed picture of women's public lives. A few more quotes from private letters
and diaries, however, would have added a deeper sense of how women viewed
their position, both in law and society. By focusing on the experiences of the

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Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 106, July 2002 - April, 2003. Austin, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth101223/. Accessed July 24, 2014.