Her Act and Deed
Women's Lives in a Rural Southern County, 1837-1873
Texas History - Women's Studies
6.125 x 9.25, 208 pp.
6 tables.
Pub Date: 08/01/2001
Sam Rayburn Series on Rural Life, sponsored by Texas A&M University-Commerce
  cloth
Price:        $29.95

978-1-58544-128-0

Published by Texas A&M University Press

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2001 Liz Carpenter Award, presented by the Texas State Historical Association

Her Act and Deed

Women's Lives in a Rural Southern County, 1837-1873

By Angela Boswell

Deeds, wills, divorce decrees, and other evidence of the public lives of nineteenth-century women belie the long-held beliefs of their public invisibility. Angela Boswell's Her Act and Deed: Women's Lives in a Rural Southern County, 1837–1873 follows the threads of Southern women's lives as they weave through the public records of one Texas county during the middle of the nineteenth century. Her unique approach to exploring women's roles in a South that spanned the frontier, antebellum, Civil War, and Reconstruction eras illuminates the truths of the feminine world of those periods, and her analysis of this set of complete public records for those years challenges the theory of men's and women's separate spheres of influence, as advanced by many scholars.

The world Boswell reconstructs allows readers a more egalitarian, multicultural look at life: working class and poor women, both black and white, join their more affluent sisters in the pages of the Colorado County, Texas, courthouse records. Those same records reveal that the men of that world—most of them planters or farmers, the majority of them owning at least a few slaves—are a force for women to reckon with, both in public and at home. The almost constant presence of men in the home and their need to uphold the dominant, slave-holding hierarchy

produced a patriarchy more pervasive than that experienced by women in the urban north.

Eminently readable and accessible to scholars and general readers alike, Her Act and Deed represents a welcome addition to the classroom, to the scholar's library, and to Texas history collections.

Angela Boswell is associate professor of history at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas. She received her doctorate from Rice University and has written extensively on the history of Southern women.

What Readers Are Saying:

“Angela Boswell has produced an important and original piece of work that helps fill the enormous gap that currently exists in Southern women’s history. Painstakingly comparing society’s images of women against the reality of farm women’s lives in the nineteenth-century Texas, she describes a hardscrabble world in which most women adhered to domestic feminine ideals that were virtually impossible to achieve. Taking us from Texas’s antebellum frontier state through its experience of Civil War and Reconstruction, she presents us with a changing world in which white and black women struggled form their separate stations to find security in a most insecure world.”--Victoria E. Bynum, Southwest Texas State University

“Angela Boswell has produced an important and original piece of work that helps fill the enormous gap that currently exists in Southern women’s history. Painstakingly comparing society’s images of women against the reality of farm women’s lives in the nineteenth-century Texas, she describes a hardscrabble world in which most women adhered to domestic feminine ideals that were virtually impossible to achieve. Taking us from Texas’s antebellum frontier state through its experience of Civil War and Reconstruction, she presents us with a changing world in which white and black women struggled form their separate stations to find security in a most insecure world.” --Victoria E. Bynum, Southwest Texas State University

“This book provides an in-depth look at rural women in Colorado county, Texas. It uses a complete run of Colorado county district and county court records from 1837 through the Civil War and Reconstruction. These records allow for the examination of hundreds of court and county proceedings involving women, their wills, probates, deeds, bond records, marriages, and, even divorces. Uncovering divorce cases and revealing the history of divorce in the context of antebellum Texas is one of the most important aspects of this study. From the beginning of its settlement to the era of Reconstruction, divorce was pursued by both men and women. The rules for divorce changed only slightly under Texas law, but the interpretation of the laws changed over time, allowing women more opportunity to find freedom from abusive or neglectful relationships. This history examines the enormous transformation experienced by Colorado County from its days as a frontier settlement to its peak as a cotton growing mecca and its trials and tribulations during and after the Civil War. Boswell argues that the county developed distinct antebellum southern traits and thus provides a realistic case study for understanding the lives of rural southern women across various strata of life. Finding the sources and tracing the development of rural women’s lives is painstaking work, and it is best accomplished using the patient and time-consuming methods of digging into county records tracing the progress of families, and uncovering the lives of ordinary people. There is so little know about southern rural antebellum women, especially west of the Mississippi, that studies of this kind become extremely valuable tools for our understanding of southern society as a whole and the roles women played in its creation and development. Conversely, laws, judicial decisions, and the actions of ordinary citizens, women included, were affected by southern cultural expectations. When Texas went to war in 1861, women of Colorado County sanctioned the war effort. During the long course of the war, their lives changed as they took on more responsibilities and became more public in their actions. After the war, many women of necessity found openings for work, and freedwomen found more choices in their employment. But in the final analysis, Colorado County women very much resembled women in other parts of the South. They were more content to be the principle caretakers of the home, to lead private rather than public lives, and to maintain the family ties whenever that was possible. The impact of southern cultural norms upon the people of Colorado County, therefore, can be seen in the patterns created among the women in this fascinating study.” --Elizabeth Hayes Turner, Associate Professor History, University of Houston-Do

“Bowell’s carefully researched and fascinating account of women in one southern country 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.” --Southwestern Historical Quarterly

“Boswell’s exhaustive study of public records provides a vivid picture of women’s lives in Colorado County, Texas, from its frontier days through Reconstruction. . . . carefully researched and fascinating account . . . a significant contribution to the field of women’s history.” --Southwestern Historical Quarterly

“Boswell’s book does an excellent job of synthesizing some of the major works about southern women’s history while asserting a few original theories as well. Extremely readable, the text is largely devoid of academic jargon and is accessible to both scholars and general readers who are interested in women’s studies of life in rural Texas. Her Act and Deed is a fine example of the excellent scholarship currently being published about Texas women. Boswell’s work marks an excellent starting point for other scholars to follow. Her Act and Deed adds significantly to our understanding of life on the Texas frontier and illustrates the staying power of gender ideals in the face of very different realities.” --H-Net Reviews

“Boswell’s examination of rural Texas women is especially welcome. . . . historians of late-nineteenth-century southern women will appreciate the careful research and thorough historiographical grounding of this case study.” --Journal of Southern History

“A fascinating historical place, as Angela Boswell demonstrates in Her Act and Deed.” --Western Historical Quarterly

“Boswell has succeeded in analyzing how women in Texas during the 1800s dealt with their precarious legal standing in various situations, including marriage, widowhood, and divorce. She tabulates her sources and presents her findings in a number of clear, concise tables. For all its statistics, Her Act and Deed is what some would call ‘a good read.’ Boswell paints pictures of individual Colorado County women so vividly that I could easily visualize the ‘inconsolable’ widow, Laura McNeill, taking to the wearing of a knife and gun while she set about straightening out her late husband’s financial affairs (pp. 34-36). One rather surprising aspect of Her Act and Deed is the generous attention paid to the experiences of African American women. The lives of these women sometimes receive only abbreviated treatment, with the caveat that extant sources were too scarce to provide a true accounting. Boswell, however, appears willing to go the extra mile to provide us with a clearer view of the lives of this very important group of women. With thirty-eight pages of notes and an extensive bibliography, Her Act and Deed: Women’s Lives in a Rural Southern County, 1837-1873 serves as an excellent reference for anyone delving into the social and economic lives of Texas women in the 1800s. This third entry in the Sam Rayburn Series on Rural Life adds a new element to the Texas A&M-Commerce series, whose first two entries were ‘Brushmen and Vigilantes’ and ‘Lone Star Picture Show.’ I think Mr. Sam would be proud.” --East Texas Historical Association

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