In We Mean To Be Counted, Elizabeth Varon charts the role of privileged women in Virginia politics in the decades leading to the outbreak of Civil War.Utilizing both published documents and private records, Varon persuasively conveys the influence that the elite women of Virginia had on the shifting political climate.Concentrating on the organizational, partisan, literary, and sectional role that women had in the male dominated political arena, Varon presents a clear, butnarrow vision of feminine political endeavors in the Old South.
The first chapter of We Mean To Be Counted focuses on the benevolent organizations founded by Virginia women.Organizations such as Orphan Asylum of Lynchburg, the Union Benevolent Society, the Female Orphan Asylum, and the Virginia Temperance Society provided Virginia women the means for political activism under the auspices of charitable organizations.The incorporations of these groups granted a collective of married women legal control over property ordinarily possessed only be men.
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Both secular and evangelical groups granted women "opportunities for leadership within their communities"that had been unavailable prior to organization(24).The associations used publications and petitions to further the cause of their interest groups, spreading the influence of women upon political discourse.The initial focus of women’s groups upon charitable endeavors ultimately led to founding of groups with overtly political implications. Varon’s second chapter is devoted to the American Colonization Society and its role in injecting Virginia women into the slavery controversy.
Far from abolitionists, the elite women of Virginia had a vested interest in the economic institutions of slave labor, but sought ethical reforms as the solution to the increasingly divisive issue of slaveholding.Elite women favored evangelical instruction for black slaves, with the intention that freed slaves would ultimately be emigrated to Africa (chiefly Liberia) and would serve as missionaries in Christianizing the continent.Nat Turner’s rebellion in 1831 alarmed southern society to the extent that “slavery was no longer simply a domestic issue, a local one, or religious one.
It was now the subject of national controversy, and demanded a political remedy”(50).The women colonizationists were ultimately unsuccessful in repatriating the majority of black slaves to Africa, but the moral mediation provided by feminine political activity would be infused into partisan politics. The third chapter of We Mean To Be Counted focuses on the Whig Party’s efforts to use women as political agents in Virginia.As Varon notes, “the Whig’s 1840 campaign marks the first time a political party systematically included women in its public rituals”(71).
Deeming women able to embody the moral foundation for a just society, the Whig Party actively encouraged feminine participation in party business.The reform platform of the Whigs also appealed to Virginia women as it was comparable to many of the interests of benevolent women’s organizations.Ultimately, the turbulent era and increasing sectionalism of politics shattered the Whig Party and halted the pervasive Whiggery of Virginia women. In her next chapter, Varon details the evolution of political women from partisan player to sectional moderators and literary moralists.The emergent literary genres of southern plantation and domestic fiction exemplified the popular sectional vindication of an idyllic slaveholding system.In an effort to decelerate the popular upheaval from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the women authors of the south sought to “restore sectional equilibrium by presenting.