Harriet and her sisters could be sold at any time, leaving her family behind, and this was a very common practice with slave owners.
Often, these "Unruly Women's" only defiant act was to complain about an abusive or power hungry husband. "Such complaints usually singled out men who exhibited physical and mental cruelty toward women" (Bynum 1). This unheard of deed singled them out as "unruly" - what kind of woman could not get along in their own household? Because of the laws of the time, often, their complaints were simply ignored, or the husband's brutality was upheld as his right. "As Chief Justice Richmond Pearson stated in blunt terms after denying a divorce to a woman who had been beaten and horsewhipped by her husband, 'The law gives the husband power to use such a degree of force necessary to make the wife behave and know her place'" (Bynum 61).
Divorce was not unheard of in the Old South, but the granting of a divorce was not always simple, or even fair. Martha Trice wanted to divorce her husband because he had squandered the fortune she brought into the marriage from the death of her first husband. "She also complained that her husband had denied her money for basic necessities, beaten her on several occasions, and committed adultery" (Bynum 74). The judge did not agree, however, and not only denied her request for a divorce, he also made her pay the court costs!
Martha Trice returned to her father's home, where she contributed to the family economy by housekeeping and sewing. As a well-to-do widow without a provision of separate estate, she had entered a second marriage with her property at risk. Her failure to win a divorce left her penniless and as dependent on her family as a child (Bynum 74).
One interesting and terrifying note that Bynum makes about divorce at the time, was that, "Although women suffered greater physical vulnerability than men, not a single woman received a divorce solely on the grounds of having been beaten by her husband" (Bynum 77). They had other legal means to try to end the abuse, but removing themselves from the household by divorce was not one of them.
Of course, sexuality and sexual behavior was much different for women in the Old South. Simply put, "nice girls did not do those things," and the others who did were most likely "poor white trash," or black women. However, Bynum found that some single women beat the system, while retaining their position in polite society.
Despite the tremendous social and legal costs, some unmarried women led sexually active lives, entering into a subculture of mostly poor people who did not abide by the rules of polite society. This behavior allowed them a measure of personal choice in a world that otherwise restricted poor or unmarried women to lives spent serving others (Bynum 90).
Bynum's book is easy to read, even when it touches on difficult subjects. I found myself identifying and sympathizing with these women whose lives were so very different from mine, and yet had the same thoughts, ideals, and needs as any women today. Bynum made them real people, and in doing so, made her book a lasting reminder that times change, but people's basic principles and desires do not. Bynum ends her book with a simple statement that makes the reader pause and think, and realize that basically, women are still struggling to do the very same things in society today.
Especially for women who lived outside the charmed circle of southern wealth and power, the heart of their endeavor remained the same: to sustain themselves and their families in a society in which their gender, class, race, and behavior limited their resources in crucial ways (Bynum 157).
Bynum, Victoria E. Unruly Women: The Politics of Social and…