Unruly Women

The Politics of Social and Sexual Control in the Old South

By Victoria E. Bynum

250 pp., 5.5 x 8.5

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-0-8078-4361-1
    Published: May 1992
  • eBook ISBN: 978-1-4696-1699-5
    Published: August 2016

Gender and American Culture

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Awards & distinctions

1994 Best First Book Award, Phi Alpha Theta

In this richly detailed and imaginatively researched study, Victoria Bynum investigates "unruly" women in central North Carolina before and during the Civil War. Analyzing the complex and interrelated impact of gender, race, class, and region on the lives of black and white women, she shows how their diverse experiences and behavior reflected and influenced the changing social order and political economy of the state and region. Her work expands our knowledge of black and white women by studying them outside the plantation setting.

Bynum searched local and state court records, public documents, and manuscript collections to locate and document the lives of these otherwise ordinary, obscure women. Some appeared in court as abused, sometimes abusive, wives, as victims and sometimes perpetrators of violent assaults, or as participants in ilicit, interracial relationships. During the Civil War, women freqently were cited for theft, trespassing, or rioting, usually in an effort to gain goods made scarce by war. Some women were charged with harboring evaders or deserters of the Confederacy, an act that reflected their conviction that the Confederacy was destroying them.

These politically powerless unruly women threatened to disrupt the underlying social structure of the Old South, which depended on the services and cooperation of all women. Bynum examines the effects of women's social and sexual behavior on the dominant society and shows the ways in which power flowed between private and public spheres. Whether wives or unmarried, enslaved or free, women were active agents of the society's ordering and dissolution.

About the Author

Victoria E. Bynum is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of history at Texas State University, San Marcos. She is author of The Long Shadow of the Civil War: Southern Dissent and Its Legacies and The Free State of Jones: Mississippi's Longest Civil War.
For more information about Victoria E. Bynum, visit the Author Page.


"Drawing on records of women who appeared in courts in three counties of the North Carolina Piedmont to seek redress against abuse or to answer charges of disorderly behavior, [Bynum] analyzes how courts attempted to enforce ideals of domesticity and how deviant women resisted. . . . A sophisticated but lively account of the lives of a subset of women whose experiences reflect importantly on the nature of southern society."--Choice

"A fascinating and carefully argued interpretation of southern women."--Journal of American History

"A powerful exposé of the seamy aspects of antebellum southern society. . . . [Readers] will appreciate [Bynum's] nuanced depiction of the elaborate networks of kin and neighborly relations in the Piedmont and will find her study immensely informative and persuasive about social groups in the South that heretofore have been little understood."--American Historical Review

"[An] illuminating and thoughtful book."--Southern Cultures

"Victoria Bynum's thorough and sensitive analysis of the poor women of the North Carolina piedmont refuses to be limited by class, race, or legal status. With material so rich, so various, and by turns tragic and downright funny, Bynum is writing emancipated new southern history. Her view of the women who represented the bedrock of southern society is essential reading for students of southern history today."--Nell Irvin Painter, Princeton University

"A welcome and ambitious study."--Journal of the History of Sexuality

Multimedia & Links

Visit the author's blog, Renegade South.