REVIEW: Ladies, Women, and Wenches

Subtitle: Choice and Constraint in Antebellum Charleston and Boston

Nonfiction by Jane. H. Pease & William H. Pease

This is an interesting book that compares and contrasts urban women’s lives in Charleston and Boston between 1820 and 1850.  This was at a time when New York was emerging as the dominant port and financial center on the East Coast, bypassing both cities and challenging their economic survival.

Utilizing a variety of sources —  letters, diaries, court records, newspapers, societies and church records, even a city census — the authors look at women, both black and white, in different social and economic levels. Not surprisingly, the greater amount of available material record for the wealthy and middle-class shows in the work.  Each chapter examines a different area of women’s lives and how their choices or lack of choices in that area affected their private world.  Some of these areas are education, religion and philanthropy, owning property, marriage or spinsterhood, sexuality, domestic work and paid labor, prostitution.  Using telling details, from the lives of actual women who lived during this time, gives the work more life and interest.

In addition, regional differences produced some surprises, such as Charleston offering more opportunities for the female entrepreneur, because retail trade wasn’t held in high esteem in that city. While in another example, the importance of Bible reading in Protestant Massachusetts was one of the reasons for greater opportunities for education for women in Boston.  It is always intriguing to see how the circumstances of a particular time and place shaped the lives of ordinary people.

– – Marianne Cawley, Main Library, Charleston, S.C.

Find this and similar titles at Charleston County Public Library. This item is available as a print book and in other formats. To learn more or to place a hold, visit or call 843-805-6930.


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