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Special Note:  Subsequent printings of the book have eliminated the errors of production enumerated below.

Mary Kratt, New South Women: Twentieth-Century Women of Charlotte, North Carolina (Charlotte: Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County in Association with John F. Blair, Publisher, 2001)

 

The most recent book by Mary Kratt, local historian and author of Charlotte: Spirit of the New South and Remembering Charlotte: Postcards from a New South City, 1905-1950, focuses on the women whose contributions to Charlotte history have been significant, yet little-noted in most histories of the area. In fact, until New South Women, there has been no study devoted exclusively to women in this region. That is unfortunate, because there are a number of women, such as Gladys Avery Tillett, Jane Wilkes, and Inez Moore Parker, whose stories are eminently worthy of being told.

In that regard, then, Kratt’s book opens up new avenues to researchers into Charlotte’s history. The book tells the story of literally dozens and dozens of women, whose lives either had an important impact on the social, cultural, or political development of the area, as with Bonnie Cone, first president of UNCC, or Dr. Annie Alexander, the first woman to practice medicine in the South, or were representative of the kinds of lives women could lead in Charlotte during the 20th century, as in the case of Edna Pearl Yandell, who was a cotton mill worker. Much of Kratt’s material came from interviews with the women themselves, giving us the valuable perspective of many of the women themselves, in addition to that of the public record.

Unfortunately, what could have been valuable about New South Women is lost in a number of serious problems that ultimately weaken the book. First, the organization of the book makes it difficult to use for the serious scholar: the material is organized roughly chronologically, from the beginning of the 20th century to the end, but the key word here is “roughly”: Chapter Three, for example, ends with the Great Depression-era stories of several women who worked in the mills in Charlotte, but the next chapter begins, “The women described in the previous chapter leapt into the fervor of World War I,” (50) which of course had occurred two decades earlier. The last chapter concludes with mentions of Emily Zimmern and Jennie Buckner, two contemporary women who head the Levine Museum of the New South and the Charlotte Observer, respectively, but then inexplicably follows these by introducing Irving Johnson, a woman who became publisher of the Charlotte Observer in the 1950s. In addition, chapters are title only as One, Two, Three, etc., giving no clue as to what one might expect to find there, which is just as well because subject matter ranges wildly within each chapter. This book might have been better suited to an encyclopedic format, or to a more thematic approach; its narrative format seems forced, with odd or nonexistent transitions between anecdotes and sketches. The index, likewise, is difficult to use, listing only names, not subjects nor any intimation of why each name is included.

Another serious problem with the book is its numerous factual inaccuracies. Sometimes it is a simple matter of dates or numbers being transposed, as when Kratt misquotes Frye Gaillard’s count as “81 one-race schools in Charlotte, 57 all white and 31 all black” (87), or changes the age of novelist Marian McCamy Sims; other times, however, it seems as though Kratt doesn’t have a grasp on her materials. After a discussion of Jane Smedburg Wilkes’ 1913 funeral, Kratt goes on to note that “In 1921, a year after the Nineteenth Amendment gave women the right to vote, Jane Wilkes became one of the first three Charlotte women to hold public office” (8) She would have been 94 years old in 1921, had she actually lived. Other sections are merely confusing: Martha Evans was the first woman to be elected to Charlotte’s City Council in 1955, according to Kratt, when “she ran last behind six incumbents” (75). Did she win anyway? Were there only seven candidates for seven seats?

Finally, very little in the way of historical context of these women’s accomplishments can be found here. Was Charlotte more progressive than the rest of the South, or the nation, in the opportunities it afforded to women? Though several African-American women are discussed in New South Women, Kratt doesn’t take the opportunity to discuss women’s attitudes about race, particularly the question of interracial women’s organizations. It’s also unclear how men responded to these New South Women and their quest for equality: the implication here is that men resisted change, and yet, occasionally men such as E.D. Latta and James Duke pop up in the book as supporters of one endeavor or another.

Ultimately, there are a number of riveting and moving stories in New South Women, but it takes wading through much that is confused and disconnected to discover them. The book will be of especial interest to people who have lived their whole lives in Charlotte and pick it up hoping to catch a glimpse of someone they know. Others may do well to wait for a better organized and better written work on the subject of women in Charlotte.

 

Marc Singer, Ph.D.

Marc Singer is a historian and freelance writer.