Annual Anne Firor Scott Lecture with Keynote Speaker Laura Edwards

Jocelyn Olcott, Nancy MacLean, and Laura Edwards in Pink Parlor
L to R: Jocelyn Olcott (Department Chair), Nancy MacLean (Duke University), Laura Edwards

On Thursday March 24th, the Gender, Sexuality & Feminist Studies department welcomed back former Duke professor and historian, Laura Edwards, for the annual Anne Firor Scott lecture. Anne Firor Scott was the first woman to chair the Duke University History department and was an expert on women’s history and the American South. Laura Edwards is a Princeton professor and legal historian with research focusing on the nineteenth-century United States. Her newest publication, Only the Clothes On Her Back, provides a unique and unseen historical account of the importance of clothing and textiles within the legal system and economy of the new republic. Edwards explains the many ways in which textiles were used by individuals with limited legal rights, such as women and slaves, as a form of self-empowerment. Property claims to sheets, dresses, long underwear, and socks, while seemingly trivial, afforded legal power to the women and slaves making these claims in a social hierarchy that otherwise would not. Textiles were collected by some as a form of financial savings, while others used them as a unit of exchange in the place of actual currency. Not only did clothing afford the disenfranchised with greater legal and social autonomy, but it empowered the voices and opinions of these groups. The patrons of the markets were largely women and slaves (the disenfranchised), and as styles and tastes changed, the attitudes of these consumers became the driving force behind what was supplied by merchants. Textiles served as a unit of currency as well as a form of property that mediated people’s relationships to the law. Edwards’ research sheds light on a hidden history of socioeconomic & legal empowerment and the sweeping impact of textiles on the lives of nineteenth-century Americans.

Click to learn more about Laura Edwards and her newest book.