Gender History and the Role of Women

Gender History and the Role of Women at Clermont

Women stand out in the history of Clermont. Their lives and experiences are stories of nurturing, place, and lineage. The women cared for others physically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually. They were deeply connected to the landscape of the Shenandoah Valley. They also seemed very connected with the living and the ancestors that came before them. Some of the women who figure most prominently in the history of Clermont are Ellen Jane (Jett) McCormick, Josephine Williams, and Elizabeth Rust Williams.

Learn More About These Women

Ellen Jane (Jett) McCormick, of Ellerslie in Rappahannock County, married Clermont’s owner Edward McCormick in 1856, after his first wife, Mary Elizabeth Stribling, passed. Ellen was the matriarch of Clermont during the Civil War, and when Maj. McCormick died in 1870, saved the farm from crushing pre-War expansion debt and ran it until her death in 1908.

Josephine Williams was enslaved at Clermont farm before and during the Civil War. Upon emancipation, Josephine served as a go-between in negotiating the terms of the acquisition of 31-acres of Clermont land by a group of twenty-four African Americans and the creation there during Reconstruction of a thriving community, Josephine City with its own churches, schools and services (link to Josephine School Community Museum).

Elizabeth Rust Williams grew up in the turbulent social years of the 1960s and 70s, a K-8 schoolmate in Clarke County of the current president of Harvard University and historian of southern women, Drew Gilpin Faust. She worked as a journalist and lawyer, being recognized for her pioneering work as a professional woman in both fields. She was one of the first two women to be admitted to the Clarke County Bar, and the first female judge of Virginia’s 26th Circuit. Elizabeth, the last direct descendent in her branch of the family, divided her assets in the interests of the public, She willed Clermont Farm to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources to secure the long-term protection of its cultural landscape, and left all her other assets to the Clermont Foundation which she established to fund and manage the site, with a board of local citizens to assure its sustainability through value to the community. She stipulated that the historic buildings be preserved and studied, that the landscape be kept in agricultural production, and that it provide for the public benefit..

Learn More About the Lives of the Women of Clermont.

“Women’s history grew from our desire to understand women’s perspectives, issues, and roles in history, since they were often omitted or their role minimized in many narratives of change over time. While those motivations remain and our historical narratives have broadened and deepened, women’s history has evolved into gender history. Gender history is also concerned with the way society proscribed roles and qualities to men and women in general, and the way that gender conventions often shape politics and policy as well as society.” (citation to paper—what format?) Choose a common correct academic format that we will use consistently – a simpler one.

Ellen Jane (Jett) McCormick, of Ellerslie in Rappahannock County, married Clermont’s owner Edward McCormick in 1856, after his first wife, Mary Elizabeth Stribling, died. Ellen cared for her three stepchildren—Florinda Taylor, Mary Stribling, and Ann Catherine—as her own. She and Edward had an additional six children: Edward (1857), Elvira Jett (1858), Dawson (1860), Anne Herndon (1862), Albert Montgomery Dupuy (1866), and James (1868).

During the Civil War, women supported their loved ones in the military with both material and positive energy. They sent clothing, food, Bibles, and other supplies. They withheld complaints about their circumstances, wrote frequent letters and tried to sound positive. They visited relatives needing support, and in turn went to other family when help was needed; Ellen McCormick went to her parents in Rappahannock County on the east slope of the Blue Ridge when her fourth child, Ann, was due in October, 1862 (even though Union troops had occupied her parent’s house in August before the 2nd Battle of Bull run).

The absence of white men among elite slaveholding household brought about structural changes in society. Women moved about and were required to accomplish tasks, from plowing to financial management, that only men previously performed. With Edward off at war, Ellen was the head of the household for the first time. She had much support from nearby relatives. Her hard work and independence helped to maintain and protect their property. Additionally, it helped prepare Ellen for managing the estate during her widowhood after the war.

Edward and Ellen McCormick and their family lived at Clermont after the war, resumed farming, and worked to restore their fields, fences, and lives. Edward died in 1870, leaving behind extensive debt from the pre-Civil War expansion of the farm, which Ellen paid off by selling property, farm equipment, and livestock to save the core home farm.

One of the pieces of land that was sold, a 31-acre parcel on the south side of Berryville, was subdivided into one-acre lots and sold to a group of 24 African American families for $100 a lot, financed by Ellen McCormick. Josephine Williams probably represented the group in their acquisition of the land; she was a skilled seamstress previously enslaved by the McCormicks and she personally purchased the first two lots.

By this time, a number of African Americans had saved money toward buying land, seeking the autonomy that land ownership provided. Elizabeth Rust Williams once wrote that “once the slaves were emancipated, [Edward McCormick], wanted them to own their own homes.” While Ellen McCormick’s views are unknown, the business-like nature of the transaction, and the fact that McCormick foreclosed when the installments were not paid, denies the later myth in the white community of a benevolent gift to those formerly enslaved. However, the loan arrangement does suggest a mutual trust between the buyers and seller in a time when mutual trust did not come easily. The community that was created on the west side of the farm and the south side of Berryville is still known as Josephine, named for a woman with remarkable leadership qualities. And the installments the citizens of Josephine City paid for their lots literally helped save Clermont.

Ellen McCormick managed Clermont for almost forty more years, until her death in 1908, with the help of some of the orphaned family members she had helped raise.

Born in 1945, her great-granddaughter Elizabeth Rust Williams was a young woman during the civil rights movement, the introduction of birth control bills, the sexual revolution, and the women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Elizabeth Williams embraced the freedom afforded to women in her era and studied journalism at George Washington University. Upon graduating in 1968, she became a reporter and freelance journalist for the Washington Post and the Philadelphia Daily News.

After a short and unhappy marriage to Toby Talbot, Elizabeth entered law school at American University and graduated a doctor of jurisprudence in 1981. She and Mary Ellen Kerr became the first female attorneys admitted to the Bar in Clarke County. In 1986, she was appointed as a substitute General District Court and Juvenile Domestic Relations Judge, becoming the Virginia 26th Circuit Court’s first female judge. Elizabeth was recognized by her peers for her outstanding service with awards as Outstanding Woman Attorney of Virginia in 1986, for Exceptional Pro Bono Service in 1993, and as President of the Clarke County Bar Association from 1983-1988.

The ownership and management of Clermont was as least as dear to Elizabeth as her work in law. She employed a farm manager, but participated in decisions relating to the property. She researched and wrote an extensive history of the farm. As Elizabeth faced her death at age 60 of cancer, and as the last direct descendent of her branch of the family, she was determined that the whole 360-acre cultural landscape at Clermont, with its European history running back to George Washington’s survey of 1750 (and a Native American history of potentially 10,000 years), be preserved intact for the benefit of the larger public.

To accomplish this she decided to divide her assets. On the one hand, she willed Clermont Farm to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources (VDHR), believing that the property would be best protected, and best contextualized if it was in state ownership. The gift, valued at $10 million, was accepted by the Virginia General Assembly in 2005. On the other hand, she was again ahead of her time in believing that the sustainability of historic sites like Clermont depends in large part on their integration with and value to the local community. To represent this local interest and to give it standing and a distinct role in the site’s management, she left all her other assets to a charitable trust she created, later converted to The Clermont Foundation. That body was designed to fund and manage the site under contract with VDHR, led by a board of local citizens, with the stipulations that the historic buildings be preserved and studied, that the landscape be kept in agricultural production (currently cattle and sheep) and that it be used for the public benefit. The result of Elizabeth William’s thought and gift is a state-owned study and training site focused on history (Chesapeake/Shenandoah Valley), historic preservation, and agriculture, funded and managed by a private non-profit led by citizens of the region.

To learn even more, download our paper.

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