Laura Edwards is the Peabody Family Professor of History at Duke University, where she teaches courses on women, gender, and law. Her research focuses on the same issues, with a particular emphasis on the nineteenth-century U.S. South. She is the author of Gendered Strife and Confusion: The Political Culture of Reconstruction (1997); Scarlett Doesn't Live Here Anymore: Southern Women in the Civil War Era (2000); The People and Their Peace: Legal Culture and the Transformation of Inequality in the Post-Revolutionary U.S. South (2009) which won the American Historical Association's Littleton-Griswold Award and the Southern Historical Association's Charles S. Sydnor Award; and A Legal History of the Civil War and Reconstruction: A Nation of Rights (2015).
Only the Clothes on Her Back tells the history of law and commerce in the United States between the Revolution and the Civil War by foregrounding textiles. Textiles figured prominently in the new republic because of their legal status, widely understood at the time, but overlooked in the scholarship. Longstanding legal practices recognized the attachment of clothing to its wearer, which extended to cloth and applied even to married women and enslaved people who could not claim other forms of property. When draped in textiles, people assumed distinct legal forms that were difficult to ignore: they could own textiles, trade them, and make claims to them. That was what they did, using textiles as leverage to include themselves in the new republic’s economy and governing institutions.