Golden Thread The Plantation Mistress: The Misrepresentation and Myth of the "Southern Belle"

Dedej

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Mar 17, 2017
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Over the last few weeks I have been focused learning about the history and backgrounds of the families who enslaved my ancestors. Mainly, to learn and understand their stories and how everything affected them.

As a woman, I have to say I am more so interested in the women aka "The Mistress"and women family members -- their feelings, roles and experiences on the farm/plantation.

I remember as a youth reading novels and watching movies such as Gone As The Wind and Enslavement: The True Story of Fanny Kemble and other made-for-TV movies and thinking they were extremely nice, protectors of the enslaved - especially of the women and children of the plantation.

I also believed they were adamantly against slavery and were in a way similar to the enslaved - stuck in the middle of loving a man (the plantation owner/husband) and wanting no parts of the institution nor it's rewards/lifestyle.

But, those portrayals I have always believed have turned out to be not representative of the overall truth. The more distributing thing I have been learning is the abuse and utter cruelty many mistresses engaged in - without a blink of an eye.

I understand it was a different time but as a woman - we tend to have a deeper level of emotional empathy and understanding with one another - so I have to admit it's hard to process some of the accounts and things I am learning about.

- In Within the Plantation Household: Black and White by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese states that most white plantation mistresses enjoyed the privileges that slavery provided them with and were not willing or interested in giving up their privileges or trying to rebel against the institution.

- Minrose Gwin: “it is in slave narratives, not in the white women’s journals and reminiscences,
that the jealous mistress springs up to life in all her fury and perversity” (40). Slavery “generates such female monsters, and they are best shown through their relationships with those over whom they exert the most power, yet with whom they should feel the most common bond—black women” (Gwin Black and White Women 36).

- Up until only recently in - when I saw 12 Years A Slave - I personally don't remember seeing a different portrayal or hearing about the internal issues between the women of the plantation + a more realistic view of a common Mistress. Surely, there were some Mistresses who were indeed kind and didn't abuse nor support the institution - but it appears this type was a secondary type of Mistress - and not the common.

- The mistress had a lot on her plate - basically managing the plantation and the enslaved. In The Plantation Mistress: Woman's World in the Old South by Catherine Clinton she talked about isolation being a major thing the average mistress dealt with and it was a fairly lonely life for many.

- Many women had morphine, opium, laudanum, and cocaine. addictions and very often engaged in violent acts against the enslaved under the influence of their husbands. They were also often respected and admired by others in the community for the how they violently handled their enslaved.

- In speaking of the negro there was one fortunate quality given him that made the unkind treatment many had to bear very much easier for him than it would have been possible for a white man. Requiem for a Lost City: A Memoir of Civil War Atlanta and the Old South.

With all that being said - I know this is the perfect place to inquire about a few things I wanted to learn more about and confirm. I hope that's ok - and I don't mean to offend :smile:

1)
The mistress was pretty much always presented as a victim of the system - but in academic studies and narratives it shows she was more than often fully complicit in the degradation and abuses of the enslaved. Why do you think the "moonlight and magnolias" myth and "Southern Belle" portrayal of the Mistress and White women during the time of institution of slavery has been allowed to be presented as representation for so long? Even though it's documented as untrue?

2) Were drug addictions and/or severe mental health issues rampant amongst most Mistresses in the South and/or North? Do you know of any known accounts? Source

3) Resentment, jealous, isolation and the need for some type of social status seemed to be the recipe that internally plagued many Mistresses. I often wonder why some took out such evil acts on the enslaved. Did the Mistresses have any extracurricular activities such as exercise or therapy that could help them -- or was journaling their source of release?

4) When mistresses exhibited a pattern of cruel abuse on their enslaved - was there any mental institutions/treatment or jail time? Or was it just seen as the normal thing for some to do?

Here are a two videos I thought were interesting as well.



Thanks!

Sources Referenced:
http://digital.library.okstate.edu/etd/umi-okstate-1378.pdf
https://discoverarchive.vanderbilt.edu/bitstream/handle/1803/107/00HuffSHHT.pdf?sequence=1
[1] Much of what follows draws from Ch. 6 of Made in America.
[2] Smith, “Anxiety,” Wm. & Mary Quart., 1969.
[3] McCandless, Moonlight, Magnolias, & Madness, p. 21.
 
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Dedej

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Mar 17, 2017
5) I have noticed it's a lot of revisionism and falsities in the depiction of slavery in the 1830's-1860's - especially in relation to Southern women. Do you think when younger women come of age to learn more about that timeframe and hear about what really happened or an alternative accounts from what they may have believed or taught that it affects them negatively -- or how they view their ancestors? Or their treatment or view of people of color?




The Civil War may be long over, but the spirit of rebellion is hard to extinguish even in something as innocent as a girls' summer camp.Southern Belle is an insider's look at the 1861 Athenaeum Girls' School in Columbia, Tennessee, where the antebellum South rises again. Every summer, young women from around the world eagerly sign up to become that iconic and romantic image of southern identity: the southern belle, replete with hoop skirt, hat and gloves, singing the region's anthem, "Dixie."

However, the camp can only achieve this version of Southern femininity by whitewashing the past. The teachers, all of whom work for no compensation, hope to instill genteel manners and build pride in southern heritage. To accomplish this, they have carefully selected the time period so they can share the "truth" with the next generation about why the South seceded from the Union. For them, the Civil War had little to do with slavery and everything to do with states' rights and unfair taxation.

The film reveals why the stakes in teaching this romantic, segregated history are high. By promulgating a southern identity that erases emancipation as a cause of the Civil War and glorifies a disempowered female image detached from the brutality of the lifestyle that supported her, the camp ultimately reinforces divisions between race, gender, and geography in the present.

To understand the Athenaeum Girls' School's icon of the Old South is to better understand the issues that continue to define and divide America today.

Find out more about Southern Belle:
http://www.itvs.org/films/southern-belle

Visit the filmmaker's website:
http://southernbellefilm.com/
 
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Dedej

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Mar 17, 2017
Interesting thoughts.

Thanks. I know it's different and difficult topic.

For me, it is completely the opposite of what I believed since I was a child about the women of the plantation.

The representations were always more so friendly, caring -- at times stern but overall supportive.
 

Dedej

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Mar 17, 2017
Good and evil is found in every group into which human beings can be divided.

I totally agree. And I don't want to seem or appear like I am passing judgement upon these ladies. I am truly trying to understand their stressors, challenges and lifestyle. I always thought it was a "few" outliers of "evil" in the system amongst women - but it seems more common - so I am attempting to learn more about them.

I am also interested on how their support of patriarchy aided in many of their actions.
 

Southern Unionist

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NC
I don't want to seem or appear like I am passing judgement upon these ladies.

Dr. King longed for a day when people would be judged by the content of their character, so I have no problem with anyone finding the character of such individuals to be deficient. It varies from family to family, plantation to plantation.

In a parallel situation, when slaves found opportunities to revolt and escape, some simply ran for their lives, as you would expect any reasonable person to do in that situation, while others took the time to enter the plantation house to commit rape and murder. Different character, different behavior, different judgments.
 

Dedej

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Mar 17, 2017
Dr. King longed for a day when people would be judged by the content of their character, so I have no problem with anyone finding the character of such individuals to be deficient. It varies from family to family, plantation to plantation.

In a parallel situation, when slaves found opportunities to revolt and escape, some simply ran for their lives, as you would expect any reasonable person to do in that situation, while others took the time to enter the plantation house to commit rape and murder. Different character, different behavior, different judgments.

I understand - but I also feel like your statement is kinda passive and dismissive of what I asked. Wrong is wrong -- and much of what I asked is not discussed or known. The narrative and representation - has turned out to be more so the opposite of what I believed. That is the only reason I asked - to find out examples or stories of their mental health, roles and innerworkings (if known) during that time. To get a full perspective.

I don't want to get into rape, violation or murder - because that can turn into a unproductive conversation and not what I would really like to talk about.

We know so much about the ills and outliers of the enslaved - especially the presentation/narrative of toxic Black masculinity during that time - whether documented/true or not -- it is a strong narrative I have heard about all my life.

Which is stronger than the narrative and stories of the enslaver who committed the same crime repeatedly on the enslaved - women and children. So, that's why I don't wanna get into that.

Truly, I only asked about the women/mistresses of slavery - not the men, rape, murder, sexual violation or revolts.

If you don't know of any examples or wouldn't like to discuss - I understand that as well. It is a difficult topic - but it's something I am trying to get a clearer picture of. :smile:

I hope you understand.
 

mofederal

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It is easy to forget there are many interpretations of what a plantation is or was. Many were working plantations where everyone really worked, not so much leisure time. While others the owners had much time on their hands. I'm sure there were some plantations which fell somewhere in between. Context is everything.
 

Dedej

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Mar 17, 2017
It is easy to forget there are many interpretations of what a plantation is or was. Many were working plantations where everyone really worked, not so much leisure time. While others the owners had much time on their hands. I'm sure there were some plantations which fell somewhere in between. Context is everything.

Thanks. I agree.

Would Mistresses on smaller plantations or family farms work in the fields or would it be more domestic or even the financial/accounting side of duties? Possibly, making sure the enslaved hit goals?

Would their hours be the same? and was she often left alone with no other help or company but the enslaved?

I'm really interested in hearing personal accounts or stories that can help me understand them more. I have been reading many studies - with more so quotes lately, narratives and journal entries.
 
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DaveBrt

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Charlotte, NC
Many of the plantation owners really owned several/many plantation. Since many of these plantations would be inherited and located in other areas/states, it was necessary for the owner to spend much of the year traveling from plantation to plantation. The wife was usually left to run the plantation they considered their home. (Other plantations would be under the management of relatives or hired men.) This forced the woman to take the role of the owner, with all the problems, duties and decisions that he would normally make. Plenty of room for the woman to break under the pressure or to become a tyrant -- but each woman would handle this in her own way and we must be careful in thinking what we read about in a few cases was normal for all.

(One man I know of was of a Charleston, SC family and moved to north-eastern Louisiana to run a major family plantation.)
 

mofederal

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Missouri is a southern state, which had large, small and in between sized plantations. up in the Northern part of the state there were smaller plantations, and some large ones. Tobacco was the main crop on them, with other crops grown. Cotton is in the southern part of the state, particularily in Southeast, Mo. In the center part it was a mix of crops, tobacco, and hemp, and maybe some cotton. The still grow some tobacco in this are, not much now in the northern area. On the smaller plantation I have read of the work involving everyone. The women doing their part to maybe include field work. All had their duties including the children. Life was hard, but all shared in the rewards. Not many slaves on these plantations. On the larger of course more leisure time for the women and less real labor. The sources for the info, has to be dug out of local histories and articles written after the time. A few letters also still exist and a few diaries.
 

Dedej

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Mar 17, 2017
How can you research this? The percentage of women in this situation who put their true feelings on paper is probably quite small, and most of their actions are not documented. What you uncover may not be representative of the group.


Not too sure. I am hoping I will get some recommendations. I am finishing up a couple of narratives and the following books are on my reading list.

- Old Plantation Days: Southern Life Before the Civil War by Nancy Bostick De Saussure

- Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South (Gender and American Culture) by Stephanie M. H. Camp

- Ar'n't I a Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South 1st Edition by Deborah Gray White

- "Swing the Sickle for the Harvest Is Ripe": Gender and Slavery in Antebellum Georgia (Women in American History) by Daina Berry

I am really into the psychology of people - which is something I dislike about myself - and I always wanna know WHY? I know and have come to terms with I may not ever find out, understand or like the answer. I at least want to try to tell myself I looked at both sides.
 
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Dedej

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Mar 17, 2017
Missouri is a southern state, which had large, small and in between sized plantations. up in the Northern part of the state there were smaller plantations, and some large ones. Tobacco was the main crop on them, with other crops grown. Cotton is in the southern part of the state, particularily in Southeast, Mo. In the center part it was a mix of crops, tobacco, and hemp, and maybe some cotton. The still grow some tobacco in this are, not much now in the northern area. On the smaller plantation I have read of the work involving everyone. The women doing their part to maybe include field work. All had their duties including the children. Life was hard, but all shared in the rewards. Not many slaves on these plantations. On the larger of course more leisure time for the women and less real labor. The sources for the info, has to be dug out of local histories and articles written after the time. A few letters also still exist and a few diaries.

Thanks so much! I am going to dig through some journals on http://docsouth.unc.edu/ and contact a few local historians.

My ancestors were all on smaller/medium family farms or plantations in South Carolina and Alabama - as well as some in Louisiana.

The one thing I have noticed about the women is they took up journaling - which I assume was the form of stress relief/venting.
 
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This is an interesting topic @Dedej and one that I have become increasingly aware of as I have read about the role of women in Civil War times. In truth the life of a plantation mistress varied from plantation to plantation, but in most cases it was not one of leisure and luxury as often portrayed in movies or historical novels about the Old South. Many of these women worked hard on the property in addition to carrying full responsibility for managing the entire household. Their duties included preparing the food and providing clothing and medical needs for the members of the family and the slaves they owned. In the 19th century, plantation mistresses were often commended for exemplifying the "cult of true womanhood."

It was quite common for the plantation owner to be unfaithful to his wife (the plantation mistress) by having sexual relations (often forced and violent), with the female slaves on the property. The wives were forced to “turn a blind eye” to their husband's infidelity. I’m sure this was a coping mechanism for many of them. While their husbands were not expected to be faithful to them (it was socially acceptable to sleep with other women other than the one they married), it was strictly expected that the wives be faithful, loving and subservient to their husbands.

I’ve often wondered if this dynamic might have led some of the plantation mistresses to take out their pent up anger on the slaves, especially the female slaves. If so it would be ironic since both women and slaves had little to no rights in society. This was a common thread that really linked them together because they were both oppressed, just in different ways.

Do you think this could have been a factor? I'd enjoy hearing your thoughts and those of others on this.
 

Dedej

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Mar 17, 2017
Many of the plantation owners really owned several/many plantation. Since many of these plantations would be inherited and located in other areas/states, it was necessary for the owner to spend much of the year traveling from plantation to plantation. The wife was usually left to run the plantation they considered their home. (Other plantations would be under the management of relatives or hired men.) This forced the woman to take the role of the owner, with all the problems, duties and decisions that he would normally make. Plenty of room for the woman to break under the pressure or to become a tyrant -- but each woman would handle this in her own way and we must be careful in thinking what we read about in a few cases was normal for all.

(One man I know of was of a Charleston, SC family and moved to north-eastern Louisiana to run a major family plantation.)


That is really telling and really sad. I knew many plantations owner had numerous plantations - but I always assumed they would be able to be back in short periods (24-48hrs) or they would bring their families with them - especially their wife and children. If I was married, I couldn't imagine being away from my husband for long periods of time and left alone with people - who more than likely didn't like me all that much.

As a woman, I can say that is extremely scary and intimidating to be asked to do and be in charged of. It does show the strength and attitude one would have to have.

I assume they were also trained in using a gun?

I also know many were educated - but it was often pushed aside - and not really seen as a big thing to have. Marriage was first. Did the women have to go through more of a training of somewhat the"man's work"on the plantation or farm?

Again, that's what's so interesting about learning about this - these roles and duties were not something I thought were common amongst them.

And thank you so much for responding :smile:
 
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LoriAnn

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Oct 9, 2015
As a woman, I have to say I am more so interested in the women aka "The Mistress"and women family members -- their feelings, roles and experiences on the farm/plantation.
I don't know if you'd find this interesting, but Angelina Grimke Weld was a Southern woman who grew up with slaves and then later when on to become an abolitionist.

My brief introduction to her was through the book Civil War Wives by Carol Berkin. I have not read more about her, but I bet she would be interesting to look into, especially considering her personal evolution on the subject of slavery.

I'm off to watch your posted videos!
 
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