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

Joshism

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Apr 30, 2012
Location
Jupiter, FL
There were a number of reasons I can imagine for the plantation mistress to be harsh on the slaves.

1. If she subscribed to the stereotype of black men as animal brutes lusting after white women she was, in her mind, keeping them cowed and proving her toughness.

2. If her husband was using his slave women as a personal harem she may have taken out her frustrations on them because she couldn't do much to him. Maybe beatings, overwork, etc could even make the slave women undesirable.

3. Taking out her frustrations in an era when she was trapped in a particular kind of life whether she wanted it or not (also explains the drug use).

It may seem strange now that white and black women didn't feel much common cause in antebellum times. But I think at the time an enslaved black woman was thought of by whites in that order: slave first, black second, woman third.

Alot of the feminism of the 20th century just didn't exist in most of the 19th, especially the antebellum South. Voting and other equal rights weren't even widely popular among women at the time (and aren't even universal today). What seems today like an obvious alliance didn't seem so at the time.
 

Southern Unionist

First Sergeant
Joined
Apr 27, 2017
Location
NC
If anything, I hope this conversation will dispel the myth that all wives of "slave owners" were stereotypical Scarlett O'Hara types.

Scarlett O'Hara was anything but typical. For starters, she came from an Irish Catholic family. Growing up in a small Southern town, I never encountered any such person. Church was central to Old South culture, and I would assume that Catholic culture was significantly different from the overwhelmingly dominant Protestant variety. Even now, nearly all the Catholic people I know are first or second generation transplants from the Northeast with no historical connection to the South whatsoever.

Instead of writing to inform and educate about history, I have a strong feeling Margaret Mitchell was trying instead to bring to life in that fictional character a role model for the future.

I wonder how many Northerners understand this.

have you heard of any cases/accounts of women with eating disorders during that time?

Anorexia in particular is common among women and girls who feel themselves to be under the control of others and subjected to unreasonable expectations, by society in general, and that sounds like the Old South to me. But... good luck finding firm evidence of it. Emotional, mental, social, and psychological disorders were generally regarded back then as nothing more than bad behavior, best cured by prayer, Bible study, and obedience. Unfortunately, too many such women ended up getting locked away in horrible asylums in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, so talking or writing openly about symptoms or concerns about such things was very dangerous. Up north especially, women with these problems were sometimes suspected of being witches or invaded by an evil spirit, before the large scale construction of mental hospitals. Treating people with these types of problems with dignity and respect is a recent thing in our society.

Eating disorders tend to be much less common in women who are old enough to have their own sources of income, which gives you much more control over your own life. Unfortunately, most women of the Old South (white or black) never got to experience this.
 

RobertP

Lt. Colonel
Joined
Nov 11, 2009
Location
Dallas
Scarlett O'Hara was anything but typical. For starters, she came from an Irish Catholic family. Growing up in a small Southern town, I never encountered any such person. Church was central to Old South culture, and I would assume that Catholic culture was significantly different from the overwhelmingly dominant Protestant variety. Even now, nearly all the Catholic people I know are first or second generation transplants from the Northeast with no historical connection to the South whatsoever.

Instead of writing to inform and educate about history, I have a strong feeling Margaret Mitchell was trying instead to bring to life in that fictional character a role model for the future.

I wonder how many Northerners understand this.
Exactly. Many of the same people who get taken in by the southern belle Scarlett O'Hara myth also criticize Gone With the Wind as nothing more than Lost Cause drivel. It's an odd dichotomy. I suspect that Mitchell believed readers of the book and later movie goers over the rest of the country would eat it up with a spoon. They did.
 

DaveBrt

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Mar 6, 2010
Location
Charlotte, NC
My children, in their late 30's, cannot understand the culture I grew up in -- central Texas in the '50s and '60s. We had a black high school, a "Mexican" high school, a Catholic high school and three white high schools. Through college, I never had a class with a black or Hispanic, do not remember any Catholics and knew only 2 Jews. The white, Protestant world I grew up in (prayer and pledge every morning at the start of school, no crime, no unemployment, etc) cannot be understood by my daughters or their husbands.

I think we have the same problem understanding life 150 years ago. No matter how much we study it, we cannot understand the environment that was a part of each person's life. Its worth the effort to try to understand, but don't think you ever really do.
 

Southern Unionist

First Sergeant
Joined
Apr 27, 2017
Location
NC
I suspect that Mitchell believed readers of the book and later movie goers over the rest of the country would eat it up with a spoon.

She started writing that novel only six years after the ratification of the nineteenth amendment, so it was a prime moment for a female writer to make an effort to encourage and enable American women. It was fine unless you do it by lying about how things used to be in the Old South. I wish she hadn't done that.

Not sure about the Catholic connection. Margaret Mitchell's Wikipedia article doesn't mention her religious views or background. Catholicism definitely has nothing to do with mainstream Old South culture or morals or politics, except in New Orleans (which is always an exception to everything).

I think we have the same problem understanding life 150 years ago. No matter how much we study it, we cannot understand the environment that was a part of each person's life. Its worth the effort to try to understand, but don't think you ever really do.

It takes a very long time.
 

Southern Unionist

First Sergeant
Joined
Apr 27, 2017
Location
NC
So many factors that pushed against the healthy life and mind.

Very true. For a moment, try to visualize yourself as the lady of the house at a large plantation. You know that officially, your husband has all the real power. You're just his property, just like the slaves. Also, you know that the slaves outnumber the white people on the plantation by a large margin, so they can take you out anytime they feel like rolling the dice on whatever consequences might later come their way.

How do you sleep at night?

That kind of pressure brings out the worst in some people, and the best in others.
 

amweiner

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Feb 8, 2017
Location
Monterey, CA
I thought Thavolia Glymph's comment about slaveholders (men and women) ~ that she didn't think they were inherently cruel, but that slavery required a certain amount of cruelty ~ was interesting.

I'll have to think about that for a while.
@LoriAnn, thanks for posting this. I think it perfectly sums up how patriarchy, racism, all kinds of privilege can be without cruel intention but be an exercise of privilege nonetheless. I'm sure many slaveholders thought they were helping slaves and being kind (the character of Ira Claffey in Andersonville is a great example) while still owning human beings. That in itself takes a willingness to be part of a cruel system, or at least turn a blind eye to it.
 
Joined
Nov 26, 2016
Location
central NC
"Dear Diary, I am married to the biggest nincompoop this side of the Mississippi. Thank goodness he's got me."

And Varina was always being compared to Jeff Davis' first wife who was Zachary Taylor's daughter, and who was apparently an ideal southern wife - never argued with Jeff or questioned plantation management or tried to do things unchaperoned like riding by herself.

Knoxie Taylor Davis died from Yellow Fever 3 months after they married, contracting the disease as a newlywed. She didn't have the time or strength to argue much.

I think Davis probably got a lot more than he bargained for when he married spunky Varina (and she certainly did as well). In my opinion he always lacked self-awareness, something very different from heightened awareness. He seemingly lacked the ability to understand other people and how they perceived him. This is evidenced by his attitude and reactions to Varina. I'm not sure sure she ever forgave Old Jeff for taking her to visit his first wife's grave on their honeymoon. Talk about a romance killer. That would definitely do it for most ladies. I know it would for me. Yikes!
 
Joined
Nov 26, 2016
Location
central NC
Not sure about the Catholic connection.

Mitchell's mother's family was Irish Catholic. Her great-grandfather, Phillip Fitzgerald, came to America from Ireland. There are lots of connections to Margaret's family throughout Gone With the Wind (enough for a separate thread). You know you could have asked me @Southern Unionist! I'm in the next room. :wink:
 

LoriAnn

Retired User
Joined
Oct 9, 2015
@LoriAnn, thanks for posting this. I think it perfectly sums up how patriarchy, racism, all kinds of privilege can be without cruel intention but be an exercise of privilege nonetheless. I'm sure many slaveholders thought they were helping slaves and being kind (the character of Ira Claffey in Andersonville is a great example) while still owning human beings. That in itself takes a willingness to be part of a cruel system, or at least turn a blind eye to it.
I'm still having trouble with this.

What I took from that quote was:

The average slaveholder was not cruel. But because of the nature of slavery, he/she was forced to be cruel. Had to keep people in line, punish people. Whip people. Kill people.

I don't know. I'm thinking you have to have some baseline cruelty in you to do such things. I don't know that I'm on board with, "They'd be kind people if not for having to keep the institution of slavery humming along."
 

amweiner

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Feb 8, 2017
Location
Monterey, CA
I'm still having trouble with this.

What I took from that quote was:

The average slaveholder was not cruel. But because of the nature of slavery, he/she was forced to be cruel. Had to keep people in line, punish people. Whip people. Kill people.

I don't know. I'm thinking you have to have some baseline cruelty in you to do such things. I don't know that I'm on board with, "They'd be kind people if not for having to keep the institution of slavery humming along."
Great points, @LoriAnn ...I think some of it comes down to the average slaveholder did not think he was cruel and would have been horrified if you'd pointed it out to him. I am guessing, of course, but he probably saw himself as a good Christian, civilizing "Africans" who otherwise would be in a "lesser state" (we've probably all read statements like this in justifications for slavery).

Of course, we all know what road is paved with good intentions. Just because they didn't see themselves as cruel didn't make them Mother Theresa, either. No one forced them to be cruel, no one said they had to benefit from a cruel institution. They chose to take part in it. So for those men who saw themselves as kind and benevolent, caring about their slaves, refusing to use the word "slave"....they may not have been violent and certainly got props, but they were patronizing, patriarchal, and racist nonetheless.

I doubt I made my point any clearer....sorry Lori (this is me pre-coffee)!! The one point that really struck me was them claiming they were forced into it, when they chose the life and knew there were people opposed to its cruelty.
 

amweiner

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Feb 8, 2017
Location
Monterey, CA
Oh, and one last comment on the question of substance abuse...

Thank you to everyone who provided insights on this - I'm writing an article for the Medical Care forum on substance abuse during and after the War, so everyone's comments were incredibly helpful. It's slow going (that whole full-time job thing, parenting, all that other stuff), but I hope to have it done soon and will look forward to your feedback.
 
Joined
Nov 26, 2016
Location
central NC
Speaking of ideals and image - have you heard of any cases/accounts of women with eating disorders during that time? That would be interesting to find out.

Here you go @Dedej .....

As we already know, Victorian women had little control over their lives or their bodies. Anorexia actually appeared in medical literature in 1874. Sir William Withey Gull described a girl, age 17, who had lost 33lbs. He wrote, “It appears to be an extreme instance of what I have proposed to call 'apepsia hysterica' or 'anorexia nervosa.”

“Fasting Girls: The Emergence of Anorexia Nervosa as a Modern Disease” is a fascinating read written by Joan Jacobs Brumberg. Brumberg is a professor of history at Cornell University and says that a “starvation addiction” (got to love that term) has historically been used by women to express feelings such as anger or frustration because those feelings are often unacceptable to society in a woman.

I have read that St Catherine of Siena, who lived in the 14th century, is believed to have been the earliest known (or recognized) sufferer of anorexia. In the early 1800s, young Catholic girls in rural areas commonly emulated her. In doing so they deprived themselves of food to achieve a “saint-like” state. Anorexia mirabilis - holy or miraculous anorexia - was an early label for what we now know as anorexia nervosa.

By the mid-19th century anorexia nervosa was appearing in young, middle-class women. Then, as now, it appears that deliberate starvation was a means of internalizing circumstances outside their control. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, one of my favorite poets, is thought to have battled anorexia. This was likely her way of dealing with the suffocating attention of her father. I have always thought she hinted at this in her sonnet, If Thou Must Love Me… (Sonnet 14.)

If thou must love me, let it be for nought
Except for love’s sake only. Do not say,
“I love her for her smile—her look—her way
Of speaking gently,—for a trick of thought
That falls in well with mine, and certes brought
A sense of pleasant ease on such a day”—
For these things in themselves, Belovèd, may
Be changed, or change for thee—and love, so wrought,
May be unwrought so. Neither love me for
Thine own dear pity’s wiping my cheeks dry:
A creature might forget to weep, who bore
Thy comfort long, and lose thy love thereby!
But love me for love’s sake, that evermore
Thou mayst love on, through love’s eternity.

I think this sums up what everyone is looking for in life (women and men) - unconditional love and acceptance with no strings attached. That's why I strive to offer this to others, even those I may disagree with from time to time.
 

LoriAnn

Retired User
Joined
Oct 9, 2015
I doubt I made my point any clearer....sorry Lori (this is me pre-coffee)!!
Oh, you are clear. :smile: I understood. And I'm pre-coffee too! :eek:

My mind went straight to the slaveholder who did unspeakable things to his/her slaves. In other words, I hadn't considered those who maybe owned slaves but didn't physically abuse them or break up the families.

I was thinking more of the slaveholder who beat, raped, and killed his slaves. I think a person like that is cruel, has cruelty running through his veins. The institution of slavery didn't create that ~ it was there already, and slavery allowed it to flourish.

Now, if we're talking about slaveholders who weren't physically abusive, then we get into a gray area. Perhaps that is who the speaker was thinking of too when she made the statement I highlighted.
 

zburkett

Sergeant Major
Joined
Aug 21, 2015
Location
Orange County, Virginia
Dedej, as an old white guy I can't be of much help. I have had half a century of interest in our history when told truthfully. I feel the first basic source is "Up From Slavery" by Booker T. Washington. In fact, when I'm discussing relationships of the races in America (or American history) and whoever I'm talking to ask me who wrote it, I end the conversation. They haven't done enough research to be worth talking to. I don't know where you live but when I first moved to Virginia some of our good friends were the grandchildren of slaves who would tell stories that their grandparents told them. If you can find someone like that then that is at least second hand accounts of what life was like. Local memoirs while usually written by white women can be unintentionally revealing. My experience is the farther back your source the better because there is not the modern overlay, yet even those have to be taken with a grain of salt because they have the belief of the time. Good luck. You are into one of the most interesting and most misunderstood subjects in American history.
 

Dedej

Retired User
Joined
Mar 17, 2017
Whoa. What a varied amount of discussion! 18th Virginia's been discussing plantation women for quite awhile, may find some good research in the past few years in Ladies Tea. Hadn't heard much on drug use? @Dedej , have you read Elizabeth Keckley's book? She did not fare well while still enslaved- describes the situation extremely well and also gets into some shaming done to men of plantations. That part is a little enjoyable. One of the more maddening parts is Keckley supporting a dissolute, wastrel and his family with her sewing business- so much so, she was not allowed to buy herself out of the putrid system.

Our era women had such varied experiences through the war- daily life was so different dependent on so many things, it's impossible to define what ' life was like '. There was a discussion here not long ago on North/South women, which was silly. Which women of the North and South? An enslaved woman or a poor, Southern white woman or a free black woman or a small farm or merchant class or first generation immigrant or wealthy planter? All had a different war than our ancestors in the North.

Thanks for responding! I haven't. But, I will definitely add it too my reading list :smile: And that sounds terrible - I am very interested in learning more about her story.

I understand it won't be a "set" description - as everyone is different and have difference experiences. I am just happy to learn more and find out a different narrative and stories of these women that I never knew about.
 

Dedej

Retired User
Joined
Mar 17, 2017
You might like a small book called, "When I was a Slave" by Dover Publishing. It is compiled of interviews done in 1936-1938 of ex-slaves. It was part of the WPA program to record narratives before that generation of ex-slaves died. Each chapter gives the name of the slave, their age (all mostly around 88), and where they are interviewed. In talking about their experiences, they give great insight into the mistress. One that I finished reading last night said that his mistress was the best mistress in the whole world. She brought 40 slaves to the marriage. Her husband had the land but no slaves until she married him. Because they were HER property, one of the few things that legally was recognized for a woman to own as part of her inheritance, separate from her husband - who owned everything, including her, she controlled what happened to them. In this particular interview, she never allowed her slaves to be punished or sold.

Other stories in the book are simply heartbreaking and disturbing and you can see in the narrative that the older slaves still suffered from PTSD.

Other slaves who went through heartbreaking things, were, like some people in every strata of social group, resilient, and came out the other end with a family. As one said, "their were Devils and God-fearing people walking the same road and you couldn't tell which was which by just looking."

If the mistress was good and kind and had her head together, when the Yankees came and told the slaves they were free, generally the house slaves stayed for a year or two till they figured out what to do. The field hands almost always took off. Then the house slave (or ex slave) and the mistress oftened joined forces to sell eggs, etc, to do what was needed to do to survive.

I certainly believe the morphine stuff, but I haven't read about it yet.

Their is another book by Coke Roberts called "Civil War Wives." It is about elite, white southern women. It is amazing insight into what an elite southern woman went through. She focuses on Varina Davis. And while she didn't write that she was married to the biggest nincompoop, she certainly felt it at times. Later in her life, she became a great friend of Julia Dent, which caused shock and awe among southern friends. But, Varina was often (along with other plantation wives I've read about), left alone for MONTHS at a time to try to run things with an overseerer. Varina got into a big fight with her brother-in-law, Joseph Davis, on the next plantation, and Jeff wrote and asked her how she could be so foolish, because even though Jeff was away, Varina wasn't her own boss. Joseph became the boss - of her and everyone.

One thing I took away from that book was, the husbands would routinely threaten the wives by isolation - not taking them to Washington where the social hub was. And then they would know they would be on an isolated plantation for another 6 months.

Varina wrote somewhere in her diary how sickened she was to visit other plantations and see children that were stamped with the Master's face because she knew that sexual relations were coerced. And Varina was always being compared to Jeff Davis' first wife who was Zachary Taylor's daughter, and who was apparently an ideal southern wife - never argued with Jeff or questioned plantation management or tried to do things unchaperoned like riding by herself.

Thanks for such a detailed response. I just fell across Civil War Wives on GoodReads.com last week. I saw the reviews and added to my reading list.

And I am very excited about your other recommendation! I tend to like interviews/witness accounts more - so I am looking forward to reading.

Thanks for everything :smile:
 
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