Southern Women & The Indispensable Myth

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Together on a Monday morning they would set the white linens boiling on the stove and then heft the caldron to the washing machine on the back porch—it was an “automatic” that had to be filled and emptied by hose. Together they fished the steaming sheets out of the soapsuds and fed them through the wringer. Two black arms and two sunburned, freckled ones pumped up and down in the rinse tubs. Mother and Emma hung everything on the line just so—right side out and hems down. Before the days of Emma, lunch on washdays had been a piece of bread, and supper bacon and eggs—the wages of exhaustion. But now the laundry was finished at noon and by three o’clock the clean, sweet fragrance of freshly ironed cotton pervaded the house. While one of the women ironed, the other would peel the vegetables for the pot roast and cut up a salad, maybe even stir up a cake or pudding. Instead of saving labor for my mother, having a housemaid simply empowered her to do more work.

Mother didn’t want to be a lady. She couldn’t say why, but something in her was against it.

I don’t claim that her way of managing her black maid was typical. Nor do I have any idea what Emma really thought of this hard-driving woman who insisted on equality in a basically unequal situation. Nor, even yet, do I wholly understand why my mother did what she did. Compulsive housewifery had some part in it. So did her upbringing: her people had been subsistence farmers since they migrated from Ulster in the eighteenth century. If she wanted Emma to be her sister rather than her servant, it was because the work made them sisters, and because, out on the farm, nobody but a parasite or an invalid or a baby sat still while other people worked.

There was another motive too. As I went my way in this small Southern town, I began gradually to perceive that in the relationship between white women and black people lay an ominous political assumption that cut in two directions. Had she used Emma in just the right way, Mother could have become a lady. But Mother didn’t want to be a lady. Something in her was against it—she couldn’t explain what frightened her, which was why she cried when my father ridiculed her about her refusal to leave the house to Emma even for an afternoon. Siding with my father, as I invariably did at that epoch, I thought Mother was foolish and countrified. A bumpkin. Why would anybody refuse to be a lady? I sure intended to be a lady when I grew up.

Small girls these days don’t worry anymore, I hope, about whether to grow up and be ladies, but the questions tormented me, even before I understood the political implications. That the daughter of a bookmaker and a farm woman in the middle of Arkansas in the 1940s should fret about such a thing is illogical if not ludicrous—but the obsession came quite naturally. At the age of eight or nine I had turned into a terminally addicted bookworm, and the book I loved most was Gone With the Wind . I read it all the time. I still read it.

WHAT DRAWS ME , besides the drive of the plot, is the power and clarity of the female characters. The women in the book function as the electrical charge that holds the South together. All the men are flawed—Gerald O’Kara is a baby, Ashley Wilkes passive and helpless, and Rhett Butler, for all his elegant machismo, is cold and mean and sarcastic. The women fight the battles and get along a lot better than the men. Not just Scarlett or the saintly Melanie, who both grow predictable and cloying even to the most devoted reader. But the minor characters—Beatrice Tarleton with fiery red hair and eight children, who wears not hoopskirts but a riding habit and understands horses better than any man in the county. Dolly Merriwether, the dowager queen of Atlanta, and Grandma Fontaine, the bony old lady who has lived through the Indian wars of an earlier generation. And there are a dozen others too, vivid and tough. Nowhere before in American fiction had there been women of this caliber. Plucky heroines maybe. Brave or independent. Strong-minded, like Jo March. But not tough.

I always took these women literally, as portraits of real people the author had known personally or had heard stories about in the Georgia uplands. Margaret Mitchell, as everyone knows, worked ten years on her one masterwork, and so far as I know, has never been caught in the smallest technical inaccuracy. The book may or may not be stuffed with truth but it is stuffed with facts- information about food, fabric, furnishings (if she says that Scarlett carried a cambric handkerchief, you can be sure that’s what ladies’ handkerchiefs were made of then). What I did not realize was that the author had read a lot of historical novels, too, and that some of her characters came not from life but from books. That is, they were stereotypes.

One of the most important of the women characters falls into that category. This is Ellen O’Hara, archetype of the Southern lady, an authoritative definition of the species, and the first honest-to-God Southern lady I had ever met, in or out of a book. Ellen simply enraptured me. I did not know, nor would I have cared, that plantation mistresses like Ellen had been stock characters on the literary landscape for a hundred years and that plantation novels had periodically been best sellers in America since an opus called Swallow Barn came out in 1832.