- Historic Sites
Southern Women & The Indispensable Myth
How the mistress of the plantation became a slave
December 1982 | Volume 34, Issue 1
Ellen is the high-born wife of Gerald O’Hara, an Irishman on the make who wins his Georgia plantation in a card game. Then he catches Ellen, a Savannah beauty suffering from a misbegotten attachment to a rakehell cousin who gets killed in a brawl. Ellen never loves Gerald, but she represses her grief and walks the earth in a halo of piety and wifely loyalty. Practical and ethereal all at once, she is the mainstay of Tara’s economy, which she regulates with the combined powers of queen and prime minister. Naturally she contrives to cover up her executive abilities so as not to embarrass her husband or startle the servants. But whether she is supervising the poultry yard or merely suppressing her feelings, her forte is management.
But Ellen’s essential role is not with Gerald or even their three daughters. The slaves at Tara work all day in the field or the great house, but when night comes and they have an opportunity to live their own lives, they are helpless as babies. The only black women at Tara with a grain of sense are the two ponderous housemaids, Mammy and Dilcey. But instead of sending them down to the quarters to oversee life’s crucial events, Ellen herself goes.
Nighttime finds her down at the cabins, ministering over sickbeds and presiding at deathbeds. But wherever her nightly exertions may have taken her, Ellen is always at breakfast the next morning, catering to her husband’s notions and settling her daughters’ spats.
This is the Southern lady at her height—not a woman but a mode—“the magnolia grandiflora of a race of Cavaliers,” as a piece of 1920s rhetoric had it.
“The plantation mistress was the most important personage about the home, the presence which pervaded the mansion, the centre of all that life, the queen of that realm; the master willingly and proudly yielding her entire management of all household matters and simply carrying out all her directions… because he knew her and acknowledged her infallibility. She was indeed a surprising creature—often delicate in frame and of a nervous organization so sensitive as to be a great sufferer; but her force and character pervaded and directed everything, as unseen yet as unmistakable as the power of gravity controls the particles that constitute the earth. … She was mistress, manager, doctor, nurse, counsellor, seamstress, teacher, housekeeper, slave, all at once. … Her life was one long act of devotion to God, devotion to her husband, devotion to her children, devotion to her servants, to her friends, to the poor, to humanity.… She managed her family, regulated her servants, fed the poor, nursed the sick, consoled the bereaved. Who knew of the visits she paid to the cabins of her sick and suffering servants?”
The only catch is that the lady was in part hallucinatory. Sometimes she did not act like Ellen O’Hara at all.
Political image-making is no novelty in the South. If the production of self-serving folklore qualified as an industry, the South would have been an industrial power since colonial times. The first heroes to emerge were the Tidewater aristocrats. These most distinguished of all immigrants to our shores were described if not actually invented by a mid-nineteenth-century lawyer and scribbler from Alabama named Daniel Hundley. They were, he said, “English courtiers of aristocratic mien and faultless manner … French Huguenots and Scotch Jacobites, the retainers and associates of Lord Baltimore … Spanish dons and French Catholics, a race of heroes and patriots.” Hundley’s Social Relations in Our Southern States , which appeared in 1860, as pre-war propaganda went into full swing, was a sort of dictionary of received wisdom. His key figure was the cavalier. Whether Hundley had ever seen any cavaliers or not, he and his contemporaries firmly believed that somewhere, if not in the immediate vicinity, had lived a band of Southern noblemen who divided their time between riding their acres and reading philosophy in the well-stocked libraries of their stately homes.