Southern Women & The Indispensable Myth

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Before the Revolutionary War there were a few great families in the coastal South—Virginia’s celebrated Randolphs, Carters, and Byrds—who lived more or less like English gentry and even had books in the house. And yet a whole generation of scholars proved that virtually no English or French aristocrats settled in the Southern colonies. The overwhelming majority of immigrants to Virginia and Maryland and South Carolina in colonial times were poor people. Half of them were actually indentured servants and convicts. The real American aristocrats, when there were any, built their fortunes after they got here, and they had little time for the pursuits and trappings of high culture. In the newly settled land, even the rich people worked. Charming and hospitable they may or may not have been, but they were not the aristocracy of Europe transplanted—no matter what their latterday descendants wanted to believe.

Even if they had been aristocrats, the old Tidewater culture based on rice, tobacco, and indigo was largely bankrupt and stagnant by the end of the eighteenth century. The cavalier myth would certainly have died, and the Southern lady would never even have been heard of, had not a Massachusetts Yankee named Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin in 1793. Suddenly cotton was transformed from a time-consuming nuisance to a highly profitable crop. It provided a whole new rationale for slavery, for cotton required almost year-round labor. The market for it already existed in the mills of England. As the gin made cotton profitable, cotton made slavery profitable.

The number of Southern slave owners was always relatively small. At any given moment the majority of people did not own slaves. In 1790 the 658,000 Southern slaves were held by about 79,000 families (only 23 percent of all Southern families). In 1850 only two men owned as many as 1,000 slaves; only nine owned as many as 500. The typical holding was 5 slaves. Of the 350,000 owners, 310,000 had fewer than 20 slaves.

What this meant for the slaves might vary from house to house, but what it meant for white Southern women was that in every generation, greater numbers found themselves in managerial roles with black servants. With fifty slaves on a rice plantation in South Carolina in 1780, a man would hire an overseer. With ten slaves on a cotton farm in Alabama in 1830, the man’s wife would be the overseer.

WILLING OR NOT , thousands of Southern women in the first half of the nineteenth century were cast in this role. “Ladies” were no longer a luxury of upper-class life in the Tidewater. They were a necessity—a psychological and moral one. For if slavery is to be the foundation of economic life, and if one important crop on any large farm includes healthy black babies, a plantation becomes a complex mechanism that can hardly be expected to function without a white woman around to figure out the endless domestic details. Not only that, but without her supposedly softening and mitigating influence around the place—or her mere cosmetic value—the whole operation quickly turns too rotten for a Christian to contemplate.

Thoughtful people north and south had a bad conscience about what the nation was permitting: even if you accepted the idea that the slave was a savage in need of redemption, did that justify owning him? The first answer to be devised by the Southern apologists was that the self-interest of the owner would make him merciful. After all, only a fool would spend fifteen hundred dollars for a worker and then starve him to death. But it is hardly a watertight case. Men sometimes are fools.

Most immigrants to Virginia, Maryland, and South Carolina in colonial times were poor people.

A better answer held that slavery was merely part of a universal scheme, the proper reflection, here below, of the divine order of things. God the Father ruled the universe, delegating some powers to man, who ruled the world as well as the women, children, and slaves who depended on him. How else had society ever been held together? And if this still were not sufficient justification, there was an ace in the hole. That was the Southern lady.

In theory, anyhow, the lady would naturally stand between the victim and his tormentor. She would be the civilizing force. If the master tried to whip his slave, the lady would stay his hand. If he tried to sell a black man away from his black wife, the lady would of course intercede with her lord. (Could he refuse her?) She would apportion the food and give extra rations to the sick. She would see that black bodies were clothed and black souls saved. And if the master showed any desire to seduce the housemaid, the very sight of the beautiful and virtuous woman who carried the keys to his household and mothered his fine white sons would certainly cause him to change his mind. The lady, in short, would function as the mother of the black race.