Southern Women & The Indispensable Myth

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When Harriet Beecher Stowe set out to deliver the most killing blow she could muster against the Southern apologia for slavery (she was not a very perceptive critic of slavery itself, and she knew nothing about slaves), she loaded the dice as follows: She created a black man named Tom, a pious, desexed old toady if ever there was one. She takes Tom out of his old Kentucky home and transports him, step by step, to a hellish place in Louisiana. The reason it is hellish is that it has no Southern lady. Simon Legree is not married. He is a vile old man with no idea how to run a home. In the end he beats poor Tom to death. If Legree had had a proper Southern lady for a wife, Mrs. Stowe could never have made things turn out that way. Mrs. Legree would have cleaned up the mess and made some curtains. She would have read the Bible before every meal, and if Legree had tried to beat anybody to death, she would have joshed him out of the notion. Harriet Beecher Stowe may not have known much about black men, but she obviously knew what Southern ladies were put on earth for. No lady, no apologia. It was as simple as that.

Though women collaborated in slavery, they often were closet abolitionists.

As to whether, from the slaves’ point of view, the Southern lady actually did mitigate their bondage, the answer, not surprisingly, is no. The flesh-and-blood Southern ladies did not measure up to their heavenly image. Of course, white women lived on most plantations and farms and did their share of the work. A number of them must have been intelligent, capable, and kind-hearted. Many of them took on the role of family doctor for both white and black. But ministering angels? Looking over newly published slave testimonials, I conclude that angels were as scarce then as now: I have never come across so much as one reference to a white angel in female form. Once in a while a slave does speak of his mistress as a good woman, a merciful woman, a Christian. But if I had to characterize white mistresses from the memoirs I have read, I should have to say that as a group they were demanding, harsh, impatient, capricious, and quick to call for the laying on of the lash. Some were even sadists, with no redeeming qualities whatever.

Roving through a massive recent collection called Slave Testimony, Two Centuries of Letters, Speeches, Interviews, and Autobiographies , edited by John W. Blassingame, I uncovered a few white ladies:

“What did ole missus look like? Well, I tell yer, honey, she looked like a witch. She’d set dere an’ dat look ‘ud come unto her eyes an’ she’d study an’ study what to whip me about. ”

“While I worked in the house and waited upon my mistress, she always treated me kindly, but to other slaves, who were as faithful as I was, she was very cruel.” The speaker then describes how this woman once beat a black child to death.

“There was a woman slave who persisted in running away. Whippings did not frighten her, and so her mistress had her belled. An iron hoop was welded across her waist, another about her neck and attached to these a long rod went up her back to which, up over her head and beyond her reach, a bell was hung. It rang as she moved, and when she lay down at night the least motion started the clapper. ”

The records are full of other kinds of cruelty too. Seven-day workweeks, maidservants required to sleep on the floor every night at the foot of their mistress’s bed, slaves deprived of sleep and decent food or sent out to die in their old age—all this the work of white ladies. And running like a fine seam through the slave testimonials is the contempt of the servant for the mistress. What else could any reasonably intelligent able-bodied person have felt for a woman who might refuse to care for her own babies or mend her own clothing or even get out of bed in the middle of the night to fetch a glass of water?

YET BESIDES the sadists and tyrants and monsters of indolence, there were great numbers of white women who lived with their servants in harmony, women who did the best they could to remain human, even as the slaves remained human under adverse circumstances. In 1970 Anne Firor Scott, professor of history at Duke University, published The Southern Lady , which has become a classic among students of women’s history. Anne Scott was the first to perceive that the notion of “lady” in the South was an invention of a slaveholding society, which far from pampering its upperclass white women, demanded a great deal of them. Under slavery, of course, it was not only the slaves who must know their place and keep it, but everybody. The role played by the women of the ruling class was critical, for it was up to them to enforce the system. A woman’s job was to marry early, please her husband in all ways, be a model of Christian piety, and as the kindly overseer of the slaves and the children, carefully train the young of both races to play the roles expected of them and thus perpetuate the social system.