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Southern Women & The Indispensable Myth
How the mistress of the plantation became a slave
December 1982 | Volume 34, Issue 1
Though they may have been collaborators in the institution of slavery, Southern women often turn up as closet abolitionists. “I hate slavery,” wrote the most famous of all Southern diarists, Mary Chesnut. “All Southern women are abolitionists at heart.” Some women hated the system, some hated the slaves, and some both. Others saw well enough what the crimes of slavery were. Ellen Glasgow, the Virginia novelist, wrote of hearing her mother say, many years after the Civil War was over, “Even in the midst of the horrors, a wave of thankfulness rushed over me when I heard that the slaves were freed.” This same leitmotif runs through the hundred or more diaries published by Southern women after the war. These women hated Yankees but they had hated slavery, too—Judith McGuire, Frances Fearne, Carnelia McDonald, Caroline Merrick, Constance Harrison. Their names are long since forgotten, and no one reads their diaries but scholars. These few dared, at least, to write down their treasonous views. Even if they did not condemn slavery itself, women often complained of the burdens it laid on them. They knew it was evil and un-Christian and that it deprived white women of the very ease it was supposed to provide them with. And though few of them have much to say about it, they also knew that white men loved black women, had children by them, and frequently treated their mulatto sons and daughters as well as their white ones. The hatred Southern women felt for slavery mingles with their hatred of slave women.
Mary Chesnut, the most extraordinary of all Southern ladies, would have found Ellen O’Hara unbelievably tiresome. Mary Chesnut was as great a lady as any to be found—a citified aristocrat who could have held her own with any English duchess of the day. The old South had an urban upper crust of predictably small size, perhaps three hundred families in all. This was the world where Mary Chesnut moved, and she understood the limitations it placed on women. But within the limits, Mary did as she pleased.
She was as different from the white angel as anyone could have been. For one thing, she hated the country and preferred the relative discomfort of a small townhouse in Charleston or Richmond to the spacious luxury of the Chesnut country home.
Whereas most women of her class were toiling many hours each day to keep their households running, Mary was truly at leisure: that was the appeal of town life. Whereas most women were bearing and rearing a dozen children each, she was childless. Whereas most women thought or said that black people were incompetent juveniles, she looked upon them as servants and was honest in her expectations that they should take care of her. Whereas most women kept their opinions, if any, to themselves, Mary had a shrewd political mind and—if only in her diary—said what she thought.
“We live surrounded by prostitutes. An abandoned woman is sent out of any decent house— God forgive us, but ours is a monstrous system, a wrong and an iniquity… Like the patriarchs of old, our men live all in one house with their wives and their concubines; and the mulattoes one sees in every family exactly resemble the white children- and every lady tells you who is the father of all the mulatto children in everybody’s household, but those in her own she seems to think drop from the clouds. …”
The women were innocent as lambs about the forces that placed each where she was.
She spent a great deal of her time arguing, at a distance, with Harriet Beecher Stowe about Uncle Tom’s Cabin . She knew Stowe was talking through her hat and she was particularly contemptuous that she missed “the sorest spot,” which is the exploitation of black women by white men—at the emotional and material expense of white women. “Oh I knew half a Legree, a man said to be as cruel as Legree. But the other half of him did not correspond. He was a man of polished manners. And the best husband and father and member of the church in the world.… He was high and mighty. But the kindest creature to his slaves—and the unfortunate results of his bad ways were not sold, had not to jump over ice blocks. They were kept in full view, and were provided for handsomely in his will. His wife and daughters, in the might of their purity and innocence, are supposed never to dream of what is as plain… as the sunlight. …”
Mary Chesnut’s rage is a cry of sexual as well as social desperation. How could white women compete with black ones? Slave women were readily available, obliged in the circumstances to keep silent, legally and possibly physically helpless against the white men who wanted them. And since the Southern lady, at least according to what her menfolk said of her, matched the Virgin Mary for reticence and purity, how willing a sexual partner could she be?