Southern Women & The Indispensable Myth

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It is pointless to try to generalize about the sexual behavior of a whole class of women over a whole century. Who can know such secrets? But the Georgia novelist Lillian Smith, whose most famous work, Strange Fruit , published in 1944, was about a white man who took a lovely black woman as his mistress, truly believed that Southern white women had been forced into frigidity and that such female sexuality and tenderness as still survived in the South survived in the hearts and bodies of its black women. “The more trails the white man made to back yard cabins,” wrote Smith in Killers of the Dream in 1949, “the higher he raised his white wife on her pedestal when he returned to the big house. The higher the pedestal, the less he enjoyed her whom he had put there, for statues after all are only nice things to look at.”

Feminist historians these days like to blame the “patriarchy” for a whole spectrum of evils, from poverty to child abuse to warfare to defense spending. Men thought up these things, apparently, and keep them going, and so long as men are running the world, nothing will much improve. And yet women are superb collaborators, none more so than the good old-fashioned Southern lady.

IN MARCH 1865 , Mary Chesnut wrote these words: “So we whimper and ,whine, do we? Always we speak in a deprecating voice, do we? … Does a man ever speak to his wife and children except to find fault? Does a woman ever address any remark to her husband that does not begin with an excuse?… Now if a man drinks too much and his wife shows that she sees it, what a storm she brings about her ears. She is disrespectful, unwifelike. Does she set up for strong-minded? So unwomanly—so unlike his mother .… And yet they say our voices are the softest, sweetest in the world.”

Growing up in Arkansas, I had never heard of Mary or her diary and believed Ellen O’Hara to be “the truth.” But in the end the idea of woman as collaborator was what I couldn’t tolerate about the Southern mystique. One day, as an adult, I realized in horror that the little charade between the elevator man and me had been truly evil. Poor Crip had been broken for sure, and he needed to bend me to the same wheel. Uncle Tom must have his little Eva. Harriet Beecher Stowe was wiser than I thought. But unlike Crip, I had the choice of saying no.

And my mother, what of her refusal to have a maid when clearly she had one? Here were two women, with much in common, innocent as lambs concerning the potent forces of history that had placed each one where she was. Neither posed any sort of threat to the other. If Mother had dressed up and gone out six days a week or had simply sat around and let Emma do the dirty work, it would hardly have been a crime. That was what my father had intended to accomplish with his hardearned ten dollars a week. Emma needed the ten dollars. She didn’t mind hard work. But Mother wouldn’t do it. Some querulous old voice from her Scotch-Irish past told her that if you enslave somebody, you do it at the expense of your own identity. The mistress is the slave of the slave. So she and Emma fished the sheets out of the washer and laughed as they pinned them on the line, ironed the shirts, and stewed the parsnips. Meanwhile, behind the rose trellis, I dressed paper dolls or harassed the dog or read romances. It was an edifying childhood. I hope my daughters will learn something half as useful from theirs.