- Historic Sites
Southern Women & The Indispensable Myth
How the mistress of the plantation became a slave
December 1982 | Volume 34, Issue 1
In the small town in Arkansas where I grew up, I heard about this interracial coziness, or read about it in novels, and for years I believed in it. But in fact it simply did not exist, at least not for me. With one exception, the only people I ever knew were white.
Several thousand black people lived in Hot Springs, of course, in three or four different tumbledown sections that butted right up against equally tumbledown white neighborhoods. I always saw more black men than black women. Black men ran the elevators in the three or four buildings where doctors and dentists had offices. They swept the floors and emptied the spittoons in the casino where my father worked. (Gambling—illegal—was the major local industry. I was not allowed inside a gambling house, even to visit my dad, but he used to tell me about the high rollers from New York who would tip the black porter twenty dollars.) Black men worked as garbage collectors, as waiters, as kitchen help—sometimes as yardmen, though elderly white men most often claimed such jobs.
Besides the kitchen help and porters, there existed, according to my father, an utterly terrifying class of Negroes who got drunk and went after each other with razors on Saturday nights. Their names and crimes would be listed in the newspapers in the “Colored” column on Mondays.
I never saw hide or hair of these bad men with their razors. But I knew a few of the well-behaved black men by name. For example, I knew Crip, who ran the elevator in the Medical Arts Building, a twelve-story skyscraper where all the dentists had offices. My teeth rotted continuously, so Mother and I got quite familiar with Crip, white-haired, bent forward at the middle, his joints twisted by arthritis into grotesque knots of agony. He always put on the most astonishing act. My father’s nickname in the gambling world was “Hat,” as Crip knew, since his son worked as a casino porter, so Crip called my mother “Miz Hat.” “Why, mornin’, Miz Hat,” and he would hand her in and out of the creaky old elevator cage as though she were some plantation queen mounting and dismounting her blooded steed. I was “Little Miz Hat,” and he would bow and scrape and somehow make me feverishly aware of my adorable blonde curls. He never would sit down in the presence of whites and would set me on the operator’s jump seat instead. I don’t know how my mother felt about all this, but I loved it. It made me feel that my mother and I were ladies. Why else would this poor old man act so silly?
Black women were a complete mystery to me. In those days, surely, most black women earned their living as domestics, and yet I scarcely knew a family who kept a maid. Then, when I was about seven, my father got a raise and decided to hire one for my mother—over her objections, for she was quite capable of keeping the house clean by herself and would rather have banked the money. But Daddy wanted his wife to have some leisure, and so one morning, very early, he brought Emma to our back door. For the two or three years that we were able to afford her, he would go and fetch her in the car six mornings a week, and then Mother would drive her home again in the afternoon. Emma earned ten dollars a week and Daddy sixty-five dollars (he too worked six days out of seven). He forbade me to tell any of the neighbor children what Emma’s salary was, since the going rate was a dollar a day and sometimes less. But Mother had said she would be ashamed to work anybody for a dollar a day.
Thus commenced my only childhood association with a black woman. Emma was five feet tall, round but not fat, and so black that her facial features, quite delicate and small, seemed indistinct. Her eyes were blacker than her skin and seemed to have no whites to them. Though she looked like a girl, she was already a grandmother. Watching her as she expertly thrust the point of the iron into ruffles and pleats, I used to beg to touch the palms of her hands, which were the color of cream slipper satin, and when I asked her how she got her palms so light, she would laugh and say it was from washing on a rub-board.
Together on a Monday morning they would set the white linens boiling on the stove and then heft the caldron to the washing machine on the back porch—it was an “automatic” that had to be filled and emptied by hose. Together they fished the steaming sheets out of the soapsuds and fed them through the wringer. Two black arms and two sunburned, freckled ones pumped up and down in the rinse tubs. Mother and Emma hung everything on the line just so—right side out and hems down. Before the days of Emma, lunch on washdays had been a piece of bread, and supper bacon and eggs—the wages of exhaustion. But now the laundry was finished at noon and by three o’clock the clean, sweet fragrance of freshly ironed cotton pervaded the house. While one of the women ironed, the other would peel the vegetables for the pot roast and cut up a salad, maybe even stir up a cake or pudding. Instead of saving labor for my mother, having a housemaid simply empowered her to do more work.
Mother didn’t want to be a lady. She couldn’t say why, but something in her was against it.
I don’t claim that her way of managing her black maid was typical. Nor do I have any idea what Emma really thought of this hard-driving woman who insisted on equality in a basically unequal situation. Nor, even yet, do I wholly understand why my mother did what she did. Compulsive housewifery had some part in it. So did her upbringing: her people had been subsistence farmers since they migrated from Ulster in the eighteenth century. If she wanted Emma to be her sister rather than her servant, it was because the work made them sisters, and because, out on the farm, nobody but a parasite or an invalid or a baby sat still while other people worked.
There was another motive too. As I went my way in this small Southern town, I began gradually to perceive that in the relationship between white women and black people lay an ominous political assumption that cut in two directions. Had she used Emma in just the right way, Mother could have become a lady. But Mother didn’t want to be a lady. Something in her was against it—she couldn’t explain what frightened her, which was why she cried when my father ridiculed her about her refusal to leave the house to Emma even for an afternoon. Siding with my father, as I invariably did at that epoch, I thought Mother was foolish and countrified. A bumpkin. Why would anybody refuse to be a lady? I sure intended to be a lady when I grew up.
Small girls these days don’t worry anymore, I hope, about whether to grow up and be ladies, but the questions tormented me, even before I understood the political implications. That the daughter of a bookmaker and a farm woman in the middle of Arkansas in the 1940s should fret about such a thing is illogical if not ludicrous—but the obsession came quite naturally. At the age of eight or nine I had turned into a terminally addicted bookworm, and the book I loved most was Gone With the Wind . I read it all the time. I still read it.
I always took these women literally, as portraits of real people the author had known personally or had heard stories about in the Georgia uplands. Margaret Mitchell, as everyone knows, worked ten years on her one masterwork, and so far as I know, has never been caught in the smallest technical inaccuracy. The book may or may not be stuffed with truth but it is stuffed with facts- information about food, fabric, furnishings (if she says that Scarlett carried a cambric handkerchief, you can be sure that’s what ladies’ handkerchiefs were made of then). What I did not realize was that the author had read a lot of historical novels, too, and that some of her characters came not from life but from books. That is, they were stereotypes.
One of the most important of the women characters falls into that category. This is Ellen O’Hara, archetype of the Southern lady, an authoritative definition of the species, and the first honest-to-God Southern lady I had ever met, in or out of a book. Ellen simply enraptured me. I did not know, nor would I have cared, that plantation mistresses like Ellen had been stock characters on the literary landscape for a hundred years and that plantation novels had periodically been best sellers in America since an opus called Swallow Barn came out in 1832.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.