Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the Old South

Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the Old South

Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the Old South

Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the Old South

Synopsis

This important book challenges many current notions about antebellum southern women, white and black. Bound in a web of intimacy fraught with violence, the lives of slave women were intertwined, but they were never linked in sisterhood. Although mistresses and slaves shared a common household, they were radically different from each other, and Within the Plantation Household documents the difficult class relations between slaveholding and slave women.

Excerpt

Our whole fabric of society is based on slave institutions, and yet our conventional language is drawn from scenes totally at variance with those which lie about us.

--Frederick Porcher

Now it is the genius of slavery to make the family the slave's commonwealth The master is his magistrate and legislator. . . . He is a member of a municipal society only through his master, who represents him. . . . The integers of which the commonwealth aggregate is made up, are . . . single families, authoritatively represented in the father and master. And this is the fundamental difference between the theory of the Bible, and that of radical democracy.

--Robert L. Dabney

Southern Women, Southern Households

The temptation is strong to write the history of southern women from the discrete stories of Sarah Gayle and of the thousands who were both very much like her and, simultaneously, very much like no other women. Women's diaries, journals, and correspondence reveal much of the fabric of their lives--especially their personal perceptions--and much about the dynamics of antebellum southern society. Yet southern women's history consists in something more than the sum of these stories. First, this subjective evidence reveals only part of the story, for it disproportionately favors the literate and introspective over the illiterate and circumspect, favors white women over black women, favors slaveholding women over yeoman and poor white women. Second, the value of any subjective evidence depends upon the questions put to it--depends heavily upon our assumptions about the nature of the society to which southern women belonged. To understand the subjective evidence, we must locate it within the specific context of southern society, must identify not merely what southern women shared with other women across time and space, but what they shared with the men of their class and race and what differentiated them from other women.

Antebellum southern women, like all others, lived in a discrete social system and political economy within which gender, class, and race relations shaped their lives and identities. Thus, even a preliminary sketch of the history of south-

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