Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Gendered Mobility and the Geography of Respectability in Charleston and New Orleans, 1790-1861

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Gendered Mobility and the Geography of Respectability in Charleston and New Orleans, 1790-1861

Article excerpt

Returning "quite late" from a friend's house on a "brilliant" moonlit night in January 1862, Emma Holmes of Charleston, South Carolina, encountered a Confederate officer who "looked like a gentleman." "His manner throughout being most respectful," she accepted his offer to be escorted home. Afraid of being confused with a public woman, she told him, "'I am not at all surprised you think it late for ladies to be out, it is much later than I intended.'" His reply, according to Holmes's diary, was "that he did not think it very late," but she "said it was later, however, than the ladies here were accustomed to walk." She asked the attractive stranger "if he had been on the Battery," the city's promenade along the water. As he answered no, Holmes exclaimed, "why it is our pride & where the ladies walk a great deal in summer, especially on moonlight nights." Narrating her "curious adventure" in her diary, Emma Holmes drew the mental map separating the respectable and the unrespectable. Walking in the street at night, she could expect to be mistaken for a fallen woman. Yet if she had been walking on the Battery, even at night, there would have been no ambiguity regarding her identity. In Charleston, the Battery belonged to the ladies. (1)

Wherever they were, women of the master class were concerned with questions of propriety and respectability. By definition, a respectable woman was a contained woman. Clergymen, writers, fathers, and mothers constantly warned young white women against too much mobility, which was considered a depraved behavior. "It is highly improper for school girls to be seen too often in the Streets," a planter lectured his daughter in 1831, "being the common resort of vulgar and depraved women and not Ladies." The peculiar brand of patriarchy that developed in conjunction with slavery was forceful and demanded the spatial control of wives and daughters. Discursive vehicles abounded in the slaveholding South to reinforce each gender's place in space. George Fitzhugh compared the white southern woman to the Chinese woman with bound feet, one who "is a slave, but is idle, honored and caressed." An Alabama pastor reminded women, "Will you say that you are free,--that you will go where you please, do as you please? Why, ye dear wives, your husbands may forbid.... No; you cannot leave your parlor, nor your bedchamber, nor your couch, if your husband commands you to stay there!" The ideal southern lady was--spatially speaking--reposed, immobile, submissive, and sedentary. In sum, she was contained. When compared with the restrictions imposed on the enslaved, the containment of a white woman's body appears benign. There were no patrols, no passes, no curfews, and no city ordinances to regulate her movements in space. The common law had nonetheless long protected the right of husbands to confine disobedient wives, a right reinforced by prescriptions, ideals, and traditions. (2)

The tangible consequences of the containment of elite women in the rural South are well documented. Isolated on remote plantations and dependent on men to travel, "[e]very woman was an island." But what were the consequences of this ideological containment in the urban South? Aside from the compelling study by Lisa C. Tolbert on small-town Tennessee, historians have paid little attention to the spatial practices of elite women in the urban context--that is, to their material and conceptual relationships with the geographic space of the city. Still, we can extract a narrative of those spatial practices from the substantial historiography on southern urban white women. Compared with their colonial predecessors, white women in the early republic lost access to public spaces "beyond the household," to be relegated to the role of spectator at republican parades and other genteel rituals. Most of the time, however, these privileged women willingly chose to remain indoors since city streets were unpleasant and dangerous places to frequent. …

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