Academic journal article The Historian

The Women Left Behind: Transformation of the Southern Belle, 1840-1880

Academic journal article The Historian

The Women Left Behind: Transformation of the Southern Belle, 1840-1880

Article excerpt

The Southern belle of the pre-Civil War era is an enduring image, encompassing visions of delicacy, gentility, and hospitality within the domestic sphere of the household. Mrs. E. Little idealized such qualities in a poem published in a women's magazine in 1848, in which she wrote:

   The right to love whom others scorn,
   The right to comfort and to mourn,
   The right to shed new joy on earth,
   The right to feel the soul's high worth ...
   Such women's rights, and God will bless
   And crown their champions with success.(1)

Gender and racial hierarchy in the antebellum South served to socialize both men and women into their appropriate spheres. The private sphere of women embraced femininity, beauty, simplicity, and submissiveness; the highest roles to which a southern woman could aspire were those of nurturing mother, dutiful wife, and social moral pillar. Men, in contrast, operated in a public sphere, where they provided for their families and property and carried on business. These separate spheres constituted an unwritten contract between men and women, where women remained domestic and atop their pedestals, and men protected them.(2) George Fitzhugh, a noted nineteenth-century commentator, illustrated the extent of male patrimony in the antebellum South when he wrote:

   So long as she is nervous, fickle, capricious, delicate, diffident and
   dependent, man will worship and adore her. Her weakness is her strength,
   and her true art is to cultivate and improve that weakness.... [I]n truth,
   woman, like children, has but one right and that is the right to
   protection. The right to protection involves the obligation to obey.(3)

Southern society demanded that women remain under the protection of fathers, husbands, brothers, and even sons. Women could not even own property that was not inherited.(4) Under the law of coverture, derived from English common law, a wife had no legal identity of her own. As Sir William Blackstone, whose "Commentaries on the Law of England" were the most consulted legal book of the eighteenth century, wrote:

   By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law, that is, the very
   being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or
   at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband; under
   whose wing, protection, and cover, she performs everything.(5)

By adhering to this demand, women legitimized the male ideal of gallantry and masculinity, while their moral purity acted to ensure (and reflect) the benevolence of their male counterparts.

In accordance with this separation of spheres, some historians have identified the Southern white woman as a victim of slave society, a necessary "cultural creation" that upheld white supremacy.(6) Others perceive the Southern belle as a highly educated woman caught in a silent struggle to improve her status.(7) Both views demonstrate a perception of the growing strength within Southern women and their burgeoning desire to create their own definition of self.

By analyzing the social prescription of religion and education, increasing patterns of female control and empowerment can be seen beginning in the 1840s and continuing throughout the nineteenth century, specifically in North Carolina, where the research for this paper is situated. Ironically, the Civil War, fought to preserve the antebellum social and economic status quo, and its aftermath most graphically enabled the southern belle to move from the private sphere of domesticity into the public sphere of male-dominated labor. Social adherence to the woman's sphere became increasingly flexible, even within the material limitations of southern culture.

One vehicle for greater visibility of women was through religion. The Second Great Awakening rippled through the South in the 1840s, strengthening the notion of piety and morality as important requirements of gentility, particularly in women. …

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