Neither Lady nor Slave: Working Women of the Old South

By Susanna Delfino; Michele Gillespie | Go to book overview

Chapter Eleven
I Can' Get My Bored on Them Old Lomes:
Female Textile Workers in the Antebellum South
BESS BEATTY

In the fictional antebellum world of Scarlet O'Hara the only women who worked were slaves; not until the collapse of the southern Confederacy overwhelmed her way of life did Scarlet defiantly resolve that she would herself work to assure her family's survival. Gone with the Wind remains the most powerful image of the Old South. In it southern women are belles and mammies, not women who worked for wages. Historians continue to challenge the powerful but distorting historical assumptions created by this popular fiction. Anne Firor Scott, for example, has written of the Old South, “The precise meaning of ‘work’ varied with station in society, economic condition, and geographic location, but women of leisure were hard to find.” 1

In the late seventeenth century Virginian William Byrd wrote of the women in his colony and neighboring Carolina that “all spin, weave, and knit, whereby they make good shift to cloath the whole Family,” and that “to their credit be it recorded, many of them do it very completely.” 2 Clothing a family completely demanded long arduous hours from females in most colonial households throughout the English colonies. As the girls and women Byrd observed filled their days spinning, weaving, knitting, and sewing, they could have envisioned the lives of their daughters and granddaughters for decades to come. Not until a century after Byrd's observation did the first stirring of an industrial revolution began to slowly transform women's work and, indeed, their lives. The mechanization of textile production, spreading from England to her former colonies in the late eighteenth century, made it possible first for elite women and then increasingly for those of more modest means to buy yarn and

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