Neither Lady nor Slave: Working Women of the Old South

By Susanna Delfino; Michele Gillespie | Go to book overview

Chapter Twelve
To Harden a Lady's Hand:
Gender Politics, Racial Realities, and Women
Millworkers in Antebellum Georgia
MICHELE GILLESPIE

“There is nothing in tending a loom to harden a lady's hand,” stated Chief Justice Henry Collier, a strong advocate for textile manufactures in the antebellum South. Like many promoters of southern industrialization in the decades before the Civil War, Collier recognized that the employment of white females in textile mills secured an inexpensive, quiescent labor force that not only did not compete with but indeed complemented the dominant agricultural economy and its key labor source—slaves. To compel southern society to embrace white women's employment in the mills, he manipulated the conventions of gender and race in the antebellum South by invoking the southern lady ideal with his statement. Thus Collier was contending that a white female employee could remain a “southern lady,” despite the unprecedented experience of toiling for fourteen-hour days in massive buildings filled with noisy machines and choking fibers, because her hands would not be callused by her labors. Her mythical gentility, in other words, along with her virtue, would remain intact, making millwork an ideal pursuit for white women, an implicit contrast to slave women, who were perceived by whites to lack such critical character attributes and whose work was generally agricultural, often extremely arduous, and rarely gender-specific. 1

When British traveler J. S. Buckingham passed through the region in 1842, he painted a very different picture of factory life in the Old South, one that did not include any reference to southern ladyhood. “The white families engaged in these factories live in log huts clustered about the establishment on the river's

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