Stepping out of the Shadows: Alabama Women, 1819-1990

By Mary Martha Thomas | Go to book overview

2
The Plantation Mistress A Perspective on Antebellum Alabama

ANN WILLIAMS BOUCHER

In January 1845, Henry Watson, a wealthy Greene County planter, wrote to his sister about his plans to marry Sophia Peck. In describing his fiancée, Watson provides a glimpse into the nature of women's lives in antebellum Alabama. Obviously proud of Sophia, Henry Watson described her first as a "girl of intelligence" but then rejected that portrayal, crossed through the words, and wrote "woman of intelligence."1 His change of mind merits attention.

The view that Watson captured in the words "girl of intelligence" strikes a familiar chord. Many antebellum southern writers were given to descriptions of white women that emphasized their delicacy, weakness, and dependence--in a sense, their girlhood. Certainly among the most notable advocates of this view, George Fitzhugh, an antebellum defender of southern culture, wrote that, "in truth, woman, like children, has but one right and that is the right of protection. The right of protection involves the obligation to obey. A husband, a lord and master, whom she should love, honor, and obey, nature designed for every woman. If she is obedient she stands little danger of mistreatment."2 This assessment of women as powerless and, in that powerlessness, as similar to children appeared in many popular novels and stories describing the antebellum South.

While departing from a strict comparison between the status of women and that of children, some more recent historical studies continue to view white plantation women as uniquely bereft of individual freedom and authority, over either themselves or those about them. In her 1982. study

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