Movies often romanticized the society of the Antebellum South, giving a fairy tale image of Southern Belles and Southern Gentlemen. One pictures the Southern Belle as Scarlett O’Hara who took charge of her own life and took care of herself in times of oppression. The woman that Scarlett represents is a falsified ideal of the Southern belle.
The ideal Southern belle represents an ideal of strength and freedom that most elite women did not enjoy. The role of real elite women of the Antebellum South included living life in a patriarchal society. This patriarchal society specified roles that the elite women had to follow. As girls grew and evolved, their role in society changed. Man’s control of a woman’s role in society allowed them to control the direction that a woman’s life took from her father’s house to her husband’s house. This occurred throughout the Antebellum South. Men watched over the women in their life because a woman’s behavior directly reflected on the man of the house and for these reasons men dominated over women’s role in the Antebellum Southern society.
The elite women of Antebellum South first played the role of daughter. As the daughter of someone in high status an elite young woman often enjoyed a long and fulfilling childhood.1 Elite southern Men sent their daughters to school in this extended childhood so that they might be transformed into ladies. 2 These girls stayed in school through their mid to late teens.3 This time allowed for the preparation that elite men felt their daughters needed to join society.
Educated in the same manner as young men, young girls learned the basic studies in school. Yet, a father did not demand the same performance out of his daughters as he did his sons. Fathers expected their sons to focus on their studies more seriously then their daughters.4
While in school elite daughters developed organized sisterhoods, these sisterhoods followed the hierarchy of the Antebellum Southern society. Often the society of sisterhoods practiced and implemented the use of the girl’s manners and etiquette. The sisterhood of girls worked to gain their father’s approval of action.5
Schools celebrated many holidays and festivals. One festival that symbolized the gallantry of the Antebellum Southern society was that of the crowning of the May Day Queen. The May Day Queen elected for her kindness and beauty illuminated the celebrations as a symbol of the ideals of the patriarchal society. The ritual of May Day Queen dated back to fertility rites.6
Once they completed their education they were introduced into society and made their way to different parties and gatherings. The time period between getting out of school and marriage was one of many adventures. This time tested the young woman’s manners and class. Known as “Flying Around” this time involved going to parties, trips and being seen in society.7 The daughter must uphold her class and honor during this time and display charm and grace to prove not only her place, but also the family’s place in life.8 A daughter’s actions directly affected the status of the father. For this reason men educated their daughters on how to act in society.
These balls and dances provided the perfect place for courting to begin. The dances provided young woman the opportunity to show off her charm and wit and to win over the heart of unmarried man.
The young women dressed in attire that would attract men to their figure, but not label them as undesirable. The young women were taught to smile and say all the right things to impress potential suitors but not to dominate over them. Fathers made sure that the girls dressed appropriately so as not to reflect on the fathers in a bad way.9
Some southern elite parents only allowed their daughters to participate in certain types of dancing, such as the chaste cotillion or quadrille. These consisted of organized dances, viewed as an appropriate interaction between young women and men in the eyes of southern society. Others allowed their daughters to participate in the waltz but only if the daughter did not “permit the cavalier to approach nearer than a certain distance.”10 Fathers watched their daughters carefully when it came to interaction between a man and woman. Any action seen in society as inappropriate ruined a young women’s reputation. And once the young woman’s ruined her reputation her father’s was not far behind.
As the daughters grew up their father’s shifted their role in life, from a daughter to young woman ready to move from their father’s home to their husband’s home.11 Southern parents dominated their daughters’ marriages more than any other region in Antebellum America. This attributed to the father’s need to have the daughter marry within her proper status.12 Not only did they want them to marry in their proper class to keep them accustom to their life style but also to show the fathers status. Fathers pressured their daughters to marry early according to oneseconomic and social place.13 Who a woman married defined her after she left her father house.
Father’s and society felt certain rules must be followed during courtship. The church played a role in many courtships. Church courtships allowed parents to know the person that their daughters were being courted by and the extent of the relationship. The church provided picnics, bible studies, and other social gatherings for young couples to come and partake.14
Once engagements were made, if a marriage did not occur it meant scandal for the young girl and her family. One could be disgraced for life for breaking an engagement. Engagements were marriages without the legal documents. Father’s expected their daughters to act in the proper manner.
In a letter written to Callie Lumpkin [King] Porter King says "in a few days I would hope, proudly before the world to acknowledge and claim you as my bride -- Sincerely do I hope, my dear Miss Callie, you will lend a willing ear to my request and make me blissful, by consenting to become, immediately after the adjournment, my dear charming, little wife."15 Taken from a letter written in 1852 the language in this statement made by a suitor towards his intended shows how men thought they must tell women how to live their lives. Men often used language to patronized women. King used the word claim referring to his intent to poses Callie after their marriage.
Marriage for these women was an adjustment. The new bride went from being the center of attention during courtship to the role of submissive wife.16 Author Caroline Gilman wrote a novel on her life experience at this transformation she says “watch well the first moments when your will conflicts with his to whom God and society has given the control.”17 This showed that women believed men to be superior and allowed them to control their lives. Many other authors wrote at this time to try and educate new brides on how to submit to their husbands. In The Young Wife an etiquette guide for new brides, they are given rules on how to act with and towards their new husbands. The first rule his gave told women to do everything for their husbands that their health and strength allowed.18 This told women that they should do anything within their power for their husbands.
Fathers also advised daughters on how to act towards their husbands once the daughters lived in their homes. Father’s knew that as a wife their daughters should not work control their husbands, nor must they oppose their husbands. Their job remained only to smile and trust in their husbands. A wife must trust in her husband’s ability to guide both her life and his own.19
Fathers controlled every aspect of their daughter’s lives from their education, to social events, and courtship. The elite fathers in the Antebellum South worked to maintain their status and their daughter’s action directly reflected on the status of the fathers.
The Wives of elite southern men ran the household. This meant that men expected them to make sure that the house ran smoothly and that the domestic slaves preformed their jobs. The jobs of the domestic slavesincluded the general household chores of cooking, cleaning, washing, and ironing.20 So wrapped up in the business of running a household some wives were unable to accompany their husbands on trips of leisure.21 The home and career of their husbands defined the life of these women.22
After marriage every aspect a man controlled every aspect of a woman’s life. This included when and how many times a woman had a child. Women bore many children in their lifetime. They also suffered miscarriages, stillbirths, and infant’s death. This pattern followed until the woman could no longer conceive.23 For a wife their husbands owned their bodies they did not have the ability to deny their husbands. This often meant that pregnancies occurred one right after this next depended on how long the husband allowed the wife to spend away from the marriage bed.24
Even though men controlled the lives of their wives these women were admired within the patriarchal hierarchy. Women played a key role in keeping this hierarchy in place. This primary role was to give birth to an heir.25 Preferably woman would give birth to at least on male heir to which the family name and wealth would be given. Motherhood remained her long lasting responsibility.
These women, the daughters, the young girls, the wives, and the mothers struggled to break free from the boundaries of the patriarchal system. These women bounded to the home of their husband or father sought to break the bondage of their lives.26
Elite husbands’ of the Antebellum South worked to their elite status and their wives’ actions were a direct reflection on the status of the husband. Any action seen as inappropriate could cause the husband to fall in his status.
The elite men of the Antebellum South ran a patriarchal society that allowed them to dominate over the women of their lives. Men controlled the lives of the women in his life to protect his own place in society. The actions of a man’s daughter, fiancé, or wife directly affected the man’s social status. This was why men found it necessary to control the actions of the women in his life.
1. Jane H. Pease and William H. Pease, Ladies, Women, and Wenches: Choice and Constraint in Antebellum Charleston and Boston (Chapel Hill, The University of North Carolina Press, 1990) 17.
2. Christie Anne Farnham, The Education of the Southern Belle: Higher Education and Student Socialization in the Antebellum South (New York: New York University Press, 1994), 93.
3. Jane H. Pease and William H. Pease, 15.
4. Christie Anne Farnham, 128.
5. Christie Anne Farnham, 146-154.
6. Christie Anne Farnham, 168-170.
7. Christie Anne Farnham, 175.
8. Jane H. Pease and William H. Pease, 8.
9. Jane H. Pease and William H. Pease, 15.
10. Jane H. Pease and William H. Pease, 15.
11. Christie Anne Farnham, 174.
12. Christie Anne Farnham, 42.
13. Jane H. Pease and William H. Pease, 17.
14. Jane H. Pease and William H. Pease, 14.
15. Joseph Henry Lumpkin family papers, Montgomery, [Alabama] to Callie [Lumpkin King, Athens, Georgia], 1852 Jan. 2.
16. Jane H. Pease and William H. Pease, 21.
17. Caroline Gilman, Recollections of a Southern Matron and a New England Bride (Philadelphia: John E. Potter and Co., 1867) 384 as quoted by Jane H. Pease and William H. Pease, 22.
18. Dr. William Alcott, The Young Wife, or Duties of Woman in the Marriage Relation (Boston: George W. Light, 1837) 76 as quoted in Jane H. Pease and William H. Pease, 22.
19. “A letter of Advise,” Charleston Courier, June 12, 1818 as quoted in Michael P. Johnson, “Planters and Patriarchy: Charleston, 1800-1860” The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 46, No. 1. (Feb., 1980), in Jstor, GALILEO; Accessed April 10, 2003, 51.
20. Michael P. Johnson, “Planters and Patriarchy: Charleston, 1800-1860” The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 46, No. 1. (Feb., 1980), in Jstor, GALILEO; Accessed April 10, 2003. 50
21. Charlene M. Boyer Lewis, Ladies and Gentlemen on Display (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2001).
22. Carroll Smith Rosenburg, “Beauty, the Beast, and the Militant Woman: A Case Study in Sex Roles and Social Stress in Jacksonian America” American Quarterly 23 issue 4 (October 1971), in Jstor, GALILEO; Accessed April 5, 2003.
23. Jane H. Pease and William H. Pease, 24.
24. Jane H. Pease and William H. Pease, 24.
25. Michael P. Johnson, 66.
Carroll Smith Rosenburg, 564.