Belles and Bondswomen: Historical Treatment of Southern Antebellum Women

by Hunter Vermeer

Since the 1960s woman’s liberation movement, a growing number of historians have sought to redress women’s historical invisibility. Gender is a valuable historical framework; at once revealing both the power dynamics and the social mores at play within a historical community.[1] In the later parts of the twentieth century, women’s history emerged as historians increasingly used gender’s conceptual potential to forge new understandings of historical realities. Scholars of American history have similarly found gender to be a valuable new tool. Terms like Republican Motherhood, the Cult of Domesticity, and Redemptive Womanhood have become familiar themes for students of their respective periods. However, some scholars have criticized these popular frameworks for their “New-Englandization”—for being overly representative of northern women’s experiences.[2] These historians contend that southern women’s experiences are distinct from their northern counterparts. As a result, a vibrant scholarship on southern antebellum women has been conducted since the 1970s.

Historical treatment of southern antebellum women can be clearly differentiated into three interpretive camps: the Fundamentalists, Revisionists, and Neo-Revisionists. In the 1970s and 1980s the Fundamentalists began to apply the emerging field of women’s history specifically to the southern antebellum landscape. Typically, Fundamentalists delineated their focus along racial lines. Those who focused on southern white women looked almost exclusively at wealthy plantation mistresses and emphasized paternalism as the predominant cultural feature in defining women’s roles. Other Fundamentalists studied southern black women in bondage. Following wider trends, these Fundamentalists used slave resistance as an interpretive framework to understand women’s roles within enslaved communities. In response to the Fundamentalists, the 1990s and early 2000s saw an outpouring of historical study that created large interpretive shifts. Dubbed the Revisionists, this group of historians moved the conversation away from the plantation household and examined southern women in new settings. Often, the Revisionists found that Fundamentalist interpretations failed to fully capture the gender identity of southern women outside of the planter elite. However, these revisionists only made corrections for their selected group of study—be it the yeomanry, urban women, free black women, or single women. The most recent, emerging trend has gone a step further and directly contested fundamentalist interpretation of plantation mistresses. This new group, the Neo-Revisionists, have offered powerful evidence that plantation mistresses were more actively engaged in the management of slaves than has been previously assumed. As such, they have challenged the central role of paternalism in defining plantation mistresses’ lives and offered interesting new pathways for further research.

Anne Firor Scott’s 1970 work The Southern Lady began a new conversation regarding white southern antebellum women. Scott’s work aims to track the progress of southern white women from their antebellum roles to the work of the Progressive period and concrete entry into the political sphere via nineteenth amendment. Prior to the Civil War, women were expected to be scions of “softness, purity, and spirituality.”[3] Scott emphasizes southern women’s familial roles; a southern lady was expected to be a submissive wife and a dutiful mother. However, Scott’s work pushes beyond the prescriptive image of the southern lady to find the reality that existed underneath. The southern lady maintained a strong hold on southern imagination, yet “the everyday realities of married women’s lives were different from anything the image would lead one to expect.”[4] Scott goes so far as to argue that some women expressed resentment toward the social institutions that defined their lives—slavery and ladyhood. Scott’s work attempts to create a connection between antebellum women and the New Women of the twentieth century. As a result, she perhaps overemphasizes contrarian notions to the prescriptive southern lady, while admitting that “most of them tried to live up to the Sisyphean task expected of them.”[5]

Slave women remain on the margin of Scott’s work and are treated only in relation to the white women they served. In this capacity, Scott argues for a complex relationship between white mistress and black bondswoman which had the potential for both antagonism and affection. Even though “many southern women were worried about slavery, few had any vision of a society different from the one they knew,” stopping short of abolitionist tendencies.[6] Despite this qualification, Scott’s treatment implies antebellum white women were morally opposed to slavery. Regardless of their personal relationships to enslaved women, “in the end antagonism and love led to the same conclusion: slavery was an evil.”[7] Scotts interpretation, therefore, is generally sympathetic to the lives of antebellum white women. The Southern Lady created an entry into a new realm of historical study and asked questions which would attract the attention of later historians.

A dozen years after Scott posed many of her questions regarding southern antebellum women, Catherin Clinton published her own full-length study of the elite white women of the Old South in The Plantation Mistress. Utilizing a vast array of private journals, diaries, and letters, Clinton examines the lives of southern women from the American Revolution through 1835. Clinton’s portrayal of life for southern antebellum women creates an often-bleak portrait of their experiences. The plantation mistress, “in charge…of the entire spectrum of domestic operations throughout the estate,” was a woman at work.[8] Clinton argues that white plantation women were inundated by their managerial roles. Despite the slave labor at their disposal, “the larger the plantation, the more extensive the household cares and responsibilities” that occupied mistresses.[9] Clinton also emphasizes white plantation mistresses geographic and social isolation. Mistresses were restrained to the plantation, and female networks like those in the north do not appear in Clinton’s study. Geographic isolation combined with “domestic concerns” resulted in mistresses being “cut off from society.”[10] Deprived of female community, Clinton argues that kinship and religion played powerful roles in socialization for southern women—while simultaneously reinforcing the prevailing paternalistic system.

Black women are examined in Clintons work only in their significance to their white mistresses. Clinton draws a direct comparison between white mistresses and the slaves they managed. Both groups of women were “trapped within a system over which she had no control, one from which she had no means of escape…both white women and slaves served the same master.”[11] However, Clinton argues that shared paternalism did not result in overly affectionate relationships. Although many women may have held moral concerns on slavery, they “[resolved] the moral dilemmas of slavery through the displacement of guilt.”[12] Mistresses blamed either there husbands, the master, or the slaves themselves for the various corrupting aspects of the institution such as theft, sexual deviation, or idleness. By transferring the blame for these symptoms of slavery, mistresses could “believe they were onlookers at rather than instigators of inhumanity.”[13] Clinton, therefore, presents white mistresses at odds with aspects of slavery while simultaneously accepting it as a basic social institution. The moral concerns they did perceive were insulated by removing themselves as actors within the institution of slavery, deflecting responsibility from themselves as passive observers.

Closely following Clinton’s study, Jean Friedman’s 1985 work The Enclosed Garden offered new interpretations of antebellum women’s lives. Friedman’s monograph examines the impact of southern evangelicalism on women’s lives and political organization. The Enclosed Garden argues that southern women’s roles were defined by evangelical communities clustered around kin groups and dominated by agrarian gender norms. Friedman takes a wider view than the works that preceded her, expanding her attention to upper-middle class white women, urban women, and enslaved women. Her findings, however, are in basic agreement with other Fundamentalist authors. Examining the religious and the agrarian nature of the antebellum south, Friedman concludes that independent female organization was prevented from forming. Southern antebellum women tended “to identify with family and community rather than with sex.”[14] The resulting women’s sphere—an “enclosed garden”—relegated women to proper roles as mothers and wives in male-dominated households. Paternalism is a defining feature of Friedman’s discussion—she presents white women operating as “deputy husbands” under the supervision of the male master.[15] While Friedman interpretation of white women as agrarian workers is in agreement with Scott and Clinton’s portrayal of wealthy plantation mistresses, Friedman enhances her discussion by contrasting them with yeoman households—“though demanding, the southern mistress’s job of supervision was almost a luxury compared with the work of the farmers’ wives.”[16] One of the more interesting aspects of Friedman’s work is her attention to dream analysis, recorded in private journals and diaries. Friedman extrapolates from these dreams themes that imply women’s resentment toward the patriarchal system they lived in, though Friedman is quick to note that these subconscious feelings did not result in tangible action.

The Enclosed Garden is notable for its treatment of enslaved women. Friedman is consistent in discussing bondswoman in their own right, not merely as accessories to their white mistresses. Friedman notes that white women, for their part, were often troubled by aspects of slavery—particularly sexual relations between white masters and black slaves. Despite these concerns, “resentment of slavery, however, rarely led to acceptance of abolitionism on the part of white women.”[17] Pushing beyond the relation between white mistresses and their slaves, Friedman also presents a hearty discussion of evangelicalism within the enslaved community. This discussion extends the concept of an evangelical community into the slave quarters, where Friedman examines the role of black, enslaved women in establishing and maintaining religious community. In fact, Friedman postulates that “in slave society where men and women were equally powerless, women’s leadership potential” materialized to a greater degree within the enslaved community than it did in its white counterpart.[18] Enslaved women could hold important posts within the black evangelical community, although the “subordinate position of women became clear in family culture and evangelical religious symbolism.”[19] Religion offered enslaved women limited autonomy, but paternalism still defined their day to day lived experiences. While Friedman’s discussion on slave religion offered an attempt for wholistic discussion, the framework of the evangelical community has limitations for discussing enslaved women’s lives. Other authors riding the first wave of Fundamentalist scholarship would give fuller treatment to the lives of enslaved women.

Alongside The Enclosed Garden, 1985 saw the publication of two full-length monographs that aimed to provide a thorough treatment of enslaved black women during the antebellum period. Deborah Gray White’s Ar’n’t I a Woman contends that the harsh realities of institutional slavery merged with West African social conditions to create a plantation life that delineated enslaved black women’s positions centered around childbirth and motherhood. White draws heavily from both the records left by white owners in their private documents as well as oral records recorded as part of the WPA slave narratives to reconstruct enslaved life.

Central to White’s discussion is the gendered nature of slavery—“within the institution of racial slavery there were two systems, one for women, the other for men.”[20] One of the key differences between male and female slaves was simply biological. White presents female reproductive capacity as central to enslaved women’s’ experiences. Significantly, “once slaveholders realized that the reproductive function of the female slave could yield a profit, the manipulation of procreative sexual relations became an integral part of the sexual exploitation of female slaves.”[21] Pressure to marry and raise children inadvertently “supplied another thread of continuity between Africa and North America” by echoing traditional West African notions of motherhood.[22] Established notions of motherhood were also protected by powerful bonds of sisterhood in the enslaved community. For example, during formative teen years, young bondswomen’s first foray into plantation work would be as part of so-called “trash gangs” which consisted of pregnant, nursing, and elderly women. White points out that “the three-generational ‘trash gang’ played a major role in teaching girls about life under slavery…men, marriage, and sex.”[23] Plantation and field work on a plantation, for women, was often segregated along gendered lines. White provides ample evidence that the gendered nature of slave work as well as traditional notions of motherhood created strong female identities within slave communities.

In addition to motherhood and female identity, White also discusses the ways in which bondswomen participated in uniquely female acts of resistance. Although widespread slave revolts were rare, everyday resistance was a common tool of antebellum slaves. Modes of resistance has been a strong theme in recent literature of enslaved life, and White adeptly provides a gendered discussion of slave resistance. As much as men, enslaved women “were adept in inventing schemes and excuses to get their own way.”[24] Women employed a host of mechanisms to resist their masters: from “violently [resisting] sexual exploitation” to “[feigning illness] in order to gain a respite from their work.”[25] White points to feigning illness as an especially potent tool in the hands of enslaved women due to their master’s financial investment in their reproductive capabilities. Bondswomen’s reproductive qualities also impacted their ability to flee. White argues that slave women were less statistically likely to run away. However, women often sought temporary relief from bondage in the form of truancy, before ultimately returning due to the familial connections tying them to the plantation. White adequately argues that even resistance took on gendered connotations in the antebellum South.

Alongside White, Jacqueline Jones published her Labor of Live, Labor of Sorrow in 1985 as a monographic discussion of black women’s history. Jones’s scope is larger than White, reaching into the twentieth century and the Civil Rights movement. However, Jones provides a lengthy and well-thought-out discussion of antebellum bondswomen—where she locates core cultural institutions that would survive emancipation. The most basic and powerful aspect of the slave community was the family. “Family ties—a devotion that encompassed kin and ultimately the whole slave community—black women and men affirmed the value of group survival” in the face of harsh discriminatory practices.[26] Black women served as familial anchors, through which “the work of black women helped to preserve that community.”[27] A separate female identity was preserved through a gendered delineation of plantation work. Jones argues it was slaves themselves who “create—or preserved—an explicit sexual division of labor” that fulfilled masters’ expectations in a traditionally West African format.[28] The strong connections women forged under slavery became a tool in slave resistance. Jones argues that women often helped each other reach work quotas and protected weaker members by working for each other. Additionally, “as the persons in charge of food preparation…women at times clandestinely fed runaways.” Thus, Jones presents a clear case for a strong female identity and role within the antebellum slave community focused on motherhood, kinship, and resistance.

The literature published through 1985 established strong themes and questions that dominate the discussion on antebellum women. However, they remained mostly separated by race. The one exception, Friedman’s The Enclosed Garden, mostly discussed slave evangelical religion, which, while insightful, does not constitute a thorough discussion of enslaved women’s lives. Fundamentalist discussion of white women remained focused on paternalism as the overarching feature that defined gender identity. Women were isolated to clearly prescribed spheres, although women’s domestic sphere in a southern antebellum setting was closely connected to economic agricultural production. As a result, white women were expected to work more than might be connected, a fact of life that all Fundamentalists pointed out. Religion and kinship played large roles in the lives of southern antebellum women, all the more notable in absence of female networks that became prevalent in an urban northern setting. Paternalism also allows for white women to mostly escape the responsibility for slavery in the eyes of the Fundamentalists. While certainly many white plantation mistresses were morally uneasy with the institution, few scholars have gone as far as Anne Firor Scott in supposing that women as a whole were opposed to slavery. The general Fundamentalist conclusion paints women as passively ambiguous to the institution, with no real power or vision to change the system, but also not directly involved in slavery’s propagation. This conclusion again relies on paternalism and the limited freedom of women as a conceptual framework.

Fundamentalist literature on antebellum black women similarly establishes strong themes for discussion. Motherhood and the significance of familial ties feature large in analysis of antebellum slave women. Within plantation life, women were the most stable and lasting section of the population. The gendered nature of plantation work created strong female networks within enslaved communities. Bondswomen were also primary caregivers and socializers. Thus, Fundamentalists echo the role of women in sustaining a distinct enslaved cultural identity rooted in West African traditions and meanings. In contrast to white women, Fundamentalists also agree that enslaved women often had greater potential for community leadership. Slavery as an institution levelled enslaved society, allowing women to participate in public roles to a greater degree than their white counterparts. However, it is important to remember that all slaves, male or female, were under the authority of the white master and thus subject to paternalistic notions and limited freedoms. Resistance to paternal control is readily noted by Fundamentalist scholars, who stress the gendered nature of everyday resistance. Women took advantage of their femininity in order to gain small degrees of control in their own lives. In particular, women took advantage of their reproductive nature to gain concession from masters with vested economic interest in their physical health by feigning illness. While Fundamentalists developed interesting and thought-provoking interpretations of antebellum women, their conclusions remained mostly delineated by race.

In 1988, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese published her seminal work Within the Plantation Household which sought to address the racial divide that had existed to that point within Fundamentalist discussion. Within the Plantation Household is the culminating work of the Fundamentalist position; managing to synthesize the dominant interpretations in the field to that point on both white and black women. Fox-Genovese contends that southern society was made up of self-sufficient “households” defined as a geographic area in which a group of people pooled their resources. In addition to the complex social web contained within the household, Fox-Genovese also argues that women’s experiences were defined by concepts of race and class that interacted with antebellum gender notions. Using the plantation household as a framework for discussion, Fox-Genovese is able to give a nuanced discussion of both white and black women’s lives on antebellum plantations.

Within the Plantation Household provides a thorough treatment of plantation mistresses’ lives that agrees with the broad outlines of Fundamentalist interpretation. Even wealthy white women were frequently at work within southern society, proving “indispensable” to economic production in roles following “the prevailing norms of division of labor by gender.”[29] Women thus fulfilled roles within the plantation that were consistent with the popular antebellum notions of femininity such as “the ideal of the southern lady as gracious, fragile, and deferential to men.”[30] Mistresses might serve in more authoritative roles in absence of a proper male master, but these instances were rare and women in these instances were limited as “delegates of the master, of male authority.”[31] Notably, Fox-Genovese does note the potential for violence and cruelty that white mistresses possessed, a topic avoided by other Fundamentalist writers focused on antebellum white women.[32] Fox-Genovese, in agreement with Fundamentalist literature, draws on paternalistic notions of southern antebellum society in discussing women’s roles. In her interpretation, “white women rarely challenged the legitimacy of paternal domination directly, even if they covertly resisted its abuses.”[33] Importantly, Fox-Genovese pushes further when discussing white women’s work—claiming that other historians have taken at face value their claim to work truly accomplished by slaves.[34] This critique is more in agreement with Friedman’s conclusion that supervisory work did not equal the strain of middle class farm wives than it is with Scott and Clinton’s picture of wealthy white women consumed by arduous work. The most strenuously working women on a plantation were amongst the enslaved community.

Fox-Genovese presents a thorough treatment of antebellum enslaved women alongside her discussion of plantation mistresses. While she echoes earlier works by discussing the relationship between mistress and bondswomen at length, she does so on much more equal footing—with adequate attention given to what these relationships signified to enslaved women. Fox-Genovese’s most notable contribution in discussing antebellum slave women is to extend thematic inclusion of paternalism into these women’s lives. Where the control of the master had been noted by previous authors, signifying this control as paternalistic creates a connection between black and white women in the plantation household. As Fox-Genovese says, “the domination of the master weighed heavily on slaveholding and slave women alike, but with very different consequences.”[35] Aspects of slave resistance, a strong theme in Fundamentalist literature, exists in Within the Plantation Household as a means of resisting paternal social institutions in the creation of a separate slave community. The means of resistance are familiar aspects of Fundamentalist writing: gendered plantation work which created strong female associations, the importance of motherhood, kind, and family, and the role of women within the community in aspects like church and medical treatment.[36] By painting the creation of female slave culture as intrinsically resistant to white prescriptive paternalism, Fox-Genovese extends the conversation on resistance and adds new meaning to the social institutions enslaved women were able to create.

Following Fox-Genovese’s Within the Plantation Household, a notable shift occurred in the study of southern antebellum women. The 1990s and early 2000s saw the proliferation of writers who shifted the conversation to look at new categories of women. Often, their findings contested the portrait of antebellum womanhood that Fundamentalist authors had painted. As a result, this new field of historians, dubbed the Revisionists, began to explore new meanings and question relating to southern women’s experience. However, it is important to note that while Revisionists often critiqued aspects of Fundamentalist interpretations, they rarely contested their core interpretation of southern mistresses and paternalism. As a result, the Revisionists offered limited, but important, adjustments to Fundamentalist interpretations of antebellum white women. In contrast, though Revisionist also added to the work on enslaved women, they rarely advanced the discussion beyond the established discussion of bondswomen’s role within the slave community and means of resistance. Some Revisionist works did begin to look at new categories of black women however, moving in limited capacity outside the slave quarters to examine free black women in the antebellum south.

In 1992, Victoria Bynum published Unruly Women, a study of southern antebellum women at odds with established gender norms. Bynum’s attention is given to three counties in central Piedmont North Carolina. While limited in geographic scope, Bynum’s work operates as an in-depth study of women who found themselves at odds with the law and reveals much about prescriptive and practical femininity in the region. Bynum heavily draws from personal accounts as well as court and church records—the vehicles by which society corrected (or, at least attempted to correct) social behavior. These records reveal a category of women seemingly outside of traditional concepts of antebellum femininity. Free black women, denied legal marriage, and poor white women were frequently cited for sexual deviance by local courts. These “unmarried sexually active women, many of whom lived in female-headed households, provided a striking contradiction to the ideal of a woman’s place as wither wife, daughter, or slave within the patriarchal structure of southern society.”[37] Bynum argues that in place of traditional paternal models that placed control within the white male master, “the state assumed the role of patriarch” in governing the actions of deviant women, with mixed results.[38] While “white farm wife and the black slave women served the same master—the white male—from different stations in society,” poor, unmarried white women and free black women fell outside the accepted paternalistic model.[39] Bynum’s work thus creates a sharp boundary for paternalism’s influence, and encourages further study of women on the margins.

Stephanie McCurry’s 1995 book Masters of Small Worlds follows up on Bynum’s work with an additional case study on low-country South Carolinian yeomanry. McCurry aims to discover the way politics, gender, and slavery defined the lives of yeoman men and women in the slaveholding South. Drawing from a variety of sources such as church records, census records, tax documents, and market receipts, McCurry attempts to recreate the yeomen’s world.

Perhaps the most ambitious aspect of McCurry’s work is her attempt to introduce gender as an informative lens into the lives of the yeomanry. Masters of Small Worlds argues that notions of femininity were fundamental to South Carolina Yeoman. Here, McCurry charts familiar waters—finding paternalistic themes dominating the experiences of yeoman women. Southern yeoman shared a political identity with their social superiors, the wealthy planters, through “the virtually unlimited right of an independent man to mastery over his own household.”[40] In agreement with Fundamentalist authors such as Jean Friedman, McCurry identifies evangelicalism as a central propagator of paternalism. Southern evangelicalism “in its articulation, in church covenants, rules of governance, gospel discipline, and sectional resolutions” continually “sacralized precisely those secular relations within which the power and authority of yeoman men was grounded”—paternalism.[41] McCurry’s discussion of women’s work within the yeomanry adds more deviation from Fundamentalists by placing women directly into field labor. Despite prescriptive concerns of impropriety, yeoman frequently employed their wives and daughters in difficult field work in pursuit of “mastery.”[42] McCurry also provide statistical evidence that yeoman farmers disproportionately owned and utilized female slaves in contrast to large plantations, furthering the economic reliance on female labor.[43] McCurry makes a powerful case for extending many aspects of Fundamentalist interpretation into the yeoman class, while adding in new dimensions of the particular nature of female work within these households.

In 1998 Elizabeth Varon published her groundbreaking work We Mean to be Counted, which presented powerful evidence to women at work within a public, political sphere. Varon’s study is limited to Virginia, where she examines the actions of elite, white women. Equating politics with “electoral activity” as well as public rhetoric, Varon attempts to dispel the notion of women held captive within a domestic sphere.[44] In contrast to Clinton’s portrayal of women “cut off from society” or the “enclosed garden” that Jean Friedman presents, Varon’s portrayal of shows the variety of different ways southern antebellum women actively organized in the public sphere. Varon argues that Virginian women, similar to their northern counterparts, utilized the doctrine of female benevolence and a heightened morality in order to make first forays into public organization. In the course of organizing, women “explored the political implications of the doctrine of female benevolence.”[45] Varon shows that from benevolent organizations, antebellum women became involved with great political questions of the day, such as slavery. Women participated on the slavery question in a variety of different formats such as the American Colonization Society and published novels. The most powerful evidence Varon provides for women’s involvement in politics comes from the Whigs’ 1840 campaigns which “marks the first time a political party systematically included women in its public rituals.”[46] Varon’s study of white Virginian women creates a strong challenge to the domestic nature of women’s lives espoused by Fundamentalist writings.

In 2004 Stephanie Camp published a new work focused exclusively on antebellum women in bondage, Closer to Freedom. Camp’s approaches familiar themes of resistance in the lives of bondswomen while adding new dimensions to the discussion. In particular, Camp introduces space as a conceptual framework for examining modes resistance. Enslaved women “created a ‘rival geography’—alternative ways of knowing and using plantation and southern space that conflicted with planters’ ideals and demands.”[47] White masters’ ability to restrict movement and control the physical world of the slave became the field of battle between control and resistance. Slaves who disobeyed the restrictions placed on them, either by running away or going absentee as truants, resisted the restrictions placed on their geography. As noted by other authors, women played key roles in sustaining truant behavior. Camp goes as far as to claim that by feeding runaways, “women who did not run away themselves were active participants in the alternative uses of plantation space.”[48]

Camp continues by presenting enslaved bodies as themselves objects of space, contested between planter and slave. By attending clandestine parties and social gatherings, Camp argues that bondswomen frequently moved into a new space which allowed them to reclaim control of their physical body as “a source of pleasure, pride, and self-expression.”[49] Enslaved women also worked as a collective group to establish control of their bodies by working together to create dresses, dyes, and jewelry.[50] These aspects of fashion established self-control as well as highlighting aspects of femininity for bondswomen. Camp’s insightful study offers new sources and conceptual framework—most notably contested space. However, it does not move entirely beyond the well-worn Fundamentalist focus on resistance and women’s roles within the enslaved community.

Two years after Camp’s Closer to Freedom was published, Christine Jacobson Carter shifted focus back onto white women with her work Southern Single Blessedness. Unlike the fundamentalists, however, Carter approached a new category of women: single women in urban settings. Carter focuses on Charleston, South Carolina and Savannah, Georgia; being two cities in which Carter located an impressive amount of personal correspondence and diaries. In opposition to the cult of domesticity, Carter argues that many young, urban women chose to embrace blessed singleness. Unlike their northern counterparts, southern single blessedness maintained a conservative nature—"entrenched within their social status and conservative mentality, they did not pine for economic independence or vocational purpose.”[51] Within urban settings, single women “as communicators, caretakers, surrogate mothers, family servants, and benevolent women [extended] feminine virtues to individuals and organizations.”[52] Surprisingly, Carter finds that southern single blessedness benefited from “increasingly favorable light shed on women without husbands.”[53] In part, contemporary endorsement resulted from the distinctly conservative nature of southern single blessedness; single women were presented as keepers of the established order and important members of local community and kin networks. Southern Single Blessedness thus brings into light a new category of women, not at odds with paternalism and the cult of domesticity but working alongside and in tandem with it.

Revisionist authors challenged notions held by the Fundamentalists about white women by examining new categories of women. Free black women, poor white women, single white women, urban women, and even political women all found historical investigation under the scope of Revisionist study. Enslaved black women also enjoyed further study, although the conceptual frameworks and basic questions that dominated interpretation experienced more continuance with Fundamentalist writings. However, the Revisionists refrained from directly contesting the Fundamentalist’s assumptions about their core subjects: wealthy white women.[54] However, the following decade would see the publication of two works that challenged the prevailing notions of paternalism that Fundamentalist writings based their interpretation on. These new historians, the Neo-Revisionists, have created bold new stances in understanding southern antebellum women.

The first major Neo-Revisionist work to appear came in 2008 as Out of the House of Bondage, by Thavolia Glymph. Glymph work takes note of historians tendency to mask white women’s involvement with slavery “as a silent abolitionist constituency” under the control of “patriarchy and paternalism.”[55] However, relying on the testimony of those interviewed by the WPA in the twentieth century and the records left by plantation mistresses themselves, Glymph argues that paternalism has been overemphasized. Men held significant and visible power in the antebellum South. The result has been that the “the power of slaveholding women seemingly, then, is mistaken as powerlessness and taken less seriously, not because it was invisible or unrecognizable as such, but because it was the prevailing ideology…presumes it not to exist.”[56] As a result, white female agency and power has been hidden, then and now, under the veil of paternalism.

Glymph argues that while paternalisms influence was great, white women still exerted vast amounts of power within the institution of slavery. Often, this power expressed itself in violent tendencies. According to Glymph, “evidence suggest” that “when women slaveholders acted in the affairs of the household…they acted on their own authority.”[57] Similarly, “when black women resisted the plantation household, they resisted the authority that mistresses exercised.”[58] The most evocative aspect of Glymph’s discussion is on the form mistress’s authority took. She states that “violence permeated the plantation household, where the control and management of slaves required white women’s active participation and authorized the exercise of brute and sadistic force.”[59] This depiction of white women contrasts sharply with those put forward by Fundamentalists; white ladies passively acquiescing to a morally ambiguous slave system due to their lack of agency under a paternalistic hierarchy are transformed in proponents and agents of slavery itself. The new evidence Glymph provides calls into question the limits of paternalism and the degree to which white southern mistresses participated within plantation slavery.

In 2019, after almost a decade of silence, the questions raised by Glymph saw further discussion in Stephanie Jones-Rogers They Were Her Property. Jones-Rogers examines the questions posed by Glymph and finds new evidence for re-evaluating our understanding of paternalism and the role of white mistresses within the plantation household. They Were Her Property argues that women “women were not passive bystanders. They were co-conspirators” in the institution of slavery.[60] Some of Jones-Rogers boldest assertions are economic in nature, examining antebellum females as “mistresses of the market.”[61] The market is typically seen as the epitome of the male sphere, yet Jones-Rogers squarely places white antebellum women as actively participating in chattel slave markets. As a result “white women in the South understood the darkest dimensions of the market in people firsthand.”[62] Whether acquiring human property from the marketplace or from family inheritance, Jones-Roger also argues that white mistresses maintained more autonomy in managing their slaves than has previously been supposed. Coverture, a key aspect of the accepted paternalistic order, is dismissed by Jones-Rogers as “a legal fiction.”[63] The reality, she contends, reveals white women who readily proclaimed their own property rights and were willing to seek legal recourse if necessary. Consistent with
Glymph, Jones-Rogers also uncovers plentiful evidence of mistress violence on par or exceeding their male counterparts. The portrait of white mistresses in They Were Her Property offers a serious and scholarly disputation of many aspects of a paternal society forwarded by Fundamentalist authors.

The historical discussion surrounding southern antebellum women has seen serious shifts since the proliferation of women’s history in the 1970s. Where the Fundamentalists focused their attention on wealthy white women and the paternalistic nature of southern society, Revisionists expanded the survey of white women to include poor, urban, and political femininity. The most recent works by Neo-Revisionists have progressed a step further, and directly challenge the underlying acceptance of paternalism’s influence on antebellum women—a significant shift in just four decades of scholarship. Future discussion on antebellum white women will likely be shaped by discussions on both the limitation and influence of paternalism as historians seek to find the true scope of women’s identities. Given the depth of Revisionist and Neo-Revisionist writings, the field is ripe for a wholistic text that provides a wider discussion of antebellum white women beyond selected localities. Historical discussion on enslaved women, though rich, has seen less serious shifts in the same frame of time as their white counterparts; while recent works have discussed the limitations of resistance frameworks none have offered viable conceptual alternatives. There is room for expansion, however, in the lives of free black women—discussed in depth only in Bynum’s Unruly Women. Perhaps the experiences of antebellum black women outside of bondage might invite new frameworks and questions that can expand conversation beyond resistance.


Berlin, Ira. Slaves Without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South. New York: Pantheon Books, 1974.

Bynum, Victoria. Unruly Women: The Politics of Social and Sexual Control in the Old South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992.

Camp, Stephanie. Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women & Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

Carter, Christine Jacobson. Southern Single Blessedness: Unmarried Women in the Urban South, 1800-1865. Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2006.

Clinton, Catherine. The Plantation Mistress: Woman’s World in the Old South. New York: Pantheon Books, 1982.

Fox-Genovese, Elizabeth. Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the Old South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.

Friedman, Joan. The Enclosed Garden: Women and Community in the Evangelical South, 1830-1900. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985.

Glymph, Thavolia. Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Green, Anna, and Kathleen Troup. The Houses of History: A Critical Reader in History and Theory. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016.

Jones, Jacqueline. Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work, and the Family from Slavery to the Present. New York: Basic Books Inc, 1985.

Jones-Rogers, Stephanie. They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019.

McCurry, Stephanie. Masters of Small Worlds: Yeoman Households, Gender Relations, and the Political Culture of the Antebellum South Carolina Low Country. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Molloy, Marie S. Single, White, Slaveholding Women in the Nineteenth-Century American South. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2018.

Scott, Anne Firor. The Southern Lady: From Pedestal to Politics. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1970.

Varon, Elizabeth R. We Mean to be Counted: White Women and Politics in Antebellum Virginia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.

White, Deborah Gray. Ar’n’t I a Woman? Female Slaves in the Plantation South. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1985.

[1] Anna Green and Kathleen Troup, The Houses of History: A Critical Reader in History and Theory (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016), 262-288. This chapter offers a thorough survey of gender history as a methodological framework and was instrumental in forming an approach to this paper.

[2] This critique and the term “New-Englandization” can be found in Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the Old South, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988), 40. The same sentiment is expressed by many authors who made early ventures into southern women’s history.

[3] Anne Firor Scott, The Southern Lady: From Pedestal to Politics (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1970), 15.

[4] Scott, The Southern Lady, 27.

[5] Scott, The Southern Lady, 21.

[6] Scott, The Southern Lady, 21.

[7] Scott, The Southern Lady, 48.

[8] Catherine Clinton, The Plantation Mistress: Woman’s World in the Old South (New York: Patheon Books, 1982), 18.

[9] Clinton, The Plantation Mistress, 19.

[10] Clinton, The Plantation Mistress, 165.

[11] Clinton, The Plantation Mistress, 35.

[12] Clinton, The Plantation Mistress, 196.

[13] Clinton, The Plantation Mistress, 196.

[14] Jean Friedman, The Enclosed Garden: Women and Community in the Evangelical South, 1830-1900 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press), xii.

[15] Friedman, The Enclosed Garden, 30-31.

[16] Friedman, The Enclosed Garden, 29.

[17] Friedman, The Enclosed Garden, 88.

[18] Friedman, The Enclosed Garden, 68.

[19] Friedman, The Enclosed Garden, 69.

[20] Deborah Gray White, Ar’n’t I a Woman? Female Slaves in the Plantation South (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1985), 62.

[21] White, Ar’n’t I a Woman?, 68.

[22] White, Ar’n’t I a Woman?, 68.

[23] White, Ar’n’t I a Woman?, 95.

[24] White, Ar’n’t I a Woman?, 77.

[25] White, Ar’n’t I a Woman?, 79.

[26] Jacqueline Jones, Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work, and the Family from Slavery to the Present (New York: Basic Books Inc, 1985), 43.

[27] Jones, Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow, 43.

[28] Jones, Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow, 41.

[29] Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the Old South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988), 109.

[30] Fox-Genovese, Within the Plantation Household, 109.

[31] Fox-Genovese, Within the Plantation Household, 110.

[32] Fox-Genovese, Within the Plantation Household, 24. Fundamentalist works that focused on enslaved experiences more readily acknowledged episodes of violence committed by white mistresses, see White, Ar’n’t I a Woman, 41-43.

[33] Fox-Genovese, Within the Plantation Household, 101-102.

[34] Fox-Genovese, Within the Plantation Household, 128-129.

[35] Fox-Genovese, Within the Plantation Household, 30.

[36] Fox-Genovese, Within the Plantation Household, 191.

[37] Victoria Bynum, Unruly Women: The Politics of Social & Sexual Control in the Old South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992), 110.

[38] Bynum, Unruly Women, 110.

[39] Bynum, Unruly Women, 57.

[40] Stephanie McCurry, Masters of Small Worlds: Yeoman Household, Gender Relations, and the Political Culture of the Antebellum South Carolina Low Country (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 6.

[41] McCurry, Masters of Small Worlds, 170.

[42] McCurry, Masters of Small Worlds, 59-60.

[43] McCurry, Masters of Small Worlds, 50.

[44] Elizabeth Varon, We Mean to be Counted: White Women and Politics in Antebellum Virginia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 2.

[45] Varon, We Mean to be Counted, 40.

[46] Varon, We Mean to be Counted, 71.

[47] Stephanie Camp, Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women & Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 7.

[48] Camp, Closer to Freedom, 48.

[49] Camp, Closer to Freedom, 68.

[50] Camp, Closer to Freedom, 83-85.

[51] Christine Jacobson Carter, Southern Single Blessedness: Unmarried Women in the Urban South, 1800-1865 (Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2006), 6.

[52] Carter, Southern Single Blessedness, 7.

[53] Carter, Southern Single Blessedness, 41.

[54] Varon’s We Mean to be Counted is a notable exception here, which does examine wealthy white women in Virginia. However, Varon limits herself specifically to the political nature of antebellum women and does not address broader concepts of femininity.

[55] Thavolia Glymph, Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 3.

[56] Glymph, Out of the House of Bondage, 26.

[57] Glymph, Out of the House of Bondage, 28.

[58] Glymph, Out of the House of Bondage, 28.

[59] Glymph, Out of the House of Bondage, 33.

[60] Stephanie Jones-Rogers, They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019), 205.

[61] Jones-Rogers, They Were Her Property, xiv.

[62] Jones-Rogers, They Were Her Property, 100.

[63] Jones-Rogers, They Were Her Property, 28.

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