History of the Old South
Empowerment of the Southern Belle in the Antebellum South
The southern belle was perhaps one of the most charming characters of the American Antebellum South. She was and is often romanticized through fictional novels and plays, and many women throughout history have likely drawn parallels between their lives and that of heroines like Scarlett O’Hara. Southern women themselves might have looked back on the period of their lives they spent as belles as one of the most favorable. But the belle life stage simply bridged the gap into what was often the darkest period of their lives, and also where they reached their highest purpose and achievement as defined by their societal structure: the domestic pedestal of marriage. Once she reached that stage, a belle’s sole purpose was to be caring mother and a dutiful wife, and very little allowed her to stray from that role. Still, research suggests that as gender roles began to change with the coming of the Civil War, there were a number of outlets in her life that allowed the southern belle to empower herself. This essay will explore the belle, her life, and each of those empowering facets.
A southern belle, in most senses of the term, is a young woman of marriageable age who is out in southern society. She comes from a wealthy family and most often lives on a slave-owning plantation. She is confined to the ideals prescribed for her by the southern society in which she lives. That is, she is expected to be a perfect picture of charm, beauty and passiveness. She is certainly not outspoken, nor does she wear her emotions on her sleeve. Those around her suppress any characteristics that might bring out a desire for independence. Wealthy southerners lived within a sense of Victorianism and would react inflexibly to behaviors and movements that might disrupt or corrupt their rigid society. This was the life they learned to live.
Inwardly, belles had aspirations and expectations for their lives. They had notions about slavery, promiscuity of the men surrounding them, and most importantly, romance. According to an essay by Kathryn Lee Seidel, their idea of romance was a vain one. They expected to be swept away by a “gallant cavalier” who was taken by her “magical charming powers” and they often extended their courtship seasons in an effort to wait for that suitor. They might even be briefly smitten with ill-suited suitors because they fit the dashing description painted in their minds. These ideas came primarily from romance novels about belles who reached beyond societal walls and were rewarded. The ideas are described by as “the cult of romantic love.” This was an acceptable middle class value, but was not a reality for elite southerners. Diaries and letters between southern women expose the disappointment in realizing that the husbands they married turned out to be far from cavalier, and that they were chosen by those husbands not because of their magical charm, but because of their dowry.
Belles might have occasionally had unrealistic aspirations to be independent women, likely brought on by fictional novels and admiration of teachers from their schooling days, but most actually sought after the domestic life, unaware of the dissatisfaction it would quickly bring. Oftentimes, they would be discouraged by the hasty change in status that marriage brought about. They moved from the pampered, exciting lifestyle of a belle where friends surrounded them, they traveled often, and were likely admired by a number of suitors to the lonely, diligent and unacknowledged lifestyle of a domestic housewife whose happiness depended entirely on that of her often absent husband. At this point in her life, she is closed off to much of the outside world. But with the Civil War looming and a number of forthcoming social and religious movements, southern women found ways to reach outside of their austere domestic lifestyles and transform...
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