Southern Women Before, During & After the Civil War

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The women of southern plantations are something that not many write about. There is a critical lack of information and books about them, which makes writing about her a difficult task. Many southern women are mentioned in many books only as part of the males. “It was not until the early 1970’s, with the advent of the women’s movement, that a book written by a Southern woman about Southern women was recognized as being of scholarly significance…”

The wealthy white women of the south spent most of their time in the home. They raised the children and acted as teachers in many cases, teaching reading, writing and religion. White women (of all classes) in the south suffered under heavier burdens than northern women. They married earlier, bore more children, and were more likely to die young, especially in cases of childbirth. White southern women had fewer outlets than northern women, who could be involved in charitable organizations or reform movements.

Southern white men normally stereotyped northern women as plain, cold, ugly, compared to their women who they believed to be sweet, poised, gentle, polite, and mannerly. This paternalistic model locked plantation mistresses into her roles. She was supposed to be sweet and submissive, she was required to hide the extremities of her work and to do this job well required management skills. They had to be the bosses without visibly being the boss or showing their authority. Despite the reality of the responsibilities of supervising house slaves, servants, and general household duties, the plantation mistress didn’t rule over the household, the master did. She didn’t have the authority, but was expected to do all the work.

A southern white woman had many responsibilities even before the war broke out. These women lived on plantations with their husbands and families and the livelihood of these plantations revolved around the upkeep of the grounds and the way the household and household staff was run. They did the small things on the plantation like spin the thread to make clothing, and tended small gardens. As the economy grew, these products were being sold by women on the open market. These plantation families had once produced and consumed most of their own product leaving nothing to be sold on the market, which made many families the principal unit of the economy. Their role around the house continued to be the domestic circle of the household, providing everything that hadn’t already been provided by the slaves. The Yeoman farmers up in the mountains didn’t go through this economic change. Many Yeoman women continued to help their husbands without the presence of slaves. They were on a different level then aristocratic plantation women. They lead a simple life with very few changes. Whether you lived on a plantation or in the mountains, most women were the backbone of their family.

Few southern women questioned the life that she had been bred and trained to live in. Most accepted the role of wife, mother, and runner of the household without the power traditionally attached to that title. Their plantation big houses were basically overgrown farm houses. Kitchens were detached and the slave quarters were usually far away from the main house so as to keep them out of the site of the master and his family. A good plantation mistress oversaw food, managed the kitchen garden and worked the gardens, pickled foods and oversaw salting pork. Growing up in a rural environment, daughters learned to write, shoot, and ride. Then, when they reached puberty, mothers taught them more feminine things, like how to ride, sew, dance and sing. They were expected to become all the things that their mothers and grandmothers before them had been. These women were more or less property of the men who were their fathers and then when they married, the men that became their husbands. On the other end, the men were responsible for these women, they were bound to protect them...
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