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.
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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 and if they did anything wrong or immoral, they were the ones that ended up being at fault.
An example of this is if a woman commits murder, their husband or father (or whatever man was bound to protect them) were the ones that were put on trial. He was believed to not have controlled his woman properly. Not all of what southern women did daily on their plantations was work. There were also pastimes to enjoy, like entertaining friends and neighbors. “With the prevailing prosperity among the upper classes, gentlemen had larger opportunity for cultivating the social graces, and their wives and daughters, considerably relieved from housewifery cares, were taught drawing-room accomplishments. These women entertained in their homes and they were entertained in other ladies homes as well. When they went out, they rode horses or they went by water (depending on where they lived). Most wealthy southern women were accomplished horseback riders, since it was considered fit for a lady to know how to ride. During these years the roads became better and better and carriages became more popular and many white families traveled this way as well. Balls were very popular in this time with the woman as well as the men. Other entertainments included comedy troops, plays, horse races and concerts.
A part from a journal kept by a woman in the time from 1754 to 1781, “This abbreviated copy of her journal shows that she went to races, balls, and assemblies occasionally, and went visiting, dined out, had guests to dinner or to tea, and attended church oftener. ” Marriage roles for women differed as to the marriage but most of the time they were a partnership. “Largely traditional ideas of marriage and of women’s economic and emotional dependence were, as we have seen, only in part counterbalanced by shared responsibility in the home.
Women participated in decisions about the children’s education, and the men sometimes relieved wives of the burdens of tending to infants. Nonetheless, traditional attitudes toward marriage found universal acceptance in the South. ” It was the responsibility of the woman to run the household and they were expected to sacrifice their own interests and to devote themselves to their husbands almost entirely. Many believed that while marriage was a pleasant duty for a man, it was the sole reason for a woman’s existence. Her job was to continue the family and be a helpmate to her man.
Most married before they were twenty and many married before they were even sixteen. Marriage was considered a family matter and men would be remiss to ask a girl to marry him without first the permission of her father and of his own father. Life for the poorer women in the south was a cycle of household duties. Their diversions usually included the work that they had to do anyways. Spinning matches, candle-dipping, and quilting parties were common. “When a housewife finished sewing together the pieces for a patchwork quilt, she invited her neighbors to spend the day or the afternoon with her and quilt it. Fairs were also a popular pastime as it got the women out of the house and provided them with a place to socialize with their friends and neighbors and a place to buy the little things and to see the newest fashions. It also gave farming families the chance to show their livestock and sell their goods. Religion was a common ground for both classes of white women. They joined churches and immersed themselves in activities, fundraisers and general things for their local churches. “Women were, of course, expected to attend public worship regularly and not make trifling excuses for absence. ” Black slave women had hard lives.
They worked to raise their own families as well as working for their masters. Slave women performed field work as well as being kitchen slaves and household slaves. This last role was more common since the women seemed to be better suited to the indoor work. Southern masters viewed their slaves as almost “livestock”. When a slave woman became pregnant, most owners lightened the load of pregnant women and many were even rewarded for giving birth. Most women still suffered from many medical conditions though, resulting from the over work and frequent childbearing. As a result of this, the mortality rate for slave infants was high.
Many slaves were allowed to choose their own mates and it proved easier for them to choose a mate that was on the same plantation, or nearby farm. Although many slaves were separated when sold most owners didn’t split families because it was thought that they would work harder if kept with their families. If a wife and husband were separated, it was not uncommon for them to remarry another. Black women not only had to withstand the physical labor that they were expected to do, but they withstood the constant sexual advances from their masters. If this happened the woman didn’t have a choice.
She had to reciprocate. As a result, many mulatto children were born. These children were sometimes allowed to stay with their mothers and sometimes were taken away to be raised by the families to be house servants. Thomas Jefferson is one of those men that made these advances on his slave women, Sally Hemings mainly. She had at least one child with him. As the Civil War broke out, the lives of white women of the South started to drastically change. Plantation wives took over the operation of the plantations once held by their husbands and continue to do the little things around the house they themselves did.
Farm wives had to manage the land, the field hands, and also the domestic servants. Many Southern women began to feel overwhelmed because they never had to do these types activities before the Civil War. Women of the South couldn’t handle the situations that their husbands put them into. Many of the slaves took advantage of their new plantation master but many loved their new bosses. “Yo’ ax me iffen Mis’ Betsey wus good ter us? She wus so good dat I loved her all her life an’ now dat she’s daid I loves her in her grave. We et de same rations what she et and we slept in de same kind o’ bed she slept in. They handled the situations of living on a plantation alone with her children and no protection but from the slaves. During the Civil War, many women couldn’t even provide food for their families. Although money was readily available there was no food to be dispersed. The lives of black women in the South were dramatically altered by the war. They had always inferior and a piece of property to the Southern white women but throughout the war they were treated more like cattle and worthless beings. The slave women and her family had three options during the war.
First, they could escape to the North with the help of Northern women or on the Underground Railroad. Second, they could escape and join the union army as contraband. Finally, they could choose to stay with their master and continued to be starved and mistreated. The lives of the slave women were forever changed no matter what path they chose to go. The chance to be free was the only thing going through the minds of many slaves. They wanted to better their lives for their children and hopefully find lost relatives that were ripped away from them in earlier parts of the century.
Many black women only wanted to escape the grasp of their plantation owners’ wives. Although Northern black women didn’t have equality with white women, as the war went on they were increasingly treated as equals in some parts of the North. They participated in the war effort by helping out in factories and making products for the soldiers. They also helped Southern black women and their families’ escape from the South and come to the North to make a life for their family. Black women in the North did everything they could to help win the war and free their relatives in the South. Without black soldiers in he Unions and their wives at home, the Union army would have had a hard time making products and winning the Civil War. As the Civil War concluded, the reconstruction of the country had to commence. Southern women became hostile after the initial affect of the war wore off. They realized what a human disaster that had occurred. A lot of Southerners experienced waves of despair and shock. Many Southern women couldn’t marry because potential candidates were killed in the war. Although the Northern women lost a lot of their husbands, even larger to the loss of men in the South, the percentage of Northern population was much smaller.
They were very angry and felt that their men had given up. Soon, many of the women put the war behind them and started to rebuild their lives on the plantations. Southern black women were still treated like nothing even after the Civil War. It seems that they would never be equal to white women. Many people sought to limit the freedom of blacks by imposing several black codes. The laws of Mississippi Documentary History of Reconstruction said, “Most former slaves sought to exercise their liberty to the full, as advertisements by former slaves seeking to reunite families and black conventions repeatedly declared”.
According to these codes blacks couldn’t intermarry, unlawfully assembly, and carry firearms of any kind. Some of these laws put into place by legislators kept blacks under control without saying they were still slaves. After, the Civil War many blacks in the South were victims of bias crimes. Hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan had begun to emerge in the South. The lives of women improved and helped them stand up for themselves from the brutal attacks they once knew. Women left the fields to produce butter and sow for their family. Their lives now were to raise their children and educate them in the hopes they will one day better their lives.
Southern black families’ constantly were moving around to find lost relatives. The land that was once promised to them by General Sherman never came through. The hope for “40 acres and a mule” quickly turned into a distant memory. The Freedman’s Bureau tried to help mend the situation but fewer than two thousand freedman received land out of the almost three million. Land confiscated from plantation owners was given back to them when President Rutherford Hayes pardons them. Blacks were left with nothing to look forward to, but women tried to make the best out of the Freedman’s Bureau.
Women worked on farms for labor wages but found them never being paid. The Freedman’s Bureau found them dealing with situations that never had been address for a black person. Women didn’t want to be held accountable for her husbands’ debt and they felt that they should be making their own decisions on were to work and not for their husbands to make the decision and sign contracts. The former slave women made triumphant gains in the South, but their lives were still below the white Southern women. There continued to be racial tension well into the future and after the war was over it seemed like no one would ever forget it.
Although black women had it bad in the North they didn’t have it as bad as women in the South. Riots broke out in the North because soldiers who came back from war found their jobs taken up by blacks. At first these jobs weren’t given to blacks but as the war grew on many factories needed a hand and started to hire black women and men. Women had the most difficulty in defending themselves against many of these racial tensions. Long after the Civil War was over, there continued to be tension throughout the country. All these black women and their families wanted to do was to get on with their lives.
But even in the North many states wanted to limit the freedom of these people. It took long time until blacks saw justice. White women before the war indulged in a very elite life, while black women were treated like they didn’t deserve to be living. Northern white women’s situation was better than white women of the South. But over all white women had it better then black women throughout the United States. The lives of Northern and Southern women of all races were forever changed by the Civil War. The rights they never once had soon became a reality.