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Between the War of 1812 and 1877

Between the War of 1812 and 1877, women’s roles changed drastically from a near partnership with their husbands to a place of near subservience to men in the South. Early in American history, frontier women were expected to work hard and help their husbands (or fathers) to carve out a better life in the New World. In the pre-industrialized world, women immigrants in the North often worked hard in textile mills and then worked equally hard at home to maintain their families, but according to Catherine Clinton, things in the South were very different.

In the North, a woman’s place in the world depended greatly on her socio-economic status. In the north, a lady was devoted to fashion, to following the trends of Europe, and devoting her extra time to charitable causes usually centered around her church. In the South, because of the isolation of most Plantations, women were isolated from other women and were expected to understand the intricacies of running their households when their men were away. However, a Southern lady was never a slave to fashion, believing instead that her garments should be neat, but modest (Clinton ; p. 95).

Even Thomas Jefferson admonished his eldest daughter to be neat and tidy from the moment she arose until she retired for the evening, not just in time for tea or dinner (Clinton). Unlike the ladies in the North, women in the South were expected to be able to understand the work of the plantation and to be able to negotiate for the needs of their homes (Clinton). At the same time, though they were often capable business women and often clearly able to be self-sufficient, women lacked confidence in their own abilities and were often undermined by their spouses even when they did a good job.

In fact, Clinton writes, women were so tied up in the identity of men that widows were often depressed and nearly suicidal after their husbands’ deaths. One such woman wrote to her father-in-law that if not for her children, she would gladly died alongside her husband (Clinton, p. 170). This then was the mood of the antebellum South. A woman was a lady if she presented herself with decorum always. She could be educated, but never would question the men around her who were clearly better equipped for taking care of her than she was for taking care of herself. (Fenor).

A Southern woman was judged first by her father and then when she was of marrying age, by the quality of the husband she attracted. Men then were allowed whatever manner of misbehavior they wanted and a woman had no recourse to the bad behavior or even actual abuse of her husband. She had no rights to her own children even (Clinton) and lived to please the men in her life. If a woman did not attract a husband or decided to go against convention and not marry, she was pitied. It was generally accepted that a woman received her satisfaction in life in serving her husband.

In the North, women were encouraged to be educated and be able to conduct an interesting conversation. Their educations were directed at more frivolous things than running a plantation. Women in the North were given to meetings and regular contact with other women, laying the foundation for the development of the women’s suffrage movement in the North. Indeed, many of the abolitionists in the North were women, begun through church organizations and other social functions where women could express a charitable interest in the well-being of others (Clinton).

During the war, the women of the South were allowed temporarily to come out of this second-class citizenship as their men went off to war. Women still wrote to their husbands on the battlefront asking for guidance in selling crops or running the plantation, but suddenly the skills that they had been taught were in serious demand. Women were expected to keep the plantation together while their men were at war, an effort that proved to be beyond most Southern women, not because they were not tough enough or smart enough, but because it is hard to run a plantation without adequate supplies or enough hands to work the fields.

However, the Southern woman during the Civil War was capable and independent, operating as nurses for the wounded and keeping what was left of the Southern economy alive. Yet she was still dependent on her Southern upbringing, in the book “Johnny Reb” there are accounts of Southern belles holding dances and cotillions just after a battle because they were still focuses on meeting a man to take care of them once the war was over. After the war, there was a bit of a role reversal between the women of the North and the South.

Many women of the South were left without a man to rely and suddenly found themselves working with other women and developing a much more independent streak than they had had prior to the war. On the other hand, in the North, men returning from the war were less tolerant of their women working outside the home (even in textile mills) and there was an effort (not unified or coordinated, but it happened) to put women back into their proper place.

As cities grew in prominence, men no longer needed their wives to be slaving next to them on the farm just to keep the family alive, and women were once again relegated to a position of subservience to men. It would not be until the industrial revolution a generation later that women would once again begin to gain strength in their role within society. Clearly, at this time in history, women were held in a strange position. On the one hand, a Southern lady was never expected to break a sweat or appear dirty. She would never raise her voice or act in a manner that would embarrass her family.

But at the same time, she was the core of the family, its inner strength and expected to hold it together when push came to shove. A lady would never allow her reputation to be compromised by even the appearance of misdeed or adventure. She dressed for modesty and though her clothing should be attractive to the men in her life, it should never attract too much attention to her as that would be seen as immodest. A Southern lady was above all a good mother and partner, doing what needed to be done for the better of her husband and her sons.

As such, a woman’s worth was often measured by her devotion to her family and by her ability to produce an heir for her husband. At the same time, she was expected to be educated enough to be a charming dinner companion. For all the thought that was allowed to women on the South in the antebellum era, she might as well have been a piece of furniture or a decoration. It is then not surprising that Southern men thought it okay to own slaves as truly in their behavior, women were little more than possessions as well.

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