The functions of women in any given society have always been secondary and in support of the male gender. Women are believed to belong to the weak gender than even in the current civilized world are although the truth about such a claim is debatable1. Either way, their role and function from the pre-colonial periods were limited to caring for the homestead.
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One of the societies with major differences between women and men in terms of the identity, functions, role and position in the community is the Antebellum South during the peak of US slavery. When one thinks of the women in the South, the idea that comes into mind is the figure of a submissive and loyal, passive and pious person who served the family and society with morality and devotion2.
According to the common perception, the southern woman was graceful, modest and obedient to her husband. She was mainly focused on the activities or behaviors that would please the farm master (her husband) and taking care of the house and children.
Innocence and restriction from taking interest in the intellectual pursuits is an idea that comes when one thinks about the position and role of the southern women during the antebellum. According to Boyd, the antebellum women were seen as the perfect resemblance of the cultural perfectionism of the antebellum moral, religious and social norms3.
However true these perceptions might be, it is worth noting that the media played a significant role in generating the ideas for the description of the antebellum women. The media, especially novels and poems written during the slavery era in the south, have developed most of these characteristics of the antebellum women.
The media has been very successful in passing these myths and ideas to the modern generations. In fact, most of these ideas and perceptions of the life and role of the antebellum women are still popular in the modern world because the 19th century author and poets have made people believe in myths.
In addition, recent films about the south have borrowed these myths and, surprisingly, made efforts to insinuate suggest that the myths were the true description of the plantation women. According to the media, position of a white woman was subtle but important to the antebellum society.
A woman was a social figure associated with her background because she was grouped according to her race and social class. Thus, it is evident that the origins of the myths about the women are based on race and class. It also serves as the manifestation of the cultural attitudes of the antebellum south. Therefore, it appears that the media-described women is more mythological than real.
Therefore, the question is “what are the differences between the real and the media-portrayed women in the antebellum south?” Of course, there are several differences between what the media has been portraying about the characteristics, position, functions and roles of women in the plantations.
In particular, the media has been concentrating on the white upper class women when describing the southern women, leaving out other classes of women such as the slaved blacks, the peasant women, those in education, health and business sectors as well as the bunches of Hispanic and native Indian women in some of the plantations in the south. Do the media provide the correct portray of antebellum women in general?
The purpose of this paper is to distinguish the roles and positions of the plantation women as presented by the media from the actual roles and positions they held during the antebellum era.
Arguably, the media does not provide the correct description of the plantation women in the south because much of the ideas and characteristics given to women by the media are mythical and derived from novels and poems of the antebellum south.
The identity of the plantation woman: Real versus the media
Historically, the planation women are the wives of the plantation owners in the American south prior to and after independence. In reality, the women played a significant role in the plantations, right from working in the farms to housework, child rearing and cloth making and repair.
The social economic background of the southern states during the plantation era provides an important framework for analyzing the real description versus the media characterization of the women in the planation south. Therefore, it is worth describing the women based on the social, cultural and economic situation at the time.
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During the antebellum era, the economy of most of the states in the southern parts of the United States mainly depended on agriculture. The agricultural industry in the south mainly supplied the northern industrial states with raw materials4.
In particular, cotton was the major crop in the south because of the large cloth making industries in the north that placed a huge demand for cotton. Thus, the plantations were a highly lucrative industry in the south. Labor was almost free due to the presence of a large number of slaves and pro-slavery laws.
Therefore, farmers were the most influential political icons in this period and a person’s wealth was measure by how big was his land. Land was the only factor of production and the main source of livelihood. Due to the low population, there were large pieces of land that were owned by the whites. These huge tracks of land were put under large-scale farming.
Nonetheless, the most of the black, native and Hispanic southerners did not own such wealth in their native land. Rather, the whites owned the massive plantations. The development of these plantations created a divided among the people since the natives became the labors and the whites were the owners.
Off course, the outcome was an emergence of social classes that divided the two societies depending on where an individual falls in the society. The plantation women were the wives of the white farmers who owned the plantations.
At this point, the contract between the rich and the poor was greater in the south compared to all other English colonies. The southerners were mainly the slaves, servants and workers for the whites. On the other hand, the white colonial masters owned the plantations and controlled the system. Their wives, the plantation women, are the focus of this essay.
The media’s ideas about the identity of the planation women
According to Welter, the media portrays the identity of the plantation women based on the dominant 19th century ideology5. According to this view, the ideology described women as “the cult of the true womanhood”.
To describe the plantation woman in the south, the ideology used four fundamental virtues – the women was supposed to show purity, devotion, obedience and domesticity. In addition, the term woman, as described in the popular media, includes the mother, wife, sister and daughter.
In addition, it is imperative to note that the “cult of womanhood” had a set of social expectations for the plantation woman in the south. It also served as a guide describe the expected behavior of the upper class women. In particular, it stated that a good woman is a female who was cultured, virtuous and compassionate.
The real identity of the plantation women
Noteworthy, the media follows the cult of true womanhood when describing the identity of the plantation women of the antebellum America. Nevertheless, this is not the real identity of women in the era. The mythical image of an antebellum woman emerged from this ideology. Nevertheless, this image fails to reflect the accurate identity of all the women during the antebellum.
Noteworthy, this ideology is based on the perceptions of the southern belle. Therefore, the historical and literal perception of the identity and position of the planation woman is relatively wrong6. In fact, it is evident that the ideology is derived from writers such as Harriet Jacobs, Frederick Douglass and Harried Jacobs.
Modern films such as “Gone with the Wind” have attempted to follow these ideologies. However, the writings of Mary Chestnut, Mattie Griffith and Harriet Stowe provide a more liberal description of the southern woman based on the reality on the ground7.
In particular, these authors describe the plantation mistresses and their roles, positions and functions in the antebellum society, which differs significantly from the media portray of the same women. In her 1982 book “The Plantation Mistress: Women’s world in the old south”, Catherine Clinton states that the cult of domesticity is wrong8.
She shows how the plantation women played a significant role in directing the success of the farm through the husband. The book further shows that women were involved in managing some aspects of the farming practices, including the selection and coordination of women slaves. It has also been shown that the farmers who had strong and commanding wives managed most of the farms that succeeded in profitability.
Women were also involved in educating the society, especially their children9. Clinton indicates that most of the mistresses determined how and where their children obtained education. As such, they were involved in ensuring the continuity of good management in the farms because the educated children of the farmers were supposed to become managers in their parents’ plantations.
In her book “Within the plantation household: Black and white women of the old south”, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese10 states that the white mistresses lead good lives in the plantations and were not necessarily meant to make their husbands happy. The author states that most of these women enjoyed the fruits of the antebellum slavery just like their husbands.
In addition, the author states that most of these mistresses determined the use and spending of the profits, including the management of their husbands’ farms. According to the author, the mistresses were responsible for some aspects of slave management, especially in terms of managing the large number of female slave workers in the plantations.
Women Roles During the antebellum: The media versus the reality
Women have always played very important roles in the society since time immemorial and in the pre-colonial period, the same was true. The roles of women at any given time depend on the period, the geographical location and the community.
Noteworthy, women were categorized into distinct groups depending of their race- the native Indians, the black slaves, and the whites. Each group had different roles spelt out for women since they were from very different backgrounds.
According to the media, the role of the white women in the south was confined to the domestic chores. The main role of the mistresses, according to the media, was to ensure proper handling of the house chores, directing black servants (the Mammy) and determining the best diet for the family11.
In addition, a mistress is portrayed as the family’s tailor and cloth maker. A woman was supposed to spend her time weaving garments, mending torn clothes, making and repairing household marts, curtains and carpets and other textile activities12.
It is worth noting that the white mistresses in the farms are thought to have played almost significant roles with the native Indian women. For instance, the native women were responsible for their families’ clothing, food and other domestic activities. However, unlike the white mistresses in the farms, the Indian women were also responsible for building their family’s huts.
However, the media has attempted to ignore some of the important roles played by the white mistresses in the antebellum south. For instance, it is clear that the development of the plantation society changed the roles of women in significant way in the south. The farm work required masculine activities, including the management chores
. Thus, the number of population of the white women in the south was significantly low compared to that of males. Nevertheless, the media does not describe the roles that women played in the south. The less number of women made them powerful since they became the center of attraction as the men sought them eagerly. Thus, most white farmers increasingly sought for the best mistresses in their farms.
Most farmers desired to marry women with the capacity to run their farms. Educated women were preferred for their ability to educate their children, especially boys because they were supposed to assume the management roles in the farms.
During the antebellum era, mortality rate was relatively high and even affected the white families. The rampant deaths and marriages dissolved as a result also created different phenomena in the society. Widows began to remarry and the outcome was a complex society of half brothers and sisters.
When a woman’s husband died, the property he owned was left under her care. For this reason, women had to learn and exercise managerial skills to help them manage the family estates. Nonetheless, women were not involved in the political platforms.
The media portrayal and description of the plantation women
The media has always covered the historic events in a way that can only be described as unfair to women. Especially with regard to the whites, the media has always covered their past in a very objective approach to portray only their negative characteristics. According to this perception, all the white women were hostile to their female slaves and secluded themselves as an elite class.
The media also tries to show that the plantation woman had a perfect life and an easy time in their homes. Going by the picture painted on our minds by the history journalists and researchers, the white women had all they needed and their live were simple.
This is not the same picture painted in the case of the black slaves and the native Indian women. Media coverage of the history of women in the pre-colonial period shows that the white women were better placed in the society than the rest.
The historic accounts of women have in past been selective and subjective. This is mainly due to the ageless opinions that the masculine gender is better than the feminine gender. Since time immemorial, women accomplishments have been seen as less important in comparison to what men have achieved.
The media deliberately downplays the roles played y the women in preparing their husbands and children every day in the morning. It lays its focus mainly on what the men did for their family and see it a way of supporting and providing for the family. On the other hand, whatever the women did is not recognized as an important activity in the society.
Poor historic account for the less powerful groups
The less powerful groups have been left to cope and deal with the historic accounts that have been recorded for them. The white women are portrayed as the ‘stay at home mums’ who did not participate in any of the farming activities.
This notion is supported by the assumption that all the white women enslaved blacks in their homes. With such a mentality, the media does not mention the involvement of the plantation woman in the contribution of the economy.
Very important information was left out about the functions of the women in the pre-historic period that could show just how much their roles were vital for the establishment of a strong economy. Women were the only group subject to this disparity in the historic factual recording.
Children and the slaves are also left out including the natives. The media has overemphasized the industrial revolution, the agricultural developments and the discovery of the sea routes all of which are the achievements of the white males.
The media has tried to cover the real historic accounts especially regarding the plantation woman’s plight and challenges. Evidently, the plantation woman did not have the perfect life as the media tries to portray in most of the historic accounts. She encountered numerous challenges everyday just like a normal human being.
The only variation was the fact the challenges were different. While the slaves African women were struggling to find a job and food to sustain their livelihood, the plantation woman had different struggles.
Women in the plantations had another level of challenges including maintaining their class. It was not automatic that the white women where all able to meet the cost of having a slave who would help in the family chores.
In this case, the woman of the house was tasked with all the family chores and this was quite a lot of work to handle. Most the plantation women had to deal with loneliness in the house since their husbands were too busy outside in the fields.
The identity, roles and position of women in the antebellum America has long been portrayed based on the 19th century stereotypic perceptions of a woman. The ideology of “the cult of womanhood” depicted women as being loyal, submissive, kind, motherly and confined to the house.
On its part, the media has followed these ideologies in its portrayal of the antebellum women. Nevertheless, this is far from the reality because the white farm mistresses played a significant role not only in the house, but also in the farm management, management of slaves and the profits involved.
Blassingame, John W. The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South. New York: Oxford UP, 2009.
Boyd, Elizabeth Bronwyn. Southern Beauty: Performing Femininity in an American Region. Austin, TX: The U of Texas at Austin, 2000.
Cash, Wilbert. The Mind of the South. New York: Knopf, 2001.
Clinton, Catherine. The Plantation Mistress: Woman’s World in the Old South. New York: Pantheon, 2007.
Davis, Richard. Mrs. Stowe’s Characters-in-Situations and a Southern Literary Tradition. Clarence Gohdes. Durham: Duke UP, 2002.
Donovan, Josephine. Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Evil, Affliction, and Redemptive Love. Boston: Twayne, 2001
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. New York: Modern Library, 2000.
Duvall, Severn. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin: The Sinister Side of Patriarchy.” The New England Quarterly 36, no. 1 (2003): 3-22.
Fox-Genovese, Elizabeth. Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the Old South. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2008.
Gwin, Minrose. Black and White Women of the Old South: The Peculiar Sisterhood in American Literature. Knoxville: The U of Tennessee P, 2005.
Welter, Barbara. “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860.” American Quarterly 18, no. 2 (2006): 151-174.
1 Wilbert Cash, The Mind of the South (New York: Knopf, 2001), 54
2 Minrose Gwin, Black and White Women of the Old South: The Peculiar Sisterhood in American Literature (Knoxville: The U of Tennessee P, 2005), 147
3 Elizabeth Bronwyn Boyd, Southern Beauty: Performing Femininity in an American Region (Austin, TX: The U of Texas at Austin, 2000), 97
4 John W Blassingame, The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South (New York: Oxford UP, 2009), 137
5 Barbara Welter, “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860,” American Quarterly 18, no. 2 (2006): 152.
6 Josephin Donovan, e, Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Evil, Affliction, and Redemptive Love (Boston: Twayne, 2001), 38
7 Richard Davis, Mrs. Stowe’s Characters-in-Situations and a Southern Literary Tradition (Clarence Gohdes. Durham: Duke UP, 2002), 204
8 Catherine Clinton, The Plantation Mistress: Woman’s World in the Old South (New York: Pantheon, 2007), 62
9 Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (New York: Modern Library, 2000), 69
10 Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the Old South (Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2008), 78
11 Severn Duvall, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin: The Sinister Side of Patriarchy” The New England Quarterly 36, no. 1 (2003), 7
12 Duvall, 8