To combat both the ""New Englandization"" of women's history and the popular sexualization of the Southern woman, Professor...


THE PLANTATION MISTRESS: Woman's World in the Old South (1780-1835)

To combat both the ""New Englandization"" of women's history and the popular sexualization of the Southern woman, Professor Clinton (History and Women's Studies, Union College) searched archival documents in seven Southern states for particulars on the plantation mistress. The women that emerge are no simple ladies of leisure. Rather, their lives ring with contradictions between their symbolic roles and daily activities--contradictions which also bound them to the slave system. Though the image of gentility, they actually worked hard: the household economy may have declined in New England, but it expanded in the South; and the plantation mistress was expected to be both overseer and skilled worker. She was granted moral authority over the slaves, as well as her own family, but not the power to back it up: ""The mistress could struggle to impose order and discipline, but slaves clearly recognized the division of authority along gender as well as color lines."" She was allowed an education, the better to raise Southern statesmen, but denied the possibility of putting it to use in her married life. And while she was supposed to be interested in good works, not for her the Northern woman's reform societies. ""If women's attention wandered from the welfare of their families and their husbands' slaves and other property, it might stray to a critical attack on society."" As the slavery debate heated up, her situation became more acute. ""The Civil War only heightened the tension, exacerbated the contradictions, and intensified the moral dilemmas that characterized the condition of the plantation mistress in slave society."" Some women responded by sinking into laudanum addiction, others turned to prayer. Belles of the ball for a few years, yes, but prisoners of the plantation system ever after. Solid, convincing material which expands both the regional aspect of women's history (like Lillian Schlissel's Women's Dories of the Westward Journey) and the study of Southern womanhood (along with Mary Chesnut's recently republished diary and Carol Bleser's The Hammonds of Redcliffe.)

Pub Date: Jan. 17, 1982


Page Count: -

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1982