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of Plantation Mistresses
in the South
Women in the Civil War era were little more than slaves themselves. Even in the most deluxe of plantations, the mistress of the house was expected to run the household, make clothes, darn socks, make soap, make butter and cream, plan and fix meals, educate children, and keep the valuables locked from the household help.
Despite modern concepts of airhead Southern belles sitting in the shade sipping mint juleps while house slaves wait on her hand and foot is the pintacle of Southern gentility, it is not very accurate. It is true that young debutantes from genteel homes may not have done much in the family, once they were wed they were expected to transition seemlessly to matron of the house. More often than not, she soon found herself totally alienated from the husband who so short a while ago wooed her with flowers and long strolls in the park. She finds herself kept a virtual prisoner in her home; white women from well-to-do families were not allowed away from the grounds unless accompanied by a white man, and her husband would rarely be home. In short, she would find herself trapped; she would find herself tricked.
- The plantation mistress was expected to turn a blind eye to whatever sexual exploits her husband – or any other white gentlemen of the plantation – might do. There were few exceptions. White woman on occasion might whip, beat, or otherwise banish the woman, because she could not do any thing to her husband for his infidelity.
- Women were often deeply involved in the management of their husbands’ estates, much to belie the myth of the Old South. She was expected to supply her husband’s slaves with food, clothing, shelter, and medical care. The majority of women in the South were far removed from the luxurious lies of the South. Fewer than 24% of the 3 million whites had the planter elite, and even they were not nearly as rich as they pretended to be. Planters usually only hired overseers when the master was away.
- On residential plantations (like the Warren’s), wives were expected to grow herbs, plant gardens, blend medicines, dip candles, spin thread, weave cloth, knit socks, sew clothes, supervise hog slaughters, process and cure meats, scour copper utensils, preserve vegetables, and churn butter.
- She held the keys to the household, brought up the children (only the wealthiest families employed mammies).
- She never joined the family and guests at dinner until she locked up the silver and gave the slaves their supper. They were supposed to take on these responsibilities with noble agreement, but diaries, letters, and other hand written works were FILLED WITH LETTERS OF COMPLAINT, not resignation. Many women of plantations felt that the wife was the most complete slave in it.
- Women did not resist their dependency, but they sure did resent it. They did not live on mythic estates with pristine white houses. They lived on overlarge working farms where life was anything but easy. Planters’ daughters married around the age of twenty; their Northern counterparts at twenty-four. This was deemed a young age.
- The transformation from belle to matron was abrupt and disconcerting. An unmarried planter’s daughter could be a young fashion plate, pursuing education and romance at her leisure, without a care or responsibility. Suddenly finding herself married, she would be abruptly uprooted and placed on an isolated plantation, where she was supposed to automatically know how to handle her instant family and land. Many new brides were completely unprepared for this. The men blamed the education of females for this; they thought that less should be taught from books, and more from the kitchen and dairy.
- The Mistress’s days were completely filled, and their nights were often tearful. Married plantation life aged these young belles dramatically. They rarely if ever found the romance they were wooed with after marriage. Often, their only joy was in starting their own family. But even this brought added complications to their lives.
- Health was poor in the South, and death in childbirth as well as stillborn children made many women fear having children. And the rampant epidemics made sure that the majority of the wife’s life was spent nursing ill slaves and family members. The only escape was to be sick themselves.
- Wives on a plantation were basically held captive on the remote plantation. It, due to its size, was well removed from the society of the nearby town. Though the men were free to travel when and wherever they wanted, and often did, the women were allowed almost no society. They were excessively chaperoned, and never were allowed to travel off the land without the escort of an adult white male. The men were often gone for long stretches of time, and were always a part of the society where they were at. And they often justified to their wives their imprisonment by saying that their beauty made the loneliness worthwhile. Hah.