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Elite Southern Women Prior To The Civil War

1019 words - 4 pages

Prior to the Civil War, the South was a society based on strict racial and gender hierarchies. Seemingly, elite southern women did not advocate for social and political change because they were content not to disrupt the gender hierarchy of their society. Their subordinacy to elite southern men and their society's view of ladylike characteristics was central to how southern women defined themselves. In order to advocate for change, elite southern women would have had to become unladylike and willing to give up a lifestyle that made them comfortable. Ultimately, since these women were not comfortable changing or giving up their lifestyle, most did nothing to aid social and political change.
One of the main goals in the life of an elite southern woman was to be continually regarded as a lady. While some southern women privately disagreed with the popular social and political mindsets of their era, most of their opinions were not so strong that they felt the need to publicly advocate for change. This was mainly due to the fact that if a woman expressed her opinion publicly, she would be seen as unladylike, which would be a blow to her reputation, the cornerstone of how she defined herself. In the book Mothers of Invention, Drew Gilpin Faust gives the reader Lucy Wood as an example of an elite southern woman who had a negative opinion of the African slave trade. In a letter to her future husband, Lucy Wood expressed that she felt the African slave trade was “extremely revolting,” however, she was also quick to add “[but] I have no political opinion and have a peculiar dislike of all females who discuss such matters.” (10). This elite southern woman was apparently more concerned with her own ladylike reputation than standing up for a cause. Faust goes on to explain that in the southern gender hierarchy, ladylike delicacy and “propriety enjoined ladies from speaking in public, from signing their names in print, and even from permitting their names to be mentioned in the public press,” because the appropriate place for a lady was “the sphere of home and family” (27, 10). Thus, because elite southern women were content to be subordinate to men and feared the loss of their ladylike reputation, which defined their lives, they lacked the initiative and skills to effectively advocate for change. Furthermore, because “the southern population was far more scattered and far less urbanized than that of the North” likeminded women had “fewer opportunities to come together” ( Faust 23). Because southern society dictated that a white woman's place was within her family and household, elite southern women would have been seen as unladylike if they had traveled long distances to form any organization outside the home, much less a group that advocated for social and political change. Ultimately, since most elite southern women were not willing to be judged as unladylike by their society, they mostly kept their opinions to themselves or within their own household.
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