We all have an image of her, the Southern woman of books and film, a frail, pale, wilting lily, elegantly gowned, sheltered from the sun by a wide-brimmed hat, and from any unpleasantness in life, always surrounded by an array of slaves who bowed to her every whim.
In this responsible book centering on the life of the planter's wife in the antebellum South (1780-1835), the author explodes a number of myths. Catherine Clinton, who teaches Southern history and women's studies at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., peeks beyond the romanticized facade through such intimate sources as diaries, letters, and memoirs of scores of women who lived in the Old South.
One begins to realize that the mistress of the plantation had responsibilities far in excess of simply taking care of her husband's desires and immediate family needs. Other duties included preserving food and taking charge of the storeroom, doling out daily supplies for the main house as well as to each slave family on the property; and providing winter and summer clothing for everyone, white and black, sometimes even down to supervising the weaving and knitting. In addition, she was the maker of soap, curer of hams (a process which, incidentally, occupied the whole month of December), preserver of morals and religion, nurse of the sick, and teacher of her own children and the slaves. And all of this was done in the isolation of the plantation, which the mistress rarely left, due to strict rules requiring the chaperoning of white women.
So the reader begins to see that it was hardly a life of hoop skirts, lace-covered hats, and elegant lawn parties. As a matter of fact, once a young woman married, she rarely attended balls and social functions away from the plantation, even though married men often did.
Author Clinton shows that the white mistress was actually more in bondage than the slaves - because she literally had no other woman or a community with whom to share her experience. The Negroes, in contrast, shared a common background going back to roots in Africa, their daily work, and a local subculture with fellow slaves.
Isolation was one of the greatest hardships of plantation life, along with continual childbearing, considered the most important role of a post-Revolutionary wife. Numerous offspring were needed, as well as numerous slaves, to sustain the planter economy. In fact, the plantation mistress was caught between her responsibilities to white society and the slaves.
Despite laws prohibiting a woman from owning slaves and the lack of adequate education, responsibility for running the entire plantation often fell on her shoulders in the absence of her husband. Most often, she also served as mediator in troubles between the master and slaves, many times softening the punishment.
Clinton doesn't avoid controversial subjects exploited in recent fiction about the antebellum era. Chapter headings range from topics like the closeness of kin, loneliness, marital relationships, and the moral issues of slavery to the sexual dynamics of slavery, in which the plantation master was lord over all. She does succeed in exposing the romanticized character of the unfaithful white mistress by showing that promiscuity was simply not part of the accepted code of the Southern woman.
Ample quotations from the women themselves give first-person voices to the text. Clinton's doctoral research, which took her to seven Southern states, clearly provides a comparison between the life of a Southern planter's wife and of her Northern counterpart of the same era, who had more freedom to move about and to get together with other women. Statistics drawn from her systematic study are found in the several appendixes.
One can be grateful that the recent emphasis on the study of women's history has encouraged this much-needed work.