Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The fairer sex

While South Carolina prepares to celebrate Southern secession and antebellum mythology, I've been reading up on what life was like for women in the pre-Civil War South. I am not foolish enough to think that my black, female ancestors reaped any benefit from the idea of women as fragile, childlike creatures to be protected. (Ain't I A Woman) And I know that the idea of "the fairer sex" is it's own form of oppression. But here is something else to keep in mind: Scarlett O'Hara is a fiction. White women--even wealthy, white women--did not have easy lives.

From Southern Women: Black and White in the Old South:
Some wives who seemed pampered were actually plagued by illness and had to lead a quiet life or even remain in bed. As noted earlier, many women experienced difficult pregnancies or lengthy postpartum recoveries. Annual bouts with malaria caused debilitation. Some mothers suffered from prolapsed or fallen uterus (the falling of the uterus, sometimes through the vaginal opening) causing them intense pain, difficulty walking and incontinence. Surgery, still performed in a primitive fashion and without an understanding of the importance of cleanliness, could lead to infections and lifelong suffering.
In addition, drug habits led to a certain level of insensibility. Women addicted to laudanum were languorous and incapable of working. Calomel was the 19th century cure-all for most maladies. This mercury-based medicine, taken to cleanse the system and to cure various illnesses, led to bleeding gums and caused many antebellum women to suffer dental problems or to lose their teeth altogether while still young. Ann Raney Coleman, who took calomel for numerous fevers, described her reaction to the medicine. "I was so badly salivated that for several weeks I held my head in a position for the saliva to run out...Pieces of flesh half as long as my finger would fall out of my mouth." Many Chaplin was another unfortunate invalid, spending almost seven years in bed until she died at age twenty-nine. The only visible contribution that Mary made to the household and family was to continue to bear children, despite her condition, and she delivered three babies while bedridden.
No word on whether the belles at the Secession Ball will be extracting teeth for maximum historical accuracy. Perhaps there will be hog butchering?

Elite women handled grubby and exhausting tasks. One especially unpleasant but essential job that fell to women was over-seeing each winter's hog butchering, a chore that privileged females like North Carolinian Anne Cameron and Matilda Fulton, wife of Arkansas's territorial governor, experienced. Though slaves performed much of the actual labor, white women participated, emerging bloody and exhausted after several weeks' work in the middle of the winter. In addition, women also gardened, weeded, managed the dairy, knitted, sewed and mended endlessly, nursed sick children and slaves, and occasionally cooked. Plantation mistresses had to manage their domestic slaves, which proved a trying task for many. Though delicacy was touted as an ideal feminine characteristic, it had little to do with the reality of women's lives.
Photo Credit: The Glass Beehive

1 comment:

windy city girl said...

Once again, Tami, you've covered a mostly ignored subject in a concise and incisive way.

I just heard about this Seccession Ball a few days ago andit boggles my mind. I guess this is what happens when a nation consistently and willfully ignores its history.


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