O glistening, perfumed South! My South!"
--Walt Whitman, Longings for Home
From Scarlett and Rhett to Zelda and Scott, Fitzgerald and Mitchell would agree, it's a universal truth that Southern women are just out-and-out different from everybody else. By the time Tennessee Williams’s tale about two Southern belles in a small apartment with a rough crowd of blue-collar men hit the theaters in 1946 it was clear that Southerners were still holding on to their heritage and charm with a tenacity that many would describe about all of these women, as the heart of all things Southern.
The term Southern first arose in Scottish and northern England around 1470 as a variation of the word southern similar to the Old English Briton suðerne and the Saxons suðrænn. By 1810 “southern” had been popularized by Jane Porter's Scottish Chiefs and eventually implemented in America by many in the Southern states. The etymology of belle is French, from the feminine form of beau meaning beautiful. It was derived from the Latin word bellus meaning pretty. Belle of the ball is still a frequently used idiom and La belle France is a common French phrase applied to France just as “Merry England” is to England.
During the war between the states, southern women exhibited true grit and the Southern Belle became a cultural classic. These women are why characters from the above novels and play remain classic examples. They portray common threads entwined throughout the South and belles take a great deal of pride in their femininity and girlishness and use it as a resource but they will not be held down or held back in any way. They still want their voices heard when it matters: not sharp, but strong. All Southern ladies are educated to recognize from the time they're very young that by forgiving and refusing to carry the heavy weight around of accumulated grievances leaves room to stay soft and loving.
A southern lady just loves to celebrate. Whether for big celebrations like weddings, medium celebrations like baby showers, or small celebrations like tea with a friend or two. The rule to live by is the art of behaving gracefully in difficult situations. They believe it's an especially good idea to make life just as pleasant as can be. It's something that's indigenous to the South to be warm-hearted and tough-minded. The purpose is to charm to disarm with the effervescence of southern hospitality from cool lemonade served under the magnolia tree to a suppertime of sugar-cured ham and red-eyed gravy. But a girl can stand just so much virtue and flirting comes as natural to southern divas as the dew that falls across Dixie on a summer morning. It is utilized judiciously to seduce both men and life. It's the high art of blending femininity with savvy independence. A tough, self-assured woman who succeeds with progress and innovation is commonplace. What is rare is a tough, self-assured woman who blends sturdiness with a charitable grace and charm. Even more so is one with these traits who also clings to tradition, genuinely treasures family and esteems history and heirlooms. “Unusual that is, “ says Rhonda Rich, “unless you’re in the South where these women are everywhere.” She explains in Hail to the Belles Strong As Oaks, Sweet As Honeysuckle :
All of my life, I have been surrounded by women whose carefully maintained exteriors beautifully camouflaged a fiery determination and indefatigable spirit. But they are much more than that --- these women are the magnolia-scented breath which sustains the life of the South. They are the backbone of a region once laid to waste by war, death, famine and destruction; a region that resurrected itself through sheer willpower and an adamant refusal to accept defeat.
Much can be learned from these women because they know the misery of relentless adversity, the importance of progress that pays homage to proud tradition as well as the fine art of feminine toughness enchantingly embroidered with irresistible charm. The strong traditional Southern woman does not whine or complain. She conforms when necessary, but mostly she simply overcomes life’s trials and tribulations.
From the bayous of Louisiana to the cotton fields of Mississippi to the mountains of North Georgia to the Carolina coast, these women have reigned supreme since April 12, 1861 when a single shot from Fort Sumter, South Carolina changed their lives and charted a new course for all generations to come. The legacy, which began on that fateful day, has grown more bold, proud and intense as the years have passed.
Southerners are held together by culture rather than geography &mdash from cuisine and religion to music and manners the Southern State of Mind has survived the onslaught of reconstruction. The South has been called the Confederate States; the Land of Cotton and the Bible Belt, but no matter what it’s called, the land south of the Mason Dixon line is the most misunderstood area of the nation. Where else could icons like Robert E. Lee, Martin Luther King Jr., and Moon Pie be found in one place.
Look away Dixieland
"There was a land of cavaliers and cotton fields called the `Old South.' Here, in this pretty world, gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of knights and their ladies fair, of master and slave. Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a civilization gone with the wind."
-- --- Opening prologue of Gone With The Wind
Out of more than four centuries of Southern history it was the American Civil War that has left a lasting impression on all daughters of the South. Mitchell’s main characters embody the conflicting impulses of the South. The frail, good-hearted wife of Ashley Wilkes, Melanie provokes Scarlett’s envious loathing throughout most of the story. In spite of the animosity a strong bond forms between them as they suffer through the war. In the end, Scarlett understands that Melanie’s unfaltering love and support has been a foundation of strength for her. Like Ashley, Melanie embodies the values of the Old South, but unlike Ashley’s fruitless winsomeness, Melanie faces the world with a calm inner strength. And it is her death in classic novel that symbolized the demise of the foundling nation built upon on the back of slavery.
While Gone With The Wind focused mainly on Atlanta it echoed what was happening across the entire South. Altered by war; changed forever by defeat, and social upheaval stark determination materialized as a way for the South to rise again, Mitchell perceptively penned her novel as an American War & Peace. It’s difficult to see past the romance set against such an epic plot. One has to read between the lines to see the portrait of Southerners attempting to recover a discarded culture. It’s not concerned with lace and crinoline; it’s more about how losers of the counter-revolution discovered how to carry on in a place where all of their politics, personal and civil lives, have been razed. Scarlett survives, even as everything around her dies, but in the end, she too has no one.
Women from elite plantations were brought up to believe themselves not so much as women but as ladies. However this form of dependent femininity was impractical during the mayhem of the Civil War and most found themselves taking on unfamiliar responsibilities as workers, guardians, and providers. Many men wanted their wives to go with them off to war. In the summer of 1862 one woman wrote that her husband was "ordering me to Mississippi" lamenting that she was afraid that her baby might forget her while she was gone.
President Jefferson Davis received numerous personal letters from ladies appealing for their husbands and sons be sent home because they were needed by their families. Others wrote to their husbands plainly telling them they had “given enough effort to the war, and it was time to come home. “ Southern women were frequently forced to move in with relatives and required, with very little experience, to manage their slave labor and operate plantations or farms. Some women seemed to enjoy the challenge, but for others the burden was too much. Many were left to deal with the day-to-day realities of food shortages and an invading army occupying their homes.
At an early age my Great Great Grandfather Alvin Bishop came with his family from North Carolina to southern Tennessee and settled near Porter’s Creek which empties into the Hatchie River. Before the war, Alvin farmed with oxen and seven slaves. Family historian Ruth Gadbury writes, "The beginning of the war found the people of southern Tennessee divided in their allegiances. Some Northern sympathizers who lived across the Hatchie River from the Bishops were carrying out guerilla tactics. One day Alvin recognized a man from the other side of the river on one of his father’s horses. The men with Alvin wanted to hang the horse thief, but Alvin talked them out of it saying that if they did the other guerillas would burn them out." So they agreed to take the horse away from the man, stripped him naked and sent him back across the river. Alvin would go onto to be a private in the Confederate Army, Co A, 13th Tennessee. He was taken as a prisoner at Chattanooga, Tennessee on March 22, 1865 and released shortly before Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox.
After the war Alvin and his wife Mary Jane went on to have eight children. Their oldest daughter was named Kitty Bell Bishop, perhaps a tribute to the Tennessee belles. It was a harsh life and by the time Kitty was 13 her mother was dead. She grew up married and moved to Democrat, Texas. When she was 20 she gave birth to my grandmother Nollie Bell Hill. By the time Nollie was three, Kitty passed away and is buried in parts unknown. Even though the Alvin and Mary Jane's land in Tennessee has been sold many times over it’s still referred to “the Bishop Place” by the townspeople today.
It’s remarkable to note that Ruth Gadbury refers to the Union soldiers as “guerillas,” perhaps it is due to the draft exemptions during the war that are interesting when put into the perspective of class. As a ‘rich man's war and a poor man's fight,’ the 12% of men who owned more than twenty slaves were waived from the draft because of the fear of murder and uprisings from a slave population that was growing increasingly rebellious. The precedence given to treating draft-age white men as exempt due to the burden of managing slaves led to a decline in much of the women's support for the slave system and for the Confederacy.
When Sherman marched down to the sea.
The obstruction of supplies going to the South was another crisis to deal with because many items of necessity were produced in the North. The trend for full skirts supported by hoops coincided with the Victorian ideals of domesticity in the South just before the War of Northern Aggression. The blockades are one of the explanations for hoop skirts falling out of fashion. It required large amounts of material to cover a hoop, but because cloth was so scarce and there was little to spare for elaborate clothing. Even the hoops were no longer available after they wore out. Working hard and making do became the way to survive and these women became the mothers of invention. Some even dressed as men and enlisted.
The impact of secession, invasion and conquest on Southern white women and their antebellum image supported by helplessness and dependence was confronted as they took on a growing collection of social and economic tasks. Their accomplishments were sundry and assorted requiring high levels of improvisation.
The breakdown of Southern men to keep up their patriarchal importance on the front line also ruined the prewar gender bond of reliance in return for safety. It was the greatest war in American history, three million men fought and 600,000 of them died. Getting married was an added hardship due to a shortage of eligible males.
The silent half of the Confederacy's ruling class and its culture persists in the lives of Southern women even today. While Alvin Bishop and his sons were away in the service of the Confederacy, his father, Asa Alvin passed away. Gadbury writes that it was his daughters-in-law Mary Jane and Louisa Bishop; “with the help of some faithful slaves and neighbor women who dug the grave and buried him not far from the Bishop house.” Abandoned after the war his grave remains among the pines on the sloping banks near Porter’s Creek.
Other historians pouring over diaries and letters of the period have discovered that the daily running of the home was left to the women, even down to managing the slaves. They were responsible for more than attending to the selling of produce and the economics of farming especially, than is generally held. Even though women weren't caught up in politics they were the backbone of southern life, which was the home and her province. Women proved their capability before and during the war by managing the home front.
One of the worst atrocities of the war was when hundreds of southern women were captured late in the war by the North. On July 5, 1864 a cavalry reached Roswell, Georgia. Finding it undefended, they occupied the city and burned the local mills to the ground. In a report dispatched to General William T. Sherman on July 6, 1864 a Union officer noted..."there were fine factories here, I had the building burnt, all were burnt. The cotton factory was working up to the time of its destruction, some 400 women being employed." What General Sherman did next would stun the good people of the North and create a mystery that has endured to this day. The following day Sherman reported to his superiors in Washington..." I have ordered General Garrard to arrest for treason all owners and employees, foreign and native (of the Roswell Mills), and send them under guard to Marietta, whence I will send them North." The news made it all the way to the northern press...." only think of it! Four hundred weeping and terrified Ellens, Susans and Maggies transported in springless and seatless army wagons, away from their loves and brothers of the sunny South, and all for the offense of weaving tent-cloth.” Author of Atlanta and the War, Webb Garrison writes of the women’s' arrival in Marietta..." for the military record, that closed the case in which women and children were illegally deported after having been charged with treason." And..."had the Roswell incident not been followed immediately by major military developments, it might have made a lasting impact upon opinion. In this century, few analysts have given it the emphasis it deserves." The fate of the four hundred women sent north during the Civil War while the Union Army occupied Roswell remains a mystery.
In the land of cotton, old times there are not forgotten
For the slave women, unchained by the war, the victory was hollow. Life developed into a cruel challenge they would fight for well over a century. It was a struggle to discover their place in a society to which they had once been captive. It is these women who left behind a hard earned legacy derived from strength, dignity and indestructible spirit and from their loins sprang the grandchildren who would stand up as civil rights activists. While prejudice has long held the whole world in its hideous clutch, it was from the heart of the South that the civil rights movement raised its indignant head. Southern mothers who taught their sons to be proud and to fight for a gentler, more loving nation powered it, quite simply by believing that adversity of any kind could be overcome through hard work and dedication. Historical and current southern women whose exploits or imagination have vaulted them into notoriety are writers Carson McCullers and Anne Rice; emancipator Harriet Tubman, ex-Black Panther Angela Davis; '30s outlaw Bonnie Parker; and mascara maven Tammy Faye Bakker. Some relative newcomers who have recently emerged into the limelight are Dorothy Allison, author of Bastard out of Carolina; Anna Edson Taylor, the first barrel-rider over Niagara Falls; and women's basketball star Luisa Harris-Stewart.
Women of the South after 1865 confronted both their doubt about what they could accomplish by themselves and their desire to avoid reliance on men. The women's rights movement grew from necessity and disappointment-a sharp contrast to the ebullient optimism of its Northern counterpart. Whether Southern women are descended from plantation owners or tenant farmers, slaves or mercantile owners, they are all daughters of the South; Dixie Diva Rhonda Rich says that they are, “the embodiment of moxie, determination and tender femininity. Molded by history, wedded to tradition, committed to the future, we tackle life with a customized and paradoxical blend of toughness and kindness." Universal threads of charisma, vigor and endurance have been entwined through its cultural tapestry, sewing together women from diverse races and economic levels of Southern womanhood. From the women of Tennessee and Georgia to the freed slaves whose great-granddaughters became civil rights activists it is these millions women who effectively bridged the gap between home, family and career, Southern women staunchly believe that it is possible to be both a tough warrior and a sensuous, delicate lover. The Southern belle lives on, in a world of proprieties and protocols and today’s true daughters of the South have not forgotten what's important. They remind others that although there is more freedom, there is no need to sacrifice the simple aspects of being a lady. It was defeat, starvation and ruin mingled with the prominent prewar years of elegance and hospitality that prepared today's unique breed of Southern women. They know that life is meant to be savored, not swift.
The Dictionary of Phrase and Fable
Gadbury, Ruth. Godwin-Hill and Related Families, Nortex Press,1980.
Faust, Drew Gilpin, Mothers of Invention : Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War,1997.
Hail To The Belles:
What Southern Women Know: