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The women of the South.

by Joel Chandler Harris.
Southern women have been heretofore referred only to the standards of fiction.

There are three pieces of fiction that have had a long and popular run in what may be described in a large way as the North American mind. One is that the stage representation of negro character are true to life; another is that the poor white trash of the South are utterly worthless and thriftless; and the other is that the white women of the South lived in a state of idleness during the days of slavery, swinging and languishing in hammocks, while bevies of pickaninnies cooled the tropical air with long-handled fans made of peacock tails.

Preposterous as they are, age has made these fictions respectable, especially in the North. They strut about in good company, and sometimes a sober historian goes so far as to employ them for the purpose of bolstering up his sectional theories, or, what is still worse, his prejudices.

I do not know that these fictions are important, or that they are even interesting. If there was an explosion every time truth was outrun by his notorious competitor, the man who sleeps late of a morning would wake with a snort and imagine that the universe was the victim of a fierce and prolonged bombardment.


[278]

Wives of planters.

The busiest women the world has ever seen were the wives and daughters of the Southern planters during the days of slavery. They were busy from morning until night, and sometimes far into the night.

They were practically at the head of the commissary and sanitary departments of the plantation. It was a part of their duty to see that the negroes were properly fed, clothed, and shod. They did not, it is true, go into the market and purchase the supplies; that was a matter that could be attended to even by a dull-witted man; but after the supplies were bought it was the woman's intelligent management that caused them to be properly distributed.

I have never yet heard of a Southern woman who surrendered the keys of her smoke-house and store-room to an overseer. The distribution of the supplies, however, was a comparatively small item.

Take, for example, the clothing provided for, say one hundred negroes, male and female, large and small. The cloth was bought in bolts, though occasionally a considerable portion was woven on the plantation on the old-fashioned hand-looms. Whether bought or woven the cloth had to be cut out and made into garments. Who was to superintend and see to all this if not the woman? Who was at the head of the domestic establishment? There were seamstresses to make up the clothes, but all the details and preparations had to be looked after by the mistress, and it oftentimes fell to her lot to go down on her knees on the floor and cut out garments for hours at a time.


Sanitary Experts.

And then there was the health of the negroes—a very important item where a twenty-year-old field hand was worth $1,500 in gold. Who was to look after the sick when, as frequently happened, the physician was miles away? Who indeed, it not the mistress? It was natural, therefore—and not only natural, but absolutely necessary—that a part of the storeroom should be an apothecary's shop on a small scale, and that the Southern woman should know what to prescribe in all the simpler forms of disease.

It is to be borne in mind that when the negroes came in from their work the plantation became a domestic establishment, and its demands were such that it was necessary for a woman to be at the head of it. On the energy, the industry and the apt management of the mistress the success of the plantation depended to a great extent. It was not [279] often these qualities were lacking, either, for they were absolutely essential to the success, the comfort and the moral discipline of the establishment.


Queens of the kitchen.

Then there was the kitchen. No Southern woman could afford to turn that important department over to a negro cook. Such a thing was not to be thought of. The mistress of the plantation was also the mistress of the kitchen.

In order to teach their negroes the art of cooking the Southern women had to know how to cook themselves, and they were compelled to gain their knowledge from practical experience, for the kitchen is one of the places where theories cannot be entertained. There are negro women still living who got their training in the plantation kitchen, under the eyes of their mistresses, and their cooking is a spur to the appetite and a remedy for indigestion. It is no wonder that a Georgia woman, when she heard the negroes were really free, gave a sigh of relief and exclaimed:

‘Thank heaven! I shall have to work for them no more!’

These Southern women were the outgrowth of the plantation system, the result of six or seven generations of development. On that system they placed the impress of their humanity and refinement; and the outcome of it is to be seen in the condition of the negro race to-day. In the sphere of their homes and in their social relations they exercised a power and influence that has no parallel in history. As they were themselves, so they trained their daughters to be, and the Southern women of to-day still possess the characteristics that made their mothers and their grandmothers beautiful and gracious still possess the refinement that built up a rare civilization amid unpromising surroundings; still possess the energy and patience and gentleness that wrought order and discipline on the plantations.


In this generation.

As the vine was, so must the fruit be. I have tried to describe the mistress of the plantation for the reason that her characteristics and tendencies have been transmitted to the Southern women of this generation and to the young girls who are growing into womanhood. It is inevitable, however, that certain of these characteristics should be modified or amplified according as the circumstances of an environment altogether new may demand. [280]

I know of no more beautiful or romantic civilization than that which blossomed under the plantation system, and yet, in the natural order of things, it would have inevitably have run to caste distinctions. It had social ideals that were impracticable, and it had literary ideals that were foolish; nevertheless, after everything had been said, caste distinctions under the plantation system would have been less distasteful than those which are now in process of organization in some parts of this country.

Whatever the development of Southern civilization might have been under the old system it has come under the domination of the new. That the new has been strengthened and sweetened thereby I think will not be denied by impartial observers who have no pet theories to nurse.


An inheritance of graciousness.

Take, for example, the home life of the plantation. It was larger, ampler and more perfect than that which exists in the Republic to-day, not because it was more leisurely and freer from care, but because the aims and purposes of the various members of the family were more concentrated. The hospitality that was a feature of it was more unrestrained and simpler, because it bore no relation whatever to the demands and suggestions of what is now known in Sunday newspapers as ‘Society.’

The home life of the old plantation has had a marked influence on the Southern women of to-day in their struggles with adverse circumstances. They lack, for one thing, the assurance of those who have inherited the knack of making their way among strangers. The poetic young Bostonian who has been writing recently of ‘The Mannerless Sex’ and ‘The Ruthless Sex’ could never have made the Southern woman a text for his articles, and I trust that for generations yet to come they will retain the gentleness and the graciousness that belong to them by right of inheritance.


A Benificient influence.

Comparatively speaking, it has only been a few years that the Southern woman has been compelled by circumstances to seek a wider and more profitable field for her talent, her energy and her industry than the home and the fireside afford, and the experience of these few years has demonstrated the fact that she is amply able to take care of herself. [281]

In shaping and developing what is called the new literary movement in the South, she has shown herself to be a far more versatile worker than the men—more artistic and more conscientious.

She has made herself felt in art, in science and in the schools; she has taken a place in the ranks of the journalists; she has a place on the stage and the platform; she is to be found in many of the trades that are next door to the arts, in the professions and in business; she is stenographying, typewriting, clerking, dairying, gardening; she is to be found, in short, wherever there is room for her, and her field is always widening.

I think she will exercise a mellowing and restraining influence on the ripping and snorting age just ahead of us—the rattling and groaning age of electricity. What part she may play in the woman's rights movement of the future it is difficult to say. Just now she has no aptitude in that direction. She has been taught to believe that the influences that are the result of a happy home-life are more powerful and more important elements of politics than the casting of a ballot; and in this belief she seems to be at one with an overwhelming majority of American women—the mothers and daughters who are the hope and pride of the Republic.

Yet she is an earnest and untiring temperance worker. Conservative in all other directions, she is inclined to be somewhat radical in her crusade against rum. She is inclined to fret and grieve a little over the fact that public opinion failed to keep pace with her desires. The wheels of legislation do not move fast enough for her, and she is inclined to wonder at it. In the innocence of her heart she has never suspected that there is a demijohn in the legislative committee-room.

There is no question and no movement of real importance in which she is not interested. Her devotion and self-sacrifice in the past have consecrated her to the future, and her sufferings and privations have taught her the blessings of charity in its largest and last interpretation.

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