Belle, Book and Lack of Power

In the midst of the identity crisis that occurred after the American Revolution, the South also created their own identity. Southerners identified as Virginians, North Carolinians, and Georgians before they identified as Americans.  Society worked to define the identities and roles of everyone living in the South, from black slave women and children to the chivalrous gentlemen of the plantations. Among those identifications arose the ideology of the “Southern belle.” The hierarchical ideals merged “the lady of separate spheres ideology…with notions drawn from chivalry and a glorification of myths of Anglo-Saxon culture.” (Farnham, 2). The feminine sphere remained, with yet more emphasis on the virtuous woman. Elite Southern women encountered expectations to display genteel, educated, and the ultimate ladylike manners. The “cult of true womanhood” grew to prominence and contributed to the focus on the “bipolar split between public and private, between the world and the household” (Farham, 16). Society placed an almost caricature-like ideal upon women in they had to act as shining examples of perfection and virtue without being strong minded.

The strong emphasis on image and reputation incited the rise of Southern female education. Only a handful of women from elite families obtained a college education, which caused college education to become “emblematic of class, [and] a means of refinement” to Southern society (Farnham, 3). Males did not view education as a threat to gender roles, as Southern women only had the option of marriage in their future.

The lack of threat education posed on Southern society opened up opportunities for more seminaries and institutions to arise in the South. Northern schools, such as Emma Willard’s Troy Seminary, used rhetoric that education prepared women to either become proper mothers of future citizens or proper teachers of future citizens. Southern schools, however, did not prepare women for any occupation other than motherhood. The knowledge that education served as a tool for refinement and to lure male suitors caused males to disregard the idea that women would want more than motherhood. Thus curricula resulted in becoming more advanced and equivalent to male education. Christie Anne Farnharm cited nearly “thirty-two of the thirty-nine chartered female colleges were in the South” (18).

The increase in female schools furthered the expectations of the Southern lady. She was to be chaste, virtuous, refined, and as knowledgeable as any man in any subject. Yet in all of her achievements and capacities, society “villified the strong-minded woman” (Farnham, 3). The strengthening of women’s place as the mistress of the home and as the perfect Southern belles contributed to the Southern frame of mind. The South boasted the most refined, well-educated ladies who served as shining examples of the perfect society. The ideals placed upon Southern women to uphold the perfect Southern society reinforced the belief that Southern society should be mimicked by the rest of that nation. The belief that the South perpetuated the perfect democratic nation would cause the strong grip on tradition that which the Southern states would not relinquish.


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