Antebellum Elite White Women
The stereotype of a genteel southern plantation mistress is still a pervasive theme in the modern memory of the Old South. A Scarlett O’Hara-esque figure comes to mind. The plantation mistress is the consummate hostess, has exemplary manners, and exudes a general air of domesticity and agreeability, specifically to her husband’s wishes. This concept has been debunked many times over, largely due to descriptions of the behavior of said mistresses in slave narratives. Many were incredibly cruel and violent when involved in the South’s “peculiar institution.” An instance of white women lashing out at slaves was even included in Gone With the Wind, as seen in the above image of Scarlett slapping Prissy, a slave woman. Through their limited writings, slaves present a picture of southern white womanhood that is much more complex than simply the gracious mistress depicted in popular culture. This representation includes the violent tendencies that often emerged when away from the scrutiny of the public eye.
J.H. Banks, a slave from Alabama, recounted that his mistress was especially cruel to her slaves and frequently beat even the children. She gave him more work than he could finish in a day, and when he did not complete it all, she punished him. His conditions working in the house became so extreme that he “resolved that [he] would rather be in the field than be under such tyranny” and away from the mistress “constantly dogging” him. This preference was not common, as field work was typically back-breaking manual labor that was occasionally used as punishment for house servants that were “too high-spirited.” Banks also made note of how his master and mistress were sure that their house slaves were very well dressed whenever they had company or hosted a party, but that “those very slaves may have the most hateful tempered mistresses, who have it in their power to make their lives more miserable than the lives of field hands”. Banks’ mistress made sure that her slaves appeared well taken care of in front of her peers, because to treat them poorly in front of guests would have been antithetical to the ideal of the gracious, kindly gentlewoman she wanted to portray.
Another slave’s narrative, James Lindsay Smith’s, described an extremely intolerant mistress who lashed out mainly at the slaves she perceived as lazy. Once when Smith continued to fall asleep while he was supposed to be helping another slave woman spin, he told his mistress, Mrs. Mitchell, that he had a stomachache and could not finish his work. She gave Smith a glass of whiskey meant to be a remedy, but which only served to get him “so drunk [he] could not see what [he] was doing.” When he kept falling asleep, she “gave him a cut with the rawhide.” A fellow slave on the Mitchell plantation, Jinny, the cook, greatly disliked Mrs. Mitchell as well, remarking that she “[did]not believe dat dat devil will ever die, but live to torment us.” All of Smith’s recollections of Mrs. Mitchell focus on her cruelty towards him and the other slaves. It is likely Mrs. Mitchell saw her punishment of “lazy” slaves as her contribution to her husband’s plantation. Wives had their place in the hierarchy of plantation life just like slaves did, and, while their position was obviously more favorable, they were still inferior to their husbands and sometimes victims of violence themselves. Victims of abuse frequently have low self-esteem and self-hatred, setting the stage for these outbursts of rage in neglected plantation mistresses. The ideology of domesticity that wives were expected to fit into came about with the rise of slaves. As wealthy men bought slaves to keep their houses and plantations running, their wives had fewer tasks to complete that were vital to the survival of the family, which in turn made their role in the household not as crucial. Asserting one’s self over slaves was a way of declaring power over another group of people and could serve as a way to feel more significant to plantation life.
The concept of “breaking in” slave children also created a platform for violence. This theory included getting children acquainted with the life of a slave and priming them for a lifetime of manual labor in hopes of selling them for a profit at market later. John Brown, a slave from Georgia, wrote of a mistress that fed the children on her husband’s plantation “garlic and rue to keep [them] ‘wholesome,’ as she said, and make them ‘grow likely for market.’” She would then make them run laps around a tree in the yard, and if they ran too slow she would “[lay] about [them] with a cow-hide.” While this was obviously seen as violent to the recipients of the lashes, to the mistress it was simply a smart business move to improve on an investment.
Unfaithful husbands were commonly the reason behind violence perpetrated by plantation mistresses. When a master took up with a female slave, usually through sexual assault or rape, their wives would often take out their anger on the object of his attention instead of her husband. This was a severely misguided approach, but typically the only course of action available to white women. Lashing out at someone who had virtually no power over their situation probably gave these women a sense of control. Mistresses also aimed their vitriol towards the products of their husband’s actions, the children of slaveholders and enslaved women. There were instances of jealous violence from white women triggering rebellions from slaves who were weary of maltreatment. When slaves in Second Creek, Mississippi were caught plotting to kill their owners, they cited specifically the torturous behavior of the mistress toward their children. These uprisings showed that despite being lower on the totem pole of the southern plantation, ultimately, the actions of mistresses could have severe repercussions for the plantation as a whole.
However, not all mistresses viewed cruelty to slaves as acceptable. Some were very kind to their slaves and would even intervene with their husbands on the slaves’ behalf if treatment was too harsh. This intervention depended both on the woman’s relationship with the slave or slaves in question, as in how hard of a worker or how obedient they were, and with their husband, such as if he was understanding or quick to anger. One mistress, Miss Sally, tried to stop her husband from killing one of his slaves by standing in between his gun and the slave. Her husband “slapped Mis’ Sally down, den picked up de gun an’ shot er hole in Leonard’s ches’ big as yo’ fis’. Den he took up Mis’ Sally an’ toted her in de house.” Miss Sally’s actions show that not all plantation mistresses were completely unsympathetic toward their slaves, nor were they all content to blindly follow their husband’s lead.
Slave narratives, while not without inaccuracies, give a more complete view of the actual southern lady. These women could be extremely kind at great personal risk, incredibly indifferent, and exceptionally violent at times toward their slaves depending on outside forces, such as their relationship with their husband and their rank in the hierarchy of the plantation. Generally speaking, the average plantation mistress was much more complicated than the exaggerated stereotype that pop culture has perpetuated throughout the years.