Antebellum Non-Elite White Women
For many people, Margaret Mitchell’s novel Gone With the Wind provides a definitive look at the Old South, despite its many inaccuracies. These exaggerations and errors particularly disservice the poor white farmers who have been represented to posterity by the indolent Slattery family, who are described as “de shiflesses, mos’ ungrateful passel of no-counts livin.’” Contrary to this portrayal, poor farmers possessed an intense desire to attain self-sufficiency without depending upon wealthy neighbors the way the Slatterys do. Although Mitchell managed a fundamentally accurate portrayal of the physical circumstances impacting poor whites, her description of the attitudes contained within the walls of their ramshackle homes flounders. Poor farmers and their wives worked together in the fields to better their families while maintaining a sense of racial unity with the wealthier planters; unlike the Slatterys who relied upon the charity of their neighbors when the cotton failed and their food ran out.
In Gone With the Wind, Tom Slattery and his family “[subsisted] miserably on the proceeds of a bale of cotton a year and the charity of [their] neighbors,” earning them the contempt of the surrounding planters and even the “rich folks’ uppity niggers,” whose social and economic statuses exceeded that of their poor white neighbors. Many poor whites actually lived in circumstances similar to this literary portrayal: small, single room houses with sparse furnishings. As he traveled through Northern Alabama, Frederick Law Olmstead encountered, “rude log huts, of only one room, and that unwholesomely crowded. I saw in and about one of them, not more than fifteen feet square, five grown persons, and as many children,” in a condition that closely resembled that of the Slatterys and their many children in Northern Georgia. As she toured the South in 1835, Harriet Martineau rested in a “log dwelling, composed of two rooms, with an open passage between,” which fell far below her typical standards of lodging. An unnamed traveler through the Georgia mountains in 1849 described passing a night in a bitterly cold house, besieged by a “cold and chilling” wind that came “whistling through two holes, cut to let in the light, in which there was no sign of glass.” As he went to eat breakfast one morning, Olmstead also combatted a structure which left him exposed to the elements as “rain began to fall, presently in such a smart shower as to put the fire out and compel us to move the table under the least leaky part of the roof.” Each of these travelers found themselves in accommodations that “may be considered to represent very favourably…the condition of the poor whites of the plantation districts.” In many cases, the homes of the poor white farmers very closely resembled those of the slaves on wealthier plantations, requiring the farmers to take extraordinary means to differentiate themselves, as whites, from the slaves who performed much of the same labor and lived in similar houses.
These ramshackle dwellings match the literary portrayal of poor whites in Gone With the Wind; however, unlike in the novel, the inhabitants within them strove for independence through an ability to maintain their own household and retain control of their family’s labor through their own efforts, not the charity of others. In the fictional world, “the sight of Tom Slattery dawdling on his neighbors’ porches, begging cotton seed for planting or a side of bacon to ‘tide him over,’ was a familiar one,” illustrating the perceived dependence of poor whites upon their neighbors. This stereotype left planters, such a Gerald O’Hara, with a bitter taste in their mouths concerning the Slatterys. Gerald viewed the charity of himself and his neighbors as perhaps being too generous, saying “’If I didn’t do so much for those trashy Slatterys that they’d have to pay money for elsewhere, they’d be willing to sell me their miserable few acres of swamp bottom, and the County would be well rid of them.’” Unlike the Slattery’s, however, poor white families relied upon the labor of their wives and children both in the fields and in the home in order to maintain independence from their wealthy neighbors.
One of the major factors that separated the Slattery women from their wealthy neighbors was their labor in the fields. When confronted with having to pick cotton after all of the O’Hara field hands had left, Scarlett expressed horror at the prospect of working in the fields, “like a field hand? Like white trash? Like the Slattery women?” To a southern belle like Scarlett, the thought of manual labor in the cotton fields was absolutely abhorrent. However, poor white women’s labor in the fields alongside their husbands and children was an inevitable reality due to their inability to purchase slaves to perform the agricultural labor in their stead. As he passed through a valley “thickly populated by poor farmers,” Olmstead encountered “three white women hoeing field crops,” in a single day; a vast number in a time when manual labor for women was considered undesirable. However, not all women worked in the fields willingly. One farmer’s wife “got the headache right bad,” after she had “been cuttin’ brush in the cotton this arternoon.” Despite the knowledge that working in the fields would bring on a headache, she had to offer her labor in order to better her family. When poor white families gained self-sufficiency, it occurred largely due to the efforts of women, who produced, cooked, and sewed virtually everything that their families consumed. The labor of women and children, both in the fields and in the home, enabled poor white families to gain a degree of self-sufficiency despite a lack of cash money.
In Gone With the Wind, all of the characters know and discuss that the Slattery women work in the fields. In reality, despite the commonplace nature of women performing agricultural labor, many refused to acknowledge this labor in public. Although the labor of poor white women in the fields was known by all, their gender roles had to at least outwardly appear to match those of the elites in order to maintain racial unity across class lines. The clear divisions between the Slatterys and their wealthier neighbors opened up white society to criticism from the slaves, who frequently refer to the family as “po’ w’ite trash.” Even while performing much of the same work as slaves, the poor whites attempted to distance themselves from doing slave work as much as possible in order to maintain a sense of coherence across the various economic strata.
Margaret Mitchell’s classic novel of the Old South, Gone With the Wind, provides perhaps the only look at poor whites in the antebellum era that popular culture will ever gain. Although Mitchell’s portrayal of the living circumstances of this class of people provides a fairly accurate glimpse into their lives, she misses the true nature of a fiercely independent group of people. Poor farmers in this time period strove to become self-sufficient, often by relying upon the unacknowledged labor of their wives and daughters, both in the fields and in the home. This quest for independence kept many of these farmers from begging for the assistance of their wealthy neighbors in the manner of the Slatterys in Gone With the Wind. Mitchell’s portrayal of the trashy, slovenly, begging Slatterys does a disservice to the perception of the hardworking and proud, poor white farmers who strove better their lives through hard labor.