Mistresses and Slaves: Plantation Women in South Carolina, 1830-1880.
When Frederick Douglass was a youth of seven or eight, he was sent by his master to Baltimore. When he first met his new mistress, Sophia Auld, she appeared to be a "woman of the kindest heart and finest feelings" - the personification of what contemporaries called feminine virtue and what historians call domesticity. According to Douglass, "her face was made of heavenly smiles, and her voice of tranquil music." During the next few months, however, Douglass watched Sophia Auld change. "The fatal poison of irresponsible power soon commenced its infernal work," Douglass observed. And when it did, Sophia Auld became the antithesis of her former self.' "that voice, made all of sweet accord, changed to one or harsh and horrid discord; and that angelic face gave place to that of a demon." As Douglass saw it, Sophia Auld's transformation was symptomatic of slavery's corrosive powers: no one, not even the virtuous Sophia, was immune from slavery's corrupting influence.(1)
Marli E Weiner, a historian at the University of Maine, disagrees. In Mistresses and Slaves: Plantation Women in South Carolina, 1830-1880, Weiner suggests that many plantation mistresses treated their slaves well, especially their female slaves. Indeed, through benevolence and compassion, they "humanized an inhuman institution" (87). According to Weiner, the impetus for such behavior came from the ideology of domesticity. Although historians generally locate the source of domesticity in the urban North, Weiner contends that wealthy Southern women prescribed to the ethic and were eager to live up to its standards. In doing so, they both strengthened and weakened the slave regime. On the one hand, domesticity's emphasis upon hierarchy and female subservience strengthened Southern patriarchy. On the other hand, domesticity encouraged white women to "emphasize what they shared with black women" - namely biology, home, family, domestic labor, and nurturing (87). This, in turn, encouraged many plantation mistresses to "identify emotionally" with their female house servants (87). As these white women did so, they became more willing to intervene on their female slaves' behalf. A few even questioned the morality of slavery because they believed it degraded women of both races. For their part, slave women came to appreciate the special care and attention that their mistresses proffered them. After emancipation, these former slaves remembered their former mistresses in familial and affectionate terms.
The Civil War and Reconstruction radically altered the mistress-servant relations. During the war, mistresses had neither the time nor the financial resources to indulge their servants. Moreover, with the advent of freedom, mistresses became increasingly doubtful of their servants' loyalty. In fact, Weiner finds that many servants dutifully served their former mistresses during the early years of their freedom. But their priorities were now different. After the war, black women tried to make do without the benevolence of their former mistresses. Moreover, many refused to play the role of the deferential servant. White women took exception to these changes and became far more critical of their female servants. As they did, they helped foster the overt racism of the Jim Crow era.
Weiner's last chapters are her best. She carefully reconstructs postwar mistress-servant relations to demonstrate how female agency helped create the volatile mix of postwar race relations. In addition, she shows how the ideology of domesticity evolved over time to complement the new era of race relations. By the end of the century, the ethic of domesticity encouraged white women to make white men, not black females, the object of their benevolence and emotional support. Thus domesticity no longer encouraged white and black women to understand, much less identify with, one another. Indeed, Weiner posits that once racial lines hardened, "gender as category of social analysis became an anachronism" (232).
Weiner's analysis of antebellum gender relations is much less persuasive. Although Weiner carefully delineates the range of relationships between white and black women, her central argument that relations between mistresses and female servants were generally harmonious and compassionate does not always convince. To make her case, Weiner tends to rely upon the nostalgic reminiscences of black and white women. In doing so, she does not take into account that blacks and whites often romanticized the past because both found race relations in the Jim Crow South intolerable. Moreover, Weiner often seems intent on presenting the best possible portrait of white women's behavior. In doing so, she does not always examine the unseemly side of their motives. Plantation women understood that paternalism was an exchange relationship. In return for their favors, these women expected even greater subservience and loyalty from their servants. Finally, Weiner does not always explore the complex responses that black women had toward white women's benevolent overtures. For example, Weiner suggests that one way in which white women demonstrated their emotional identification with black women was by doting on their children. One wonders if black women welcomed this attention or if they interpreted such behavior as an affront to their child-rearing skills and a threat to the autonomy of their families.(2)
Weiner might have better demonstrated the close bond that black and white women created with one another by comparing these women's relationships with some of the other relationships that developed on the plantation - masters and black women or mistresses and male slaves. Unfortunately, Weiner's portrayal of men, especially white men, is rather flat so the comparative perspective is never adequately developed.
These criticisms aside, Weiner's book is worth reading. She provides an original and provocative presentation of plantation women in the mid-nineteenth century - one that is sure to stimulate debate. Equally important, Weiner provides one of the most detailed analyses of the South's ideology of domesticity and she helps us to understand female agency in the shifting nature of Southern race relations. For these reasons, Mistresses and Slaves is a noteworthy contribution to the growing body of literature on nineteenth-century Southern women.
Grand Valley State University
1. Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. (New York, 1968), pp. 48-9.
2. Considerable evidence suggests that this is exactly how many female slaves viewed this behavior. For examples, see Leon Litwack, Been in the Storm So Long (New York, 1979), pp. 235-6; Brenda E. Stevenson, Life in Black and White: Family and Community in the Slave South (New York, 1996), pp. 249-250.