Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The attack of Scarlet O'Hara and The Bluestockings

Since our family recently undertook the enterprise of reenacting the War Between the States, we are specifically working through the different ideas behind our war-time impressions.  In the midst of our research regarding 19th century women we have uncovered a troubled sea of mixed and muddied waters.  While we were not surprised by it, the mayhem will take a good deal of sorting through, and we have started by scratching the surface.  It is important to us to represent our unit and family well, to be accurate and excellent historical re-enactors. At the same time, our paramount concern is the Kingdom of God and reforming culture for His glory.
If the topic of this discourse seems to present a defense to the air, then perhaps a brief explanation here will clear the matter.  We are often questioned, usually in good spirit, about our impressions of the Southern women.  Some are mildly curious, many sincerely interested in our purpose, and a few are mistakenly quite confused and a bit piqued by "Northern" girls reenacting Southern women.  It is not our intention to make loud statements merely for a "shock effect," so we believe we are responsible to think and answer circumspectly regarding our purposes and the messages we convey through our actions. 
Flora Cooke Stuart
wife of Gen. Jeb Stuart
During our research, the feminist Bluestocking reared her wild head first.  As is true with any endeavor, it is regrettably easy to compromise and promote a feminist or anti-Christian agenda inadvertently. Growing up with four brothers instilled in us a marked aversion to weak frilliness.  The opposing "tom-boy" can be an all-too-convenient alternative.  With that said, we have no intention of representing the exclusively self-sufficient, "tough" woman "toting my faggot on my back with my pipe in my mouth" (as one reenactor put it).
As far as we can observe, feminism in its modern manifestation was not prevalent until the late 1800's and even then only amongst the lowest of society representative of European licentiousness. However, even if feminism were the normative context, we would yet desire to represent the remnant faithful to God in any given society.  As in every area of life, we are primarily concerned with reforming culture to God's standards through accurate representation of history rather than simply reenacting the lowest supposed common denominator in any given society. 
Mildred Lee
daughter of Gen. Robert E. Lee
Further than this, we aspire to portray superiority of intellect and education characterized by quiet humility, not snobbish arrogance.  With a thorough knowledge of the facts of the war, history and theology similar to what women like Anna Jackson, or the Lee daughters would have been familiar with, we would avoid the representation of loud, ignorant, Southern country bumpkins
Here Scarlet O'Hara flounces onto the field to confuse the air further. Our aim towards impressions of specifically upper-class Southerngentlewomen is predominantly personal preference and priority.  We are not averse to representing poverty. Frankly, fortitude and self-sufficiency in hardship intrigue us in many ways reminiscent of the challenging pioneering lifestyle. However, Dabney wrote in the Life and Campaigns of Stonewall Jackson that the South was characterized by "...gallant gentlemen and their reputable dependents".The phrase reputable dependents necessarily includes merchants and business men of every class.  Dabney's description is particularly obnoxious to the egalitarian Northern industrialist who favors equal distribution of wealth and libertarianism.  Consequently, history revisionism has painted a gross calumny on Southern women characterizing them as  frail, manipulative, weak-minded, vaguely malicious, spoiled and obtusely prejudiced wall-flowers.

Mary Curtis Lee
daughter of Gen. Robert E. Lee
Aversion to the "aristocratic, agrarian, multi-generationaly prosperous South" concept has only grown in society to the present day. The associated phraseology probably grates on the modern mind taught to envision social, economic and personal horrors of the worst kind in connection with the antebellum South.  It is in the interest of winsomely laying to rest the scandalous libels on these heroic Southern women that we are endeavoring to portray their counterparts.  In spite of the prejudice cultivated by propaganda, we believe Dabney's description captures the essence of Southern Christian heritage and the blessings of inheritance passed down from generations of righteous, industrious patriarchs.  
Anna M. Jackson
wife of Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson
So, specifically regarding the issue of femininity, we as girls have a fine line to walk. We want to portray sturdy usefulness so we try to avoid silly ornamentation that renders us incompetent for productive conversation and work. We also want to portray noble feminine dependancy, and by that I mean a graceful acceptance of chivalrous assistance offered us.  We do not seek to compete with anything our brothers or father do, nor do we wish to seem to desire to be physically stronger or independent of their protection and service.

While it is obviously more difficult and probably more likely to be misunderstood, we would like to emulate the dignified, informed gentlewomen of the South.  Women who sacrificed dearly for a righteous cause; who were perhaps accustomed to a life of relative ease yet discovered by painstaking forethought how to guard and dispense their fortunes unhesitatingly; whose characters were sturdy and whose minds were resourceful to face whatever danger with calm fortitude and inventive courage.  Women who considered it an honor to serve meals and scrub pots for a righteous cause and did not shirk hard labor but rather believed themselves privileged to accomplish work in the service of others.  Women who could wear both the practical attire suited to physical industry and the dignified attire suited to daughters, sisters or wives acting as household plenipotentiaries in the absence of their statesmen, warrior and reforming men.
Essentially, we want to represent the women we would wish to be in that era: Christian women in the service of our King.  This means that while studying historical documentation on dress and custom, we will not necessarily portray the most common women found in pictures or journals from the South. After all, were our descendants to reenact our lives, we could hope they would not find us entirely characteristic of our era!
 We hope to post more of our findings and discoveries on the topic and related issues in the near future and invite comments, questions and constructive critique.


Douglas John said...

Were not the "Bluestockings" simply what were considered to be intellegent or advanced women? How did the connotation arrive that a bluestocking or intellectual woman of the 18th century was a feminist. The picture you paint of the genteel Christian southern woman is very nice however quite romanticized. The unfortunate exploits of women of the south during the War of the States have not truly been recorded in places where the public can become familiar with them. Much of the published literature about women in the 19th century focused on prescriptions for proper female behavior, expressing social norms formulated largely by men. Their writings described the ideal female, emphasizing the passivity of her Christian nature and her domestic attributes, and focused on middle-and upper-class urban women. The ACTUAL experiences of women who were forced (by blockade or otherwise) by circumstances to earn their own way or own living, of common women, of immigrant women, and of black women bore no relation to those established norms. Scrubbing pots near an open fire with a white apron and white bodice would be indicitive of an upper class woman pretending to be a common woman. While the intent of what you are saying is to be a soft portrayal of dependency and true womanhood, an honest living historian would realize that there were not a lot of menfolk Christian or otherwise in the South to depend upon and lead them. The picture is painted quite prettily but the reality is that the women who sacraficed were not at all able to compare to those you have relayed in your information.

Mrs. Dawn Eggers said...

While I cannot comment on the Bluestockings as I have not researched it, I think we all attempt to know the struggles that women of many classes most likely went through. It is very apparent there were many types of personalities and duties of women during the Civil War. I believe the writer is stating that she wishes to portray what her family, and the women in her family would wish to be whether it is in the South 1862 or today 2011. At the end of this blog it reads as the following: "Essentially, we want to represent the women we would wish to be in that era: Christian women in the service of our King. This means that while studying historical documentation on dress and custom, we will not necessarily portray the most common women found in pictures or journals from the South. After all, were our descendants to reenact our lives, we could hope they would not find us entirely characteristic of our era".

May I suggest the book, Women in America, particularly part 3: Nineteenth Century America-the Paradox of "Women's Sphere."
I applaud them for their efforts and feel certain they will accomplish a wonderful living history portrayal!