There's one reason, and a very good one it is, for anyone having an interest in the history of American women to read this book: Catherine Clinton has accumulated an impressive amount of primary material, detailed and revealing, about the lives of the mistresses of Southern plantations from 1780 to 1835. The evidence she presents that the antebellum South granted its women little more real freedom than it did its slaves is persuasive indeed; but she exaggerates when she claims that her book provides for these women "what they have so long been denied: recognition, acknowledgement--at long last, a history."
To be sure, the image of the plantation mistress that has been fostered in popular mythology is wildly deviant from historical truth, such as we are able to know it. Romantic novels, sentimental movies, popular songs and advertising drawings have perpetuated the notion that the Southern "lady" lived in idleness, luxury and ease, the object of the ceaseless devotion of all members of the opposite sex and the numb adulation of the slaves whose fortunes she presided over with affection and care. In crinoline and lace she danced the nights away, while by day she nibbled on ladyfingers and perused the novels of Sir Walter Scott.
Only this last bears the slightest resemblance to reality; in their desperate search for escape from a doleful existence, Southern ladies did read the works of Scott and other romantic novelists. Otherwise, the joys of life in Ol' Dixie were few and far between. The lot of virtually all Southern women, no matter how grand the mansions they inhabited, was "unpaid domestic service to their families and their husbands' slaves," the legal limitations on their rights were severe, and the exploitation to which they were subjected by a rigidly patriarchal society was humiliating, in some cases psychologically crippling.
The function of women was to honor the marital obligation, bear children, tend the slaves and run the household. None of these tasks was especially easy to fulfill. Husbands were often drunken and promiscuous, subjecting their wives to random beatings and the threat of venereal disease. Each pregnancy carried with it the possibility of death before, during or after childbirth, and each child lived a tenuous existence: "Infant mortality was so common that many plantation couples referred to their 'living children,' the assumption being that some were always lost in infancy or childhood." The slaves required clothing, which the mistress made (she also wove the cloth), and constant medical attention. Running the household was a never-ending process, one that kept the mistress on alert both day and night.
Compounding the physical and emotional demands of these duties were the psychological ones imposed by society's demand that women conform to the fantasy of the "Southern lady." Chastity, refinement, modesty, obedience, equanimity, purity--these were the virtues for which the Southern woman was compelled to strive. The waist was supposed to be cinched and the skin as pallid as a bedsheet: "Remember too as a constant charge not to go out without your bonnet," Thomas Jefferson wrote to his younger daughter, "because it will make you very ugly and then we should not love you so much."
This and much more Clinton describes in lucid prose, frequently quoting the actual words--from letters, diaries and other sources--of the women whose culture she describes. She has done a heroic amount of research, much of it involving material that may not have been examined since the day it was stored in the many libraries she frequented. By bringing these forgotten women back to life--by allowing their voices to speak once more--she has done them, and us, a service.
But it is not quite as great a service as she obviously believes it to be. Though "The Plantation Mistress" may provide a useful corrective to popular mythology, it contains almost nothing that will surprise readers who are reasonably familiar with Southern history and current scholarship in the field. The novelists may have their illusions about the Southern past, but few historians do. The difficulty of life for even the wealthiest of Southern women has been well known to historians for decades; in Clinton's insistent claims to be charting territory where few if any have trod, there is a clear suggestion that she was born yesterday.
There is a similar ingenuousness in her repeated attempts to judge the past by the standards of the present. At one point she says, for example, that "patriarchy exacted the frequent birth of heirs as a kind of tribute from planter wives," and then quotes Jefferson as telling his daughter that "the keystone of matrimonial happiness" is motherhood. The clear implication--here, as in similar instances throughout the book--is that Jefferson was engaged in some malign suppression of his daughter's freedom. What is almost certainly the truth is that he was merely accepting, without challenge, a prevailing assumption of his day and time.
This is a trap into which those who write history from an ideological bias are liable to fall. It is one thing to understand the past--which Catherine Clinton does--and another to pass moral judgment on it. This, unfortunately, she also does.