Paternalism and the Southern Hierarchy: How Slavery Defined Antebellum Southern Women - Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History

Paternalism and the Southern Hierarchy:


How Slavery Defined Antebellum Southern Women

Ramapo College of New Jersey
In the antebellum South, slavery was the thread that held the fabric of society together and defined the southern woman. The Old South, as it would later be referred to, was politically, culturally, economically, and spiritually built around the institution of slavery. Slavery was the foundation the strict southern hierarchy was based upon. Race and gender determined a person’s status with white slaveholding males at the top and black female slaves at the bottom. Slaveholders, large and small, were at the pinnacle of the Southern society and the possibility of future slave purchase kept non-slaveholding families tied to this paternalistic hierarchy.  Slave ownership elevated the status of both genders, giving white women more power within the slaveholding system. This sense of superiority and power fueled white women’s acceptance for the institution of slavery, which they advocated for based on paternalism, and in effect maternalism.

Slavery defined women’s location in society and provided them with the belief that it could provide them with upward mobility. Southern women associated paternalism with feminine power in their homes and in their communities. Affluent white southern women, or southern mistresses, supported the institution of slavery because of the ideological agency slave ownership provided in the strict social hierarchy of the South. Along with non-slave owners, who shared their want for enhanced status, many southern women were staunch advocates of slavery.  They used paternalism to justify it while still adhering to their prescribed gender roles and actively sought to personify the moral arguments in support of the institution that gave them power in the larger society and the domestic sphere.[1]

The first step in understanding how slavery shaped the Southern woman is to understand the gender structure of the entire nation. The South, highly dependent on the institution of slavery, was drastically different from the North; however, both portions of the nation conformed to the ideology of domesticity. Americans subscribed to the idea that there were two separate spheres, the public sphere, belonging to men, and the private sphere, belonging to women. The public sphere involved the outside, the corrupt, the immoral, and only men were strong enough to face it without manipulation or defeat. Women, seen as biologically weak, were fit for the private sphere where they provided their husbands with a moral sanctuary away from the emotionally draining public sphere. In this social framework, women only had a voice in domestic matters including the home and childcare, as well as moral or religious situations. These rigid roles limited the authority a woman had in her community; she had no voice in the public realm. Even in the home, because her husband supported her legally and financially, the American woman in the antebellum period held almost no power.[2]

Slave ownership in the South, however, added a crucial element that separated the nation’s women by allowing Southern women to embody the ideal housewife within the domestic sphere. Southern plantation mistresses portrayed the ultimate housewives because they were free of the manual labor associated with their domestic duties and were provided with leisure time to focus on their children and husbands. However, this picture perfect image was not the reality of the Southern plantation mistress. The appearance of perfection was an important part of the hierarchy of the South. Non-slave-owning women clung to the belief that owning slaves would relieve them of domestic chores and transform them into the figure of the Southern plantation mistress. Although wholly exaggerated, the women who did own slaves projected themselves to the rest of the South through the image of the mythical Southern mistress in order to uphold their role in society.[3] 

Southern white women, 19th cen.
by Genevieve Cowles, 1897
Source: Library of Southern Literature

Women held a critical role in defining their family’s social status through racial superiority as well as the image of domestic relief.  By epitomizing the ideal southern mistress, a woman had the unique power to elevate the status of herself and her husband. The social hierarchy in the South placed white women above the slave population based on race. This extra distinction gave Southern women a sense of societal superiority that was not as prevalent in the social structure of the North. Regardless of a woman’s economic class, if she was white she was higher in social class. In addition, the more a woman fit into the ideology of domesticity the higher her social standing became in both the North and the South. According to Southern ideology, because slave ownership provided women with the opportunity to fulfill the domestic role to the fullest of their abilities the institution was moral. Southern slaveholders used this reasoning to advocate slavery. Slavery was a gateway for women to enhance their already elevated position in society by better allowing them to conform to the ideology of domesticity as well as marking them as higher in the white power structure of the South.[4]

Southern women had the potential opportunity to free themselves of domestic responsibility with the purchase of slaves—purchases that improved their status in society and their homes, leading them to support the institution. Not only did a slave purchase alleviate them from domestic chores, it also provided them with enhanced agency in the home over their slaves, men included. This complex social structure shaped women’s opinions on slavery in two ways: first, women used slaves to help themselves assume the role of an ideal housewife, and second, they held agency over their slaves, giving them sense of power otherwise absent to them. Southern women, therefore, while still in the confines of the domestic ideology, experienced the private sphere in a drastically different way than Northern women due to the added defining element slavery held on their identities.The Southern woman’s experience in the private sphere developed, like Northern women, with the gender inferiority associated with the domestic ideology.  However, owning slaves was a way for Southern women to both excel in their domestic role and exert high levels of dominance over the slaves. This unique combination led women to use their racial superiority as a way to gain power, in both society and their homes, and compensate for their inferior status as females.[5]

The paternalistic structure of the South had an effect on the way Southern women experienced life and why they felt slavery gave them more power within it. In the North women lived under the structure of a rigid patriarchy, where they were below men on all levels besides their domestic realm; in the South, however, women not only lived within a patriarchy but they were an intricate part of Southern paternalism. Paternalism allocated men as not only the heads of their families but also of their slaves. They became father figures to the community as a whole, treating the slave population as a benevolent father would. These father figures did not see themselves as ruthless masters, but caring overseers who had the interests of their slaves at heart. This intricate family structure was a defining difference between women of the North and of the South; while it gave men the most power in the home, it in turn provided women agency over the slaves as their husband’s figurative children.[6]

Paternalism not only affected the status of the masculine ruling structure but also had a correlating effect on Southern women as they became vital components of the structure, especially in the context of slave purchases. Southern men used the argument of domestic relief when purchasing slaves. These men used their wives as another symbol of their status; the more their women fit the stereotype of the Southern mistress the greater their reputations became. The purchase of a slave to relieve their wives of labor elevated their status and the image of a family could be highly affected by just the appearance of a burden-less housewife. Women were critical to showing a man’s masculinity and the purchase of a slave directly, and positively, affected this delicate balance of morality and status. Women, by becoming key elements in this pro-slavery argument, held a powerful role in justifying paternalism. This position gave them superficial power in Southern society.[7]

Paternalism defined women’s roles in the domestic sphere and society shaping the expectations for Southern women whether they had one hundred slaves or none. Only one-third of the population held slaves at the onset of the Civil War, however, those few elite slave owners set the standard for the entire south. Plantation mistresses set the ideal for all Southern women.  They were powerful and that power allowed them to be perfect feminine idols relieved of heavy burdens with leisure time to spare. In reality, many plantation women held the arduous task of managing their slaves as well as participating in domestic chores just to keep the self-sustaining plantation afloat.  It was more important to appear to be relieved of domestic work though the Southern mistress often had difficult daily duties.[8]

Working within the paternal structure, women assumed the role of savior and mother to their slaves.  Women, therefore, solidified their husband’s moral and economic status at the same time they bolstered their own sense of power on the plantation. Where the father in the paternalistic society was the father of his family and of all the slaves that lived on his plantation, the woman was therefore the defaulted mother. According the ideology of domesticity this mother figure held agency over all that was included in the private sphere. With this logic, women claimed to have complete power over all domestic affairs including all slaves owned by their husbands. Paternalism served two purposes in this way: it allowed women and men to validate the morality of slave owning and it gave women a legitimate sense of power in their society.[9]

A woman assumed the role of maternal guardian for the slaves on her plantation; she cared for them, made sure they were healthy, organized them and made sure they were doing their chores on the plantation. This critical role in the management of slaves gave women tremendous power in their domestic sphere. They did not deviate from the ideology of domesticity in this way, but used the power to advocate equality of the spheres. This equality formed a major argument in support of the separate spheres ideology.  The spheres were equally important, however, women were just better fit for the domestic sphere. Women of the South saw their heightened agency within their domestic sphere as evidence of that argument.[10]

It is clear that in purchasing a slave, a man became more respectable, and a woman gained more power in the home.  This power, however, was superficial and solely based on race. For example, a woman could gain a sense of power on the plantation by overseeing male slaves, but a woman often did not purchase a slave of her own. A woman received a slave from a husband, brother, or father as a gift, but even then the acquisition of the slave would be more for the man’s personal profit and reputation then it would be to provide the woman with a sense of greater authority in the home. The purchase of a slave was therefore for the superficial benefit of the Southern woman; women assumed the ideal of the Southern mistress whether the slave relieved her of domestic chores or not. Women, along with their husbands, gained greater racial superiority because owning a slave elevated their status as members of the white society. Women, therefore, sought to embody the image of the Southern mistress in order to preserve that. An example of this is the treatment of men’s affairs with their slaves.  Many women ignored the relationships in order to preserve their family’s reputation. The complex hierarchy made Southern women feel like they had power within the system and shaped their reactions within it. Although slavery, as it is justifiably argued, made women less powerful in their homes and provided them with less gender equality than the North, Southern women fought to uphold the institution they were socialized to believe allowed them domestic freedom and societal power.

Southern plantation mistress, 19th cen.
by Genevieve Cowles, 1897
Source: Library of Southern Literature

The complex structure of society in the South led the majority of women to favor slavery, both for its effects on them as whites but also women. Southern plantation mistresses used an array of moral arguments to support the institution that gave them power and often used the paternal framework to argue their cause. Using paternalism women were able to argue for slavery within the gendered framework of their society.  In effect, paternalism presented an un-threatening maternal argument to advocate for something that gave them a very masculine sense of agency in their homes and society. Southern women, in defense of slavery, would claim to be the mother figures for their slaves; they gave them food, shelter, and love, allowing them to have a better life then if they were off on their own. Women felt they were the protectors of their slaves. One Southern plantation mistress demonstrated this when she reflected on the threat of emancipation: “My husband, at the signal for prayer, fell upon his knees, relieving his pent-up feelings in tears which he could not restrain…Would abolitionists, I thought, could they look upon that scene, fail to admit the blessings American “slavery” had brought to the savage black men, thus, within a few generations at most, become at home in a condition of civilization.”[11]  Southern women felt that they civilized their slaves, and without the plantation, the slaves would go back to the savagery they had known before. Like many other women, this mistress used religious tones to support her beliefs. The Southern plantation, in this argument, was the place where slaves were enlightened to Christianity and saved from the barbaric customs they held otherwise. Much like the illusion of the Southern mistress, women clung to the illusion that slavery was morally justifiable in order to preserve the structure of Southern society. Maternal overtones and Christian arguments gave women in the private sphere an inconspicuous way to support a very political hierarchy which gave them power.[12]

These women also used paternalism to show their sense of morality was greater than that of Northern women. Many would claim that the factory system of the North treated their workers worse than slaves, and that Southern morality would not allow women to oppose the institution of slavery. In Caroline Merrick’s memoir, another Southern mistress explained the hardships of the northern home absent of slaves as she witnessed in Ohio: “I find the children here are set to work as soon as they are able ‘to do a turn’ or go on an errand, and are kept steadily at it until they grow up, run away, or die. Dear little ‘Sis Daisy’ in this house is running constantly all day long and her little fat hands are broader than mine, from grasping things too large and heavy for so small a child to handle…Night must be a blissful time for the overworked hired girls of the North, as they know nothing of the many restful stops our self-protected blacks allow themselves ‘between times.’”[13]  This unique account highlights two important points made by Southern mistresses: first,slavery spared not only the plantation mistresses from domestic toil, but also plantation children and second, slavery was beneficial to blacks because it spared them of the harsh working conditions of the North.

One vital aspect of the ideal Southern mistress’ life was leisure time. This leisure component allowed women to focus on raising their children in an exemplary fashion. Slavery supposedly alleviated these mothers of all tasks that kept them away from their children and this became just another moral defense of slavery to the Southern woman.  Without slavery these mothers would not have the ability to divert full attention to their children, and they would work as the imagined Northern children did. In addition, Merrick insinuated that her slaves had better working conditions than the working girls she had seen in Ohio, because her “self-protected” slaves were able to rest more than the workers of the North were. It is also telling that she noted on the working girls of the North; slavery provided women with a life where they did not have to work outside the home. These claims allowed women another paternalist/maternalism argument where they claimed slavery spared white southern children from harsh working conditions.  These women were now imposing their private sphere ideology onto a public sphere issue.[14]

Another common defense of slavery made by mistresses was that the treatment of slaves on the plantation was superior to that of freed blacks. In another memoir, Nancy Bostick revealed a letter she had written to a friend in 1903 where she reminisced on her time as a Southern woman. Bostick gave her opinion having experienced the South before and after emancipation: “I have had the opportunity to mingle freely with slaveholders of different characters and dispositions, and while I regard slavery as such an enormous evil and am heartily glad that it has been abolished in this country, I am bound in candor to say that my observation, during all these years of my residence in Georgia and South Carolina, thoroughly convinced me that in the majority of cases slaves were more kindly treated and brought into more intimate and kindly relations to white families than they are now, though free.”[15]While this letter contains bias, it shows the sentiment many Southern mistresses felt about emancipation. First, because the context of this letter is 1903, well after the Civil War, Mrs. Bostick may have claimed she was opposed to slavery due to the change in societal norms.  In the antebellum period, however, it is fair to assume Bostick favored slavery as a critical defining element of Southern society. Bostick pointed out that slavery benefited the black population by providing caring plantation families who held their interests at heart. In her letter, Bostick went on to describe how the recipient’s father proved her point.  He provided an example of how Southern slave owners cared for their slaves on an equal level with that of their own family. Not every plantation was this way, but this image of the paternalistic slave master was a way for Southerners to defend their old way of life and it also demonstrated the ideals of the period. Southern women, before and after emancipation, clung to the image of the benevolent plantation in an attempt to prove the morality of slavery and uphold it as an institution.[16]

Mary Boykin Chesnut’s Diary is a similar example of Southern women's use of paternalism. Chesnut, whose diary spanned the course of the Civil War, provides a unique firsthand account of the Southern mistress’s way of life. She, although childless, was an example of an ideal mistress as she hosted parties for her husband and projected the burden less image. Many of Chestnut’s sentiments involving slavery, as shared by other mistresses, included the paternalist moral reasoning for it: “Now if slavery is as disagreeable as we think it, why don’t they all march over the border where they would be received with open arms. It amazes me. I am always studying these creatures. They are to me inscrutable in their ways, and past finding out.”[17]Although she was referring specifically to the period of the Civil War in this passage, she demonstrated the popular belief that slaves, were conscious of their position in the South and favored it to freedom, while Northerner’s would claim otherwise. Chesnut claimed she could not understand the slaves for complaining yet staying in their current state.  She insinuated however, that they did so because they understood the treatment was better. This idea, along with Merrick's and Bostick’s, demonstrates the Southern mistress’ use of paternalism in moral arguments. They clung to the power they held in Southern society and were socially obligated to defend the institution and preserve the Southern way of life within their allotted position in the private sphere.[18]

Slavery provided women with a heightened sense of power in their homes and in Southern Society. Slave ownership allowed families to assume a higher position in white society, much of which hinged upon the image of the Southern woman. Women who wanted to retain the agency given to them with slavery, used their role as societal markers to their advantage. In addition to racial superiority, slavery provided women with the opportunity, although primarily fictitious, to alleviate them from the labor associated with the domestic realm. In turn, these women felt they were able to fit the mold of the ideal. Southern mistresses projected themselves as such in order to preserve the notion of domestic perfection. Although slavery was not the magic solution many women envisioned, they sought to uphold the ideal to support the institution. In countless memoirs, Southern women used paternalism to defend slavery. These women used the perceived agency they were given in their paternalistic society to support the idea that slavery empowered them. Acting as living models of the Southern mistress, plantation women set the mythical standard for the women below them. The myth of feminine agency kept women of all economic classes ignorantly entangled in the paternalistic structure that gave them only superficial power.

About the author

Erin R. Mulligan is a sophomore majoring in history at Ramapo College of New Jersey.

Recommended citation

Erin R. Mulligan, “Paternalism and the Southern Hierarchy: How Slavery Defined Antebellum Southern Women,” Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History 2, no.2 (Aug. 2012).



[1] Walter Johnson, Soul by Soul; Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 80; Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Within the Plantation Household; Black and White Women in the Old South (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1988), 43; Mary Jo Buhle, Teresa Murphy, and Jane Gerhard, Women and the Making of America (Upper Saddle River: Pearson Education, Inc., 2009).
[2] Mari Jo Buhle, et. Al., Women and the Making of America, XX.
[3] Johnson, 92−93.
[4] Ibid, 79−162.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid, 36; Buhle.
[7] Catharine Clinton, The Plantation Mistress; Woman’s World in the Old South (New York: Pantheon Books, 1982), 88−89; Johnson, 92−93.
[8] Buhle, 171.
[9] Ibid; Clinton.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Virginia Clay-Clopton, A Belle of the Fifties: Memoirs of Mrs. Clay, of Alabama, Covering Social and Political Life in Washington and the South, 1853-66 (New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1905).
[12] Fox-Genovese, 62−65.
[13] Caroline Elizabeth Thomas Merrick, Old Times in Dixie Land: a Southern Matron's Memories (New York: Grafton Press, 1901).
[14] Ibid.
[15] Nancy Bostick De Saussure, 1837−1915 Old Plantation Days: Being Recollections of Southern Life Before the Civil War (New York: Duffield & Company, 1909), 20−21.
[16] Ibid.
[17]Mary Boykin Chestnut, A Diary from Dixie, edited by Ben Ames Williams (Boston: Hough Miffin Company, 1905), 92−93.
[18] Ibid.
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