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Shaking the Pedestal: War, Work, and Southern Womanhood

"A very great lady"
- Rhett Butler describing Melanie Wilkes

photo of Drew Gilpin FaustDr. Drew Gilpin Faust is many things -- a nationally recognized historian of the American South, an award-winning teacher praised by both graduate and undergraduate students, a mother, a wife, a citizen. But she makes no claims to being a lady. In fact, she has always resisted becoming a lady, with all that the term represents.

This disconcerted her own mother, a native of New Jersey who married a southerner and articulated the "feminine vision" to her daughter, in spite of her own mixed feelings about it. The vision didn't take. As a girl growing up in Virginia, Faust joined a 4-H club and, rather than putting up preserves or baking cakes, engaged in such boyish activities as raising livestock. What other behavior was unladylike, besides mucking out barns? "Talking in a loud voice. Expressing a 'loud opinion' in a soft voice. Getting angry. Exhibiting nonconformity of any kind." (All of which the young Faust occasionally engaged in.)

On the more positive side, ladies "were supposed to grease the wheels of everyone else's life and social interactions. You were to make life pleasant and agreeable for those around you. Self-sacrifice was a big part of it." Unfortunately, Faust's mother sacrificed herself for her children to such a degree that they wished she would go off and do something for herself. She didn't, but she did convey her own ambivalence about traditional femininity. "My mother was tough. When she said, 'It's a man's world,' you could hear the anger in her voice. She didn't have the language or context in which to place her dissatisfaction. Her generation (she was born in 1918) paid a high price for occupying that time of transition for women. In her ambivalence, maybe there was a space for me to find a way out."

Faust has widened that space into an area of independent achievement that many might envy. Since earning her Ph.D. at Penn in 1976, she has advanced to become Annenberg Professor of History and winner of both the Lindback and the Ira Abrams awards for distinguished teaching. Her specialty is the intellectual and ideological history of the South, a region that exerts an enduring fascination for her. It is only with her fourth book, however, titled Mothers of Invention, that she has turned her attention to the women of the Confederacy, the real-life originals of the mythical "Southern lady." While there may have been personal reasons for this delay, Faust points out that there were "other professional reasons as well. Women's history wasn't even a recognized field when I was taking courses as a graduate student. It came even more slowly into southern history. There wasn't a set of obvious problems that one was presented with, so I latched onto problems more evident in my field-and that slowed my approach to southern women's history."

In examining the diaries, memoirs, essays, letters, and poems of more than 500 Confederate women, Faust did see some continuities between being a lady in 1850 and being a lady in 1950. "There was the same sense of its being a man's world. A sense of uselessness. You defined yourself as an individual only at your peril." Elite women in the nineteenth century knew they were largely confined to frivolities, but it didn't matter so much until the Civil War broke out and "their world was under siege. Then men got a chance to go off and be gallant and brave and heroic, and women couldn't do much of anything. The contrast between men's opportunities and women's became very marked in this time of crisis. They felt that everyone should be useful, but 'How do I mobilize me?'"

Elite women found out that categories they had thought fixed, unchangeable, even biological could be changed. "Even in racial terms, their slaves -- these supposed racial inferiors -- were much more competent at daily tasks than they were. Ladies were supposed to be better by virtue of their race and wealth, but their 'superiority' didn't take them very far with their men absent and their slaves deserting or obstreperous. What use was it then to be able to play the piano? They would have been better off knowing how to cook."

It may surprise readers of Faust's very readable book to see how incompetent many of these women were at the domestic arts. Anyone with vivid memories of Gone with the Wind has a very different image of the great southern plantation lady. She, like Scarlett's mother Ellen O'Hara, could do almost everything. She could cook, sew, nurse the sick, run the house, and gently but firmly discipline both her slaves and her children. In reality, many southern ladies didn't know how to boil water. Their slaves frightened them, and their children proved an astonishing amount of work. Nursing the wounded disgusted many women, and nurses were always in short supply. Some were good at such tasks, however, and demonstrated "that womanhood didn't have to be helpless and incompetent."

Most women tried to rise to the challenges posed by the war. "Clearly, there were a lot who collapsed, became ill, were admitted to mental institutions, died. Others managed to struggle through." Nearly all eagerly awaited the return of their men, hoping they would reassume the burdens of power and responsibility. "At the end of the war, you see a mixed attitude. On the one hand, women want to protect themselves, their interests and those of their children because men have failed them. Men started a ridiculous war and then left women unprotected." Women couldn't afford ever to be entirely dependent again.

So after the Civil War, "we see Married Women's Property Laws, allowing women to hold property in their own names for the first time. Women pushed for the vote. They got involved in the temperance movement, which was directed against men who came back from the war as drunks. They took up reform causes that aimed to protect children."

But still they yearned for male protection and did what they could to reestablish it. They tried to get men back into shape and into power. They celebrated the Confederacy, in an attempt to rehabilitate men. "The whole Lost Cause crusade rests largely on the shoulders of southern women, like the Daughters of the Confederacy. It's a part of women trying to make men feel better about themselves so that they're not shell-shocked and useless.

"These women also realized that with the erosion of slavery, there was nothing structural separating them from the African-American population. Southern ladies were by and large very racist. How could they have been otherwise? The reemergence of conservatism among these women was in part a desire to reestablish control over the black population. If slavery was impossible, they would have segregation. This effort united white men and women. It allowed women to see race -- not gender liberation or conflict -- as the real issue. Redemption came to mean the reinscription of white power in the South."

Having completed Mothers of Invention, Faust has no immediate plans to investigate southern women any further. Instead, she has begun a new research project. Last fall, on the anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, she gave a lecture at Gettysburg. She admits that "I was swept away, consumed by the subject of death." The Civil War had a death toll unequaled in any other American war. Faust wants to learn "how this civilization dealt with death on this scale, from simple questions like how they got rid of the bodies to what it meant for their religious and psychological assumptions. How it affected their view of the purposes of life. Death raises questions from the most material to the most spiritual levels."

In her acceptance speech for the Ira Abrams teaching award, Faust was eloquent in defending the interdependency of research and teaching. Why does she think it useful to students, especially to undergraduates, to have their teachers actively engaged in research?"On a mundane level, there are conflicts at times. I might be at a conference or in the archives and have less time to spend marking papers. On a more profound level, there is the fact that we are all engaged in an enterprise together. All of us both teach and learn. We become partners in an equation of mutual participation." And she insists that "students also must think about that shared commitment to learning. They have a responsibility to teach one another and their teachers as well. They are participants, not just recipients."

Faust herself teaches more undergraduate than graduate courses. She learns a good deal from her undergraduates. They also make her strive to be clear. "Insofar as I've been able to reach beyond an academic audience in this latest book, it's because I teach undergraduates. They always tug you back into the wider world of thinking, educated people. I have to listen to them."

If she enjoys teaching and learning more than ever, does she have any lingering regrets about not being a lady?

"None!" But then she laughs. "Some of these skills get internalized and probably aren't so bad. Arbitrating. Negotiating. Paying attention to others." And when she talks to her own 14-year-old daughter, she sometimes thinks, "Hmm. Just what message am I projecting?" When the talk takes a contentious turn, her daughter is likely to exclaim, "You sound just like your mother!"

"You have to understand," Faust adds, "that the two of them never met. My mother died before my daughter was born. But it's still a pretty good ploy!"

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