Historical Comprehension: Women's Rights
The social customs in the southern states before and after the Civil War dictated a secondary role for women. Although women filled many positions during the war years that they would not otherwise have held, traditional roles reasserted themselves at war's end.
When southern women spoke out against their status, it was considered at best scandalous, and at worse treasonous, to the spirit of their region by many of the elite class. The collection contains several documents written by relatively progressive women decrying their status as social inferiors. Browse under the Subject Index heading Women's Rights-Southern States for Old Times in Dixie Land by Caroline Elizabeth Merrick and A Slaveholder's Daughter by Belle Kearney. Both of these texts contain a wealth of material defending the rights of women in the late nineteenth-century United States.
- How might progressive women have pitched their arguments to appeal to their mostly conservative audience?
- How might the relatively low-profile issue of women's rights have been viewed by Reconstruction-era southerners?
A search on women's suffrage yields the autobiography of educator and suffragette, Rebecca Latimer Felton, Country Life in Georgia in the Days of My Youth. The text also includes several of her persuasive speeches and writings. In her 1915 essay, "Why I Am A Suffragist," Felton condemns the sluggishness of the southern states in giving women the right to vote:
Shall the men of the South be less generous, less chivalrous? They have given the Southern women more praise than the man of the West - but judged by their actions Southern men have been less sincere. Honeyed phrases are pleasant to listen to, but the sensible women of our country would prefer more substantial gifts.
Pages 251-52, "Why I Am A Suffragist"
- To whom does Felton address her argument?
- What differentiates the assumptions made by Felton and Leigh concerning the place of women in society?
- Do you think that this passage convincingly defends the issue of women's rights in the South?
- What classes of people might have wanted to avoid open discussion of women's rights? Why?
By accessing the Documenting the American South collection, readers can view two selected works from Thomas Dixon, Jr., the conservative novelist, preacher, and lawyer whose works dealt with themes such as the need for racial purity and the maintenance of traditional women's roles. In The Leopard's Spots (1902), Dixon's lead female character Sallie, described as "A daughter of the old fashioned South," engages in a series of observations concerning romance with a friend visiting from the North. Commenting on the differences between men from the two regions, her Yankee friend remarks:
In Boston it's a serious thing for a young man to call once. The second call, means a family council, and at the third he must make a declaration of his intentions or face consequences. Down here, the boys don't seem to have anything to do except to make their girl friends happy, and feel they are the queens of the earth, and that their only mission is to minister to them. And some of your girls are engaged to six boys at the same time."
"Don't you like it?"
"It's glorious. I feel that if I hadn't come down here to see you I'd have missed the meaning of life."
Page 248, The Leopard's Spots
- What does the northern friend identify as the "meaning of life"?
- How do Dixon's idealized women differ from those suggested by Felton's argument?
- What implicit argument against women's rights does Dixon's narrative offer?
- What do you think Dixon considers the proper relationship between men and women? Women and society?
- How do Dixon and Felton each depict the differences between northern and southern society and women's roles in each?