- Southern Single Blessedness: Unmarried Women in the Urban South, 1800-1865
In An Evening When Alone (1993), historian Michael O'Brien called for a more systematic study of the antebellum South's single women. The assumed centrality of the plantation mistress, he implied, had drawn attention away from her more numerous sisters—middle- and lower-class women, urban women, slave women, unruly women, and fallen women among them. Single women, he felt, had been particularly overlooked, and it was a lacuna he began to fill with his edited collection of four journals of single women in the South. "Though the desire for independence [End Page 480] deserves consideration as among [these] journals' more consistent topics," O'Brien noted in his introduction, "perhaps their predominant theme . . . is loneliness, its presence and looming persistence" (6).
Thirteen years later, O'Brien's call for a more systematic study has been (partly) answered by Christine Jacobson Carter. In her examination of the affluent, single white women of antebellum Savannah and Charleston, however, Carter stresses a different "predominant theme": usefulness, she claims, not loneliness, circumscribed and gave meaning to these women's lives. In the urban centers of the South, elite unmarried women "socialized, volunteered, churched, and traveled together" (9). They were the "reserve army" of paternalism, plugging holes in nuclear families, stitching up the South's social fabric, and propping up its many fictions, even those that caged them.
Carter is quick to admit that Savannah and Charleston were atypical, if not unique. Plugged into "a wider seaboard culture of letters and ideas," these coastal towns trafficked in Northern notions of a domesticity that could be practiced outside the home (41). In the South's urban enclaves, single women were not denigrated as the "unchosen ones, flawed and deficient" (43). Instead they were allowed, even encouraged, to play more vital social roles. Carter is sensitive to the fact that although they were intertwined with the North, these Southern cities were also "instruments of the greater plantation culture" (51). In the South, a man's mastery, unquestioned and unquestionable, relied on the "natural" and reinforcing dependency of his wife, children, and slaves.
How then could a woman be single and natural? How could she play an independent social role without undermining the South's social dependencies? "Only through usefulness to others," Carter concludes, "could unmarried women save themselves from the long-held stereotype of the pathetic, barren, cold, and crotchety old maid" (47). Thus, the South's single women had to walk a thin line. Selfishness of any kind was abhorrent; it was Northern, a threat, and it brought stinging rebuke. A single woman could help raise her sister's children; she could sing the praises of her brother and father; she could sing sweetly in church and feed the poor, but she could not venture too far. She had to remain within "the bounds of southern womanhood, which may have expected marriage and motherhood but demanded piety, dependence, and service to others" (66).
According to Carter, Southern single women created vibrant lives within these bounds. As "dutiful daughters" and "maiden aunts," they [End Page 481] made themselves invaluable and beloved. Unburdened by a man's obligations, they had time to read, and they wrote penetratingly (and sometimes publicly) about their lives and region; they made travel companions and confidantes of their friends; they poured themselves into tract societies, historical preservation, orphan care, and private charities. They were, Carter contends, "professional daughters, sisters, and aunts who carved out special and important places in families and communities" (7).
Professional? The line is certainly cute, but it points to a larger problem. Carter is occasionally in danger of doing for single women what Lawrence Levine inadvertently did for slaves: making their triumph over an oppressive regime seem too complete. To be sure, Carter (like Levine) restores agency to an important population, and she is right in the main. However constrained their lives, human beings have a tendency to go on laughing; they have...