Gross on Molloy, 'Single, White, Slaveholding Women in the Nineteenth-Century American South'

Author: 
Marie S. Molloy
Reviewer: 
Jennifer L. Gross

Marie S. Molloy. Single, White, Slaveholding Women in the Nineteenth-Century American South. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2018. x + 228 pp. $39.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-61117-870-8.

Reviewed by Jennifer L. Gross (Jacksonville State University) Published on H-SAWH (March, 2021) Commissioned by Katherine E. Rohrer (University of North Georgia)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=55742

In her book, Single, White, Slaveholding Women in the Nineteenth-Century American South, Marie S. Molloy mines over three hundred diaries, journals, and collections of letters as well as court documents to add new dimension to our understanding of the presence and acceptance of single womanhood in the nineteenth-century South. The central argument of the book, which Molloy makes persuasively, is that “singleness, in spite of some social scorn in the early nineteenth century, gradually became accepted as an alternative model for unmarried women, albeit within a conservative social ethos that continued to try to dictate what their behavior should be as single women. Often if women showed themselves to conform to the standard, this resulted in greater female autonomy” (p. 5). Taking as her focus young, white, single women from the slaveholding classes of the South who never married, married later in life, widowed, divorced, or separated, Molloy builds on the work of other historians, primarily Lee Chambers-Schiller, identifying a shift in how female singleness was viewed in the South both by the single women themselves and by their communities. Focusing on women born between 1810 and 1860, Molloy posits that by the middle of the nineteenth century, perceptions of female singleness in the South had transformed from pessimistic and tragic to the more positive ideals of the Cult of Southern Single Blessedness, the unmarried version of True Southern Womanhood. Perhaps not surprisingly, Molloy identifies the Civil War as a catalyst for the expansion of public acceptance of single blessedness, but she astutely locates the origins for such acceptance, especially among the women themselves, in the prewar period. Her focus on diaries and journals especially makes this possible. Recognizing that such sources provided women with “an outlet through which they were able to ‘confront power and control,’” Molloy is able to establish a growing change in attitude among the South’s single women despite the outward appearance of their acceptance of traditional gender ideals that celebrated marriage as the primary place for women. These journals and diaries reveal that women “from the highest echelons of society were consciously choosing a life of single blessedness in the antebellum period” (p. 11).

According to Molloy, single blessedness in the South provided white, native-born, southern women who had benefited from the institution of slavery with greater opportunities for autonomy and agency while also acting as a constraint on their behavior. Molloy is always careful to note that it is wealthy single females under study. While Christine Carter argued that in contrast to single women in the Northeast, southern single blessedness was “not motivated by economic need or the need for personal autonomy” but instead by “a desire to find a place for themselves within the family” (p. 3), Molloy suggests that fiscal gain increasingly became a motivation among many of her single southern women, especially after the demographic devastation of the Civil War and the end of slavery, even while agreeing that family was “critical to developing single women’s identity in the South.” By adhering, at least publicly, to the accepted gender roles of true southern womanhood, white, single women from the slaveholding classes could present an acceptable public persona of women who were “virtuous, useful, and valued members of southern society” (p. 2). Such adherence also served to expand the boundaries of what was acceptable behavior and allow single women to construct new identities and opportunities in the public sphere.

Organizing her study thematically rather than chronologically allows Molloy to easily build on the foundation of previous chapters as she leads the reader to a new understanding of southern single blessedness. Chapter 1, “The Construction of Femininity in the Antebellum South,” is more historiographical essay than new research, but Molloy expertly organizes the material in such a way as to open her readers’ eyes to the evidence of the growing existence of single blessedness among southern women within the traditional gender hierarchy. Within this chapter, Molloy highlights the importance of the Civil War in the expansion of domestic roles among single, slaveholding women as plantation managers, nurses, and teachers, along with the construction of revised ideals of femininity to “reflect the social, demographic, and economic changes that had occurred in the South” as “the war brought into sharp focus the fact that many southern women were now single, mostly through nonmarriage and widowhood” (pp. 38, 39).

In successive chapters, Molloy elaborates upon the foundation she established in chapter 1. The second chapter centers on the roles single women played within their families and the importance of those roles both to their own identities and to how their communities perceived them. The key, she asserts, was their attachment to “usefulness” as they served as family helpmeets, maiden aunts, surrogate mothers, and devoted siblings. In these roles, “single women did their best to replicate the role of their married sisters in the commitment they showed to the southern family” (p. 72). By demonstrating their usefulness within the family and community during the early antebellum era, single women “proved that they were indispensable resources” rather than redundant “drains” on the family. When the Civil War introduced crisis and upheaval that forced many women to take on new responsibilities either temporarily or permanently in the case of widows, society had significantly acclimated to the idea of single usefulness that such women were seen as “acting in the interest of an absent or deceased spouse, or because of pressing financial or practical needs, rather than in a grab for personal autonomy.” 

In chapter 3, Molloy explores the expansion of single women’s opportunities to work, making clear that while elite women were rarely gainfully employed before the Civil War, they had established their importance within the family; this reality paved the way for some of them to venture beyond the home when it became necessary to contribute to the household economy. The war and its aftermath opened this door further. By taking on the role of plantation manager, nurse, and teacher—all roles rooted in the home and family—single women upheld traditional gender prescriptions even as they indirectly challenged those same prescriptions by amending their character to take on those roles.

Female friendship is the focal point of chapter 4 as Molloy explores the development and community perception of the close friendships that single women often established with each other. According to Molloy, “in the antebellum period women exercised considerable freedom in their same-sex friendships owing to the fact that they were regarded as nonsexual” (p. 132). While the Civil War had contributed to an elevation of public attitudes toward single women’s work outside the home, in the case of female friendships, the opposite was true. By the latter half of the nineteenth century, female friendship was no longer viewed as “a benign relationship that could be conducted alongside marriage,” and long-term, same-sex relationships between single women began to be seen as a threat to the South’s social order (p. 132).

The final chapter’s focus is on law and property, with a great deal of attention paid to two specific subgroups of Molloy’s single women: unhappily married women seeking divorce or other legal remedy and widowed women seeking property settlement. In a manner similar to her efforts in preceding chapters, Molloy illustrates how such women both exhibited agency by putting forward legal claims in the southern courts but also operated within the constraints of southern gender ideals. Though Molloy admits there were always other variables in play, potential divorcees who emphasized their ladylike behavior in the face of their husbands’ abuse and asked for protection from that abuse were more successful than those who behaved badly by challenging their husband’s authority in some way. For widows, the easiest path to a successful settlement was to appeal to the court’s desire that southern women be protected and provisioned.

Throughout her book, Molloy has convincingly argued that while there were certainly constraints on the behavior and activities of single (or those who desired to be single) white, slaveholding women in the nineteenth-century South, singleness could be a route to greater autonomy for those same women. This book is an important addition to the literature on elite white women of the era and broadens our understanding of what it could mean to be a southern woman in the nineteenth century.

Citation: Jennifer L. Gross. Review of Molloy, Marie S., Single, White, Slaveholding Women in the Nineteenth-Century American South. H-SAWH, H-Net Reviews. March, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=55742

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