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Single, white and Southern: slaveholding women in the nineteenth-century American South, 1830-1870

Molloy, Marie Suzanne

Single, white and Southern: slaveholding women in the nineteenth-century American South, 1830-1870 Thumbnail


Marie Suzanne Molloy


This thesis examines the lives of single, white, slaveholding women in the nineteenth-century American South from 1830-1870. The central hypothesis is that singleness, in spite of its restrictions, was a route to female autonomy that had its roots in the antebellum era and that was intensified during the Civil War and post war years. The Civil War acted as a catalyst for accelerating personal, social, economic, and legal changes in single women’s lives. It helped to revise and expand traditional gender models by destroying slavery that had tied to the patriarchal structure of the Old South.

Many of the single women discussed in this thesis did not automatically fit into the traditional model of southern womanhood. They were either permanently single, or had married late, were widowed, divorced or separated. Yet they operated their lives within a tight framework of traditional gender conventions that gradually broke down in the antebellum, Civil War and post-war years. Single women clearly understood the importance of adhering to gender conventions. However, they were often able to manipulate them to their advantage, gaining acceptance and respect in southern society that provided an effective springboard to enhance personal autonomy.

In the post-war period these processes continued to gain pace, as female autonomy was heightened by protection tradition ideals about women that could be used to their advantage in seeking a divorce or to gain their due in widowhood. Thus, from conservative ideology sprang radical social change. This thesis provides a wealth of evidence in the form of letters, diaries and court records in support of the central hypothesis that in spite of its restrictions, singleness was a route to greater autonomy for women in the nineteenth-century South.

Publication Date Feb 1, 2013


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