The Mistress as Master: A Critical Reassessment of Plantation Women in Georgia Open Access

Margiotta, Kate (Spring 2023)

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This thesis traces the transitions of the roles of plantation mistresses in Georgia from the period 1850-1867. It interrogates the historical notion that Southern white women living on plantations were gentler, or even unaware of the severity of the institution of slavery than their male counterparts. It consists of four chapters that analyze the diaries and correspondence of three different Georgia women, Martha Battey, Dolly Lunt Burge, and Mary Jones who all lived in different regions of Georgia with different size holdings. Each chapter demonstrates how white women’s perceptions of slavery and their status as plantation mistresses changed in the years immediately preceding, during, and following the American Civil War. Ultimately, I find that  plantation mistresses were aware of the brutalities of slavery, and, in fact, they expressed many of the same sentiments as their male counterparts, including expressions of paternalism and a willingness to use violence. Additionally, they all participated directly in the southern slave economy- they were not clueless, innocent bystanders, and they certainly were not secretly opposed to an institution that their husbands, fathers, and brothers condoned and profited from. Revealing who these women really were demonstrates that we live in a world that still fails to acknowledge the depth and breadth of slavery’s mark on our nation. A system as abominable as slavery must have required the support of more than just southern white male politicians and influential planters. 

Table of Contents

Introduction: 1

Chapter 1: Life in the Antebellum Old South 8

I. Ideology in the Old South 8

II. The Importance of Religion and the Second Great Awakening 8

III. Historiographical Approaches to the Role of Women in the Old South: Silence, Scrutiny, Violence 13

IV. Widespread Culturally Ingrained Practices 15

Chapter 2: Before The War 17

I. Antebellum Political Climate 17

II. Women in Antebellum Georgia 18

III. Language Used to Describe the People They Enslaved 22

IV. Political Awareness 25

Chapter 3: The War 30

I. Historical Context: Beginnings of the War 30

II. Descriptions of the War from the Home & Shifting Roles: 31

III. Mistresses’ Relationships to the People They Enslaved: Self-Deception Begins to Change: 35

Chapter 4: After the War 42

I. Historical Context 43

II. A New Life 44

III. A New Life, Though Similar to the Old 48

Conclusion: 51

Bibliography 54

Primary Sources: 54

Secondary Sources: 54

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