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Home, Sweet Home: Gender in the Antebellum Household

Men's Role As Head of Household 

     Introduction| Domestic Sphere | Men's Role as Head of Household | Call to War | Conclusion

When examining gender roles, it is important to study how they affected men as well as women. During the antebellum era, white men kept the social hierarchy in place. White men during the antebellum era had the responsibility to protect their dependents.  For the social order to work, white men needed their dependents to be subordinate. White men achieved this subordination though violence and disenfranchisement. Southern white men gained power through paternalism. Fox-Genovese defines paternalism as a “peculiar combination of hierarchically sanction male dominance in the household and bourgeois egalitarianism among men in the public sphere.”[1] Both wealthy and poor white men had the right to be the head of a household. In the South, the household’s political and economic significance left the domestic sphere a white male controlled space.   During the antebellum era, white women may have occupied the domestic sphere but white men controlled it.

Slave masters epitomized the paternalistic duties of wealthy white men in the South. A plantation was mainly populated by dependents comprised of women, children and slaves. It was the responsibility of the master to know everything about the plantation and the slaves who labored on it. Masters had the duty to run the plantation to be financially successful. All problems large and small were the master’s concern: from slave training to selling raw goods. Slave masters enforced their power though violence. Paternalism dictated that a master control his dependents both women and slaves. Mistresses could be overruled in their own sphere because the master had the final authority. Southern masculinity assumed slavery and household control. Elite men could afford to have many dependents making them even more powerful. [2] 

White yeoman farmers still had the power of masters, even without slave labor. Stephanie McCurry argues that white yeoman farmers were masters of small worlds. She outlines how culturally and legally white male farmers had total control over their households. White farmers owned few or no slaves, so majorities of the dependents in the household were women and children. The courts during the antebellum period reinforced the white man’s power over matters within the household. For example, a South Carolina Judge ruled that men had “a power of control over all members of his household.” This meant that white women had no legal identity and no legal power. A white woman’s whole identity came through her male kin. As Chief Justice Pearson of North Carolina stated “The wife must be subject to the husband… Every man must govern his household.” Do to their lack of wealth, white yeoman farmer’s legal and customary rights over the household gave them power. Even with very little money or land to a yeoman farmer’s name, he had inherent power due to his race and number of dependents. [3] The laws and customs upheld the antebellum social order of white men at the top of the social hierarchy.

Paternalism allowed white men’s domination of his dependants to be described like a family, with white men as the head of the family. In the 1830’s the analogy for family shifted from abstract to specific, equating women, children and slaves. If marriage dictated a women’s subordination to a man, then a man’s dominance over a slave was also natural. As Stephanie McCurry argues, “females thus provided the only constant point of reference for naturalizing subordination.” [4] The proslavery movement used gender to legitimize slavery by emphasizing women’s “natural” subordinate state. Proslavery advocates argued that slavery was also natural. To the proslavery South, abolitionism meant not just racial equality but gender equality. The South’s social order relied on the subordination of females and slaves. The analogy of the family was used to further naturalize slavery. [5] Casting abolitionism as an attack on the household and a man’s right as master of it strengthened proslavery arguments.  This created a larger following because the argument extended to white yeomen without slaves. [6] Equating slavery to family legitimized the South’s social order, with white men as the heads of households.

White men had the responsibility to protect white women’s chastity and purity. McCurry argues that as early as 1835 scientific thinking established a ridged binary of sexual differences: “man was the warrior and assailant on the fortress of chastity, women the guardian of chastity and seductress of man. Women, then, was simultaneously chaste and seductive, man simultaneously protector and predator.”  While the scientific community put these roles in universal terms, in the South these roles took on a racial component.  A white man’s exclusive claim over his wife’s body, as protector cast the black man as predator. White women’s exclusive rights as the protected also cast black women as the seductress. Female protection was excusive to white women and the only proper protectors were white men. [7] In the slave holding class, a young white woman’s purity reflected on the family as a whole. A white woman’s sexual reputation indicated her father’s ability to protect her. Young slaveholding women had supervised and restricted interactions with men. Only in marriage would a woman’s protector switch to her husband. [8] Race, class and gender dictated who was protected and who received protection.

Especially in the yeoman class, a white man’s main responsibility was to protect his family from starvation. Yeomen farmers were expected to have a successful farm that supported his family.  A white yeomen farmer valued hard work to support the household. White yeomen farmers looked down upon the slaveholding class for their leisurely pursuits. A white yeoman farmer needed to work hard for the survival of his family. One unsuccessful harvest could send a yeomen family into poverty. Running a successful farm was a white yeomen farmer’s best protection for his family. While all members of a family worked on the farm, it was a white man’s duty to ensure his family could survive. [9] As the war demanded white men’s military service, protection from starvation would become a point of contention for the yeoman class.

Privileged white men clearly held the most power in the South, through land ownership, political influence and wealth. Slave owning men had the most invested in the hierarchy of the South. Nevertheless, white yeomen also had a stake in the social order. The more dependents a man had, the more power he possessed in the public sphere. A poor man’s power came from his status as household head and control over his dependents and not though wealth. However, white men in the South shared common cause in maintaining the social order because as heads of households both benefited from the subordination of dependents. [10] A man depending on a woman was unmanly; being a man meant being independent.  The reverse did not apply to women. Minister Benjamin Morgan Palmer explained, “Dependence…is not her degradation but her glory.” White men insisted that women choose subordination, denying women any personal power and legitimizing a man’s authority. [11]

[1] Fox-Genovese, Within the Plantation Household, 38, 64, 60-61, 98-99 64.       

[2] Fox-Genovese, Within the Plantation Household, 201.

[3] Stephanie McCurry, Masters of Small Worlds: Yeoman Households, Gender Relations, and the Political Culture of the Antebellum South Carolina Low Country (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995) 100.

[4]Stephanie McCurry, “The Two Faces of Republicanism: Gender and Proslavery Politics in Antebellum South Carolina,” The Journal of American History, 78, no. 4 (March 1992): 1251. 

[5]Manisha Sinha, “Revolution or Counterrevolution?: The Political Ideology of Secession in Antebellum South Carolina,” Civil War History 46, no.3 (Sep 2000): 219. 

[6] McCurry, “The Two Faces of Republicanism,”  1251.

[7] Stephanie McCurry, “Citizens, Soldiers’ Wives, and “Hiley Hope Up” Slaves: The Problem of Political Obligation in the Civil War South,” in Gender and the Southern Body Politic, ed. Nancy Bercaw (University Press of Mississippi, 2000), 103. 

[8] Jabour, Scarlett’s Sisters 142-143.

[9] Osthaus, “The Work Ethic of the Plain Folk,” 754, 756, 764.

[10] Osthaus, “The Work Ethic of the Plain Folk,” 764.

[11] McCurry, “The Two Faces of Republicanism,” 1252-1254.