UAB professor Dr. Hariett Amos-Doss said many people still view Southern women’s history through the lens of the popular 1939 film, which was based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.
The field of women’s studies was just developing when another book, “The Southern Lady: From Pedestal to Politics” by Anne Scott, was published in 1970.
Much more research has been done since then, which Doss said is an important improvement.
“If you want to know the truth about the past, you need to know the whole past and not just a piece of it. Otherwise it may slant your understanding of everything else,” Doss said.
Doss teaches “Southern Women: Image and Reality” at UAB. She said she hopes to show her students that Southern women led less glamourous lives than the “belle” image suggests.
Female members of the wealthy planter class, which was a small percentage of the population, were prepared to be good wives and hostesses.
However, they also had to possess good management skills and be able to run the plantation when their husbands were absent.
“Their days could be so busy from dawn until bedtime that they didn’t have time to themselves,” Doss said.
Doss added that women have been adjusting to what the times demanded of them throughout the nation’s history.
In colonial days, women had to help clear fields and plant crops, tasks that were vital to the agricultural economy.
During the Civil War, women had to fill in for men who had left to fight.
Many men who came home were unable to assume their traditional duties because of physical and psychological injuries.
Women then needed the tenacity of Scarlett to survive.
“The generation of men they had planned to look to for leadership and guidance was gone. These women had never thought about financially providing for themselves, but they started finding some of the skills they had and trying to find another means of support,” Doss said.
Former slaves had to continue working to support their families as well.
Society’s expectations for women had changed again by World War II.
Women were told that working outside the home was patriotic, at least until the war ended. Then they were expected to quit their jobs and begin birthing the baby-boom generation.
Some stayed in the paid workforce, however.
Doss said that biology has impacted the lives of women less than social expectations.
As a result, change has usually been slow to come on women’s issues, and progress is unlikely to occur at a quicker pace in the near future.
“Even the idea of some kind of equal legal protection is such a modern concept in our society that it’s going to take a long time to bring about internalized change in people, not just what a policy says,” Doss said.