Women in the South

Women in the South.docx

A deeper examination of womens' roles in the south through the context of Millie Saunders and Estalena Graybeal and the music they sing.


In the pre-industrial south, socioeconomic advancement was difficult for women.  Even during the antebellum era, a paternalistic social structure enforced male superiority.  Female inferiority was upheld in pseudo-scientific academic work, for instance, scientist P. Moebius’ self-explanatory Concerning the Physiological and Intellectual Weakness of Women.

Paternalism did not wane with time, and the life of women in the mountains during the late nineteenth century was often one replete with agony.  Women were expected to assist their husbands with physical labors on the farm as well as take on the task of managing their entire household.  In addition to cooking, weaving clothes, and caring for children on their own, women were expected to assist men in caring for animals, milking cows, and harvesting crops among other tasks.  Moreover, in the height of their child-bearing years, women were expected to bear a child every year.

Gender Violence

Women suffered regular physical mistreatment throughout the nineteenth century.  To up hold their dominant social position, men frequently resorted to violence to assert control over women.  Not surprisingly, very few primary sources from the time period document these acts.  Still, one need only look to the traditional southern music popular at the time for evidence of these practices.  Murder was a common topic in popular ballads at the time.  As Kirk Hutson notes, in the Frank C. Brown collection, more than half of all murder ballads that originated in North Carolina concerned the death of a women rather than men.  These ballads were also some of the most popular out of all folk music in the state.

The Impact of Southern Industrialization

At the turn of the century, southern society changed drastically.  A once relatively isolated rural people, mountaineers were forced to change their lifestyles as railroads expanded into their towns and brought with them the previously alien forces of corporation and industry.  Women and men alike began to enter the labor force as absentee companies acquired the land that their families had farmed for generations.

Some women took up labor in factories, working alongside men under dangerous and unsanitary conditions.  Others, like Millie Saunders and Estalena Graybeal, were pushed toward purely domestic roles as their responsibilities on the farm were no longer required.  In 1940, for example, Estalena worked for a salary as a privately hired cook in another home.  Millie worked in her own home for no wages at all.  In Millie and Estalena's case, industrialization only reinforced their limitation to the domestic sphere.  Industrialization seemed to pose many new issues for women in the south.


Eller, Ronald D. Miners, Millhands, and Mountaineers: Industrialization of the Appalachian South, 1880-1930. 1st ed. Knoxville: U of Tennessee, 1982. Print.

Hutson, C. Kirk. "'Whackety Whack, Don't Talk Back': The Glorification of Violence Against Females and the Subjugation of Women in Nineteenth-Century Southern Folk Music." Journal of Women's History 8.3: 114-42. Print.

Poppendorf, Alexandria. "Women and Gender Roles in the Antebellum South." Theta-Delta Phi Alpha Theta History Journal Austin Peay State University IV (April 2014). Women and Gender Roles in the Antebellum South. Web. 11 Dec. 2015.

1940 U.S. census, Burke County, North Carolina, Jonas Ridge, enumeration district (ED) #12-7, p. #1A, dwelling #1, Millie Hughes; digital image, ProQuest, HeritageQuest Online (access through participating libraries: accessed 11/24/15); roll #T627_2880.

For more information on Millie Saunders and Estalena Graybeal, click here.


By Peter Ciporin