The romanticized “Southern Belle” stereotype of southern women in the Civil War Era is misleading. No matter what their race or station in life, southern women faced many difficulties, such as lack of real freedom. Society in the era of the Civil War pressured women to marry and made it difficult for women to be successful independently. However, success was not impossible and could be achieved with determination and perseverance. Elizabeth Hobbes Keckley is an example of how women could “fight the odds” and be successful independent of any man.
As a woman born into slavery, Keckley faced many challenges. She was separated from the man whom she thought was her father when his master moved. As a young girl, she was subject to sexual abuse from a prominent white man for four years; one encounter resulting in the birth of her son. Keckley survived as a single mother in a time when this status was judged harshly. She eventually marriedJames Keckley, though expressed her reluctance to bring another child into slavery.
To support the family who owned her, Keckley worked as a dressmaker. She also used her talent to raise money to buy freedom for both herself and her son. She was able to accumulate the money necessary to become free. Her determination for the freedom she knew she and her son deserved surpassed her husband’s. Their marriage ended when Keckley decided to leave. Though it is common in present society to end a marriage due to irreconcilable differences, in the Civil War Era, leaving a marriage was looked down upon.
In the Civil War era, women had no real freedom. Women’s fates were often determined by their fathers or husbands. Early in the Civil War, there was a lot of pressure for women to be married and many had an extreme fear of becoming a “spinster.”Her determination led her to the White House as the personal dressmaker and confidant to Mary Todd Lincoln.
Though there was pressure to marry and be taken care of, Elizabeth Keckley proved that a single mother could achieve success. Her story is significant because as a slave, she had to overcome additional barriers. But her hard work paid off and landed her a great career in the White House.
Hacker, J. David, Libra Hilde, and James Holland Jones. “The Effect of the Civil War on Southern Marriage Patterns.” The Journal of southern history. no. 1 (2010): 39-70. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3002115/ (accessed October 5, 2013).
Keckley, Elizabeth. Behind the Scenes. New York: George W. Carleton, & Co., Publishers., http://digilib.nypl.org/dynaweb/digs/wwm9713/@Generic__BookView (accessed October 5, 2013).