Southern Belle 19th Century

Featured Image: Beautiful portrait of an Antebellum Southern Lady that was donated to the Le Pavillon Hotel in New Orleans on the condition that she not be identified

"You know how women sell themselves and are sold in marriage from queens downward, eh? You know what the Bible says about slavery and marriage; poor women! poor slaves!"  Mary Boykin Chestnut from her memoir A Dairy of Dixie (1861)

Most picture the 19th century Southern Belle as a beautiful, pampered young girl on her way to a fancy ball wearing an elegant gown. Some define them as coy, willful, selfish, and totally dependent on the men in their life. In reality the wealthy young girls in the South were generally well educated in the areas of reading, writing, arithmetic, music, art, and the French language. Learning to sew and do needlework were also an important part of her education since the clothes were hand sewn back then. The purpose of her education was to prepare her for an advantageous marriage.

*Educational References listed on

Southern Belles … Past & Present

~ Past ~

The following story was passed down in my family from my Grandfather who owned a plantation in Florida before and after the Civil War-
“It’s said that when the girls faced the fact there was no one to wash their clothes for them they just sat down and cried, but they were told that they might just as well get busy—no more fine clothes or theatre parties, but work ahead.”

Once married, the Southern Belle would usually find herself a mistress of a large plantation. Her duty was to be responsible for all household matters and supervision of the household’s slaves. Respectable Southern women were expected to do their part to hold up the plantation image which included being subservient to the powerful husband. The ‘true Southern lady’ was virtuous, self-sacrificing, and passive. Of course, while making sure the household was in perfect order, she was expected to be the perfect hostess and organize the lavish balls and receptions that were part of the social life. Many times the mistress was the one called upon for help in treating the sick on the plantation and in other times of distress when the husband was not around.

~ Present ~

The original definition of a 'Southern Belle' was a daughter of a white wealthy elitist Southern plantation owner. The 'true' Southen Belle has ceased to exist.

The right to love whom others scorn,
The right to comfort and to mourn,
The right to shed new joy on earth,
The right to feel the soul's high worth …
Such women's rights, and God will bless
And crown their champions with success. [1]

The antebellum southern women of elite or upper middle-class origins was viewed as ‘ideal perfection of womanhood’ at this time. [2] She was perceived as physically weak and to secure the male protection she needed, the southern lady was endowed with the ability to cast a ‘magic spell’ over any man in her proximity. Beauty, grace, restraint, modesty, and charm were the attributes that described the southern woman in such literary publications as the Southern Ladies Companion and the Southern Quarterly Review in the 19th century. [3]
Godey’s Lady’s Book 1855

George Fitzhugh’s Sociology of the South (1854) book describes the ideal southern woman:

So long as she is nervous, fickle, capricious, delicate, diffident and dependent, man will worship and adore her. Her weakness is her strength, and her true art is to cultivate and im- prove that weakness. Woman naturally shrinks from public gaze, and from the struggle and com- petition of life. Free society has thrown her into the arena of industrial war, robbed her of the softness of her own sex, without conferring on her the strength of ours. In truth, woman, like children, has but one right, and that is the right to protection. The right to protection involves the obligation to obey. A husband, a lord and master, whom she should love, honor and obey, nature designed for every woman… [4]

Author Thomas Nelson Page describes in his book Social Life in Old Virginia Before the War (1897) the southern belle:

She was indeed a strange creature, that delicate, dainty, mischievous, tender, God-fearing, inexplicable Southern girl. With her fine grain, her silken hair, her satiny skin, her musical speech; pleasure-loving, saucy, bewitching - deep down lay the bedrock foundation of innate virtue, piety, and womanliness, on which were planted all for which human nature can hope, and all to which it can aspire. Words fail to convey an idea of what she was; as well try to describe the beauty of the rose or the perfume of the violet. To appreciate her one must have seen her, have known her, have loved her. [5]

Where did this myth of the southern lady derive from? What influences may have contributed to this myth?

One of the earliest examples of instruction for women is from a 14th century manual. The Ménagier de Paris (the Householder or Goodman of Paris, as we might say) wrote this manual for his young wife between 1392 and 1394 to guide her in all household, social, and personal aspects. He instructs her as follows:

She is to be loving, humble, obedient, careful and thoughtful for his person, silent regarding his secrets, and patient if he be foolish and allow his heart to stray towards other women … Patience is an essential quality in wives, and, however sorely tried they must never complain … he tells of the wife of a famous avocat in the parliament of Paris, who saw to the nurture and marriage of her husband's illegitimate daughter; 'nor did he ever perceive it by one reproach, or one angry or ugly word… [6]

The Book of the Courtier by Castiglione published in 1528, became the authoritative manual on aristocratic manners and behavior. (Today, it remains the most definitive account of life among the Renaissance nobility.) This Book of the Courtier set the model for books on these subjects which by the eighteenth century would be directed toward women and incidentally written by men. [7] Purity, softness, and spirituality were promoted along with pleasing their husband’s needs.

The idea of ‘chivalry’ was introduced following Charlemagne’s empire when Christian religion was viewed as a refuge from those dark years of pillaging and savage anarchy. Knights were recognized as representatives of right and virtue; and defenders of order. King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table were perfect examples of this ideal chivalry. Chivalry could be defined as self-discipline which helped produced Western civilization. [8]

In the American South, chivalry took the form of the gentleman in society. American scholar Richard Weaver asserts:

The order of chivalry took the form of a gentleman caste. As soon as this class had established itself apart on property ownership and slave labor, it invoked the chivalric concept to set itself apart from the commonalty. The gentleman, because he lived up to a self-imposed ideal, was a character enjoying certain prerogatives. His motives could not be impugned; and above all, his word could not be questioned. The highly touchy sense of honor built up on these premises often called for the ritual of the duel, which tells us more about Southern chivalry than does anything else. [9]

Of course, the traditional southern lady of the 19th century has evolved into a more independent woman of today in the 21st century yet it is important to remember the past to realize where our southern traditions and principles derived from that we still practice today. May we cherish and remember our heritage always!

[1] ‘Mrs. Ε. Little, “What Are the Rights of Women?,” Ladies’ Wreath 2 (1848-49): 133, quoted in Barbara Welter, “Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860,” American Quarterly 18 (Summer 1966): 173.

[2] Anne Firor Scott, The Southern Lady: From Pedestal to Politics, 1830-1930, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970), 4.

[3] Ibid.

[4] George Fitzhugh, Sociology for the South: or, The failure of Free Society, (Richmond, VA: A. Morris, 1854), 214.

[5] Thomas Nelson Page, Social Life in Old Virginia Before the War, (New York: Charles Schribner’s Sons, 1897), 58.

[6] Eileen Power, Medieval People, (Project Gutenberg, 2004), 99, 103-104.

[7] Scott, 15.

[8]  R.M. Weaver, “Southern Chivalry and Total War,” The Sewanee Review 53, no. 2 (1945), 268.

[9] Ibid.


  1. Sophia says:

    Hi. This is such an informative article (and website). I came across it while researching for my coursework and this will definitely save my grade. Also, thank you for the references section. Hope you’re doing well. 🙂

    1. Thank you for the kind words Sophia!

  2. Kip K. says:

    My gosh Miss Kimberly, your vision of antebellum belles interpreted in quotes from scholars and those that experienced this idyllic aristocracy, is alluring in so many ways. This page is not only the most comprehensive summary of the demure southern belle, this page is THE best representation of the attributes of the southern belle on the net. It is nothing short of Rebelicious!

    1. Thank you Kip for the sweet words! I sent you an email 2 months ago about my upcoming wedding? I never heard back..

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