South Carolina writer will examine icon as part of Courses for Community

Class will focus on image, myth of Southern belle
By Mary Giunca

Ask most people to draw a picture of a Southern belle, and they will sketch a frail-looking woman in a hoop skirt, holding a parasol and sitting on a pillared porch, Cynthia Boiter said.

The reality is that most Southern "belles," those 19th-century Southern women who lived through the Civil War, were more likely to have dirt under their fingernails and walk behind a mule, she said.

Boiter, a writer and historian, will examine the image of the mythical Southern belle and how it has influenced contemporary writers in a course called Ringing the "Belle."

The class will begin today and continue through Nov. 29 as part of Courses for Community at Salem College. The class will read novels by Dorothy Allison, Kaye Gibbons and Gloria Naylor, as well as short stories.

Boiter grew up near Spartanburg, S.C., and said she hopes that students in the class will want to trade the helpless frailty of traditional Southern-belle images for the resilience and strength of real 19th-century women. After all, only 10 percent of Southern women belonged to the planter class, she said.

"I want women to say, ‘My great grandmother cut the eyes out of the potatoes at the kitchen table and planted them and watched them grow. She harvested them and cooked them,’" Boiter said. "How empowering is that?"

The image of the Southern belle has a powerful hold on people’s imaginations, Boiter said, even when they understand how unrealistic it is.

"Basically, a Southern belle takes on iconic proportions," Boiter said. "She tends to represent purity, religion. She’s on a pedestal. She represents the ideal good."

Women sometimes see the role as a refuge from the stresses of life, Boiter said, although in modern times many of the characteristics that people associate with Southern belles have negative connotations. Belles tend to have a sense of entitlement. They are indirect and manipulative, and they don’t speak their minds, she said.

After the Civil War, the image of the Southern belle was kept alive by three main influences, she said.

The United Daughters of the Confederacy used the image as a way to redeem the cause of war and antebellum culture, she said. Most descendants of Confederate veterans, though, were from the yeoman farmers, not the planter class.

During the Southern literary renaissance, such writers as William Faulkner romanticized plantation culture, Boiter said.

Finally, through such movies as Gone With the Wind, the media pushed images of languid ladies in hoop skirts swooning before handsome Southern gentlemen.

Often the belle stereotype was created to keep women in their place, she said.

In the years following World War II, the stereotype was an effective way to push women out of the factories and other jobs they had held, Boiter said. Such 1950s fashions as crinolines and pumps enhanced women’s femininity, though they made movement difficult.

Boiter said that until the last 20 years or so, most people accepted those idealized images of femininity as true. She compares it to people 150 years from now taking Julia Roberts as the typical early 21st-century woman.

As history has begun to examine the lives of real people as well as famous ones, more attempts have been made to include women, she said.

Carolyn McCrory, who signed up for the class, said that she was born in Colorado and is not a belle – but the image still intrigues her.

"I guess there’s a little Scarlett O’Hara in all of us," she said.

Some women respond to Scarlett’s "I’ll think about it tomorrow" philosophy and others respond to the character’s vanity, she said.

The Southern belle lives on in the modern South, McCrory said, in some women’s preoccupation with beauty and fashion, but she said she doesn’t think that it dominates women.

"I think Southern women are just as inquisitive and just as independent as women all over the world," she said.

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