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Saints Or Sinners

May 2024
1min read


In “Southern Women and the Indispensable Myth” (December 1982), what documentation does Shirley Abbott have for her insistence on the exceptional cruelty practiced by Southern women on their slaves? Catherine Clinton in her book The Plantation Mistress does not deny that whippings took place but found that “a majority of those slaves who were not working in the household itself reported favorable treatment from the mistress.” Also, “of the minority of slaves who alleged cruel treatment, only 10 percent claimed that the mistress had whipped or beaten them.” Quoting an authority on slave narratives, Clinton says, “The slave generally saw the mistress of the plantation as a positive influence in the slave system.”

In Catherine Clinton’s book the plantation mistress comes off as a person who had a lot more work to do than Scarlett O’Kara ever did, especially while her husband was away (a good deal of the time), did her work remarkably well, and despite occasional human lapses, deserves a better place in history than Abbott accords her.



Shirley Abbott replies : Mr. Quin has apparently not understood the point I was trying to make. What I wrote was that a large number of plantation mistresses “must have been intelligent, capable, and kind-hearted,” and I never once questioned that they worked hard. Contrary to the literary and political myth, however, they were not ministering angels in the Ellen O’Hara fashion but human beings. As I further pointed out, it is worth noting that in John Blassingame’s massive collection, Slave Testimony , with its firsthand, documented accounts, a significant number of slaves told of cruel treatment at the hands of white women. For other evidence of that kind, Mr. Quin might read Gerda Lerner’s biography of the Grimké sisters, or the writings of the Grimkés themselves. I am glad Catherine Clinton is so confident that the slaves admired their owners’ wives. To me, that’s wishful thinking—a surmise. Surely, at this late date, we can all agree, however, that whether Southern ladies were saints or sinners, slavery was evil, damaging to black and white souls alike.

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