Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository


Doctor of Philosophy




Margaret M.R. Kellow


What did the city mean for plantation women in the slaveholding South? This dissertation documents how a privileged group of women experienced and represented urban space in a society primarily defined by its rurality. From the very beginning of colonization and until the end of slavery, cities like Charleston and New Orleans occupied a key place in the lives of these women. Bridging the artificial gap between country and city present in the historiography, this study revises the plantation mythology, which contends that plantation mistresses rarely went to town, and when there, they seldom ventured beyond the domestic space. After examining the residential pattern of elite planting families, characterized by seasonal migrations and absenteeism, it explores the interplay between gender, space, and power in the city. Town houses, yards, theaters, ballrooms, libraries, coffee houses, parks, and streets were sites of intense gendered politics in the Old South. Whether they were born on a rice or a cotton plantation, whether they were Americans or Creoles, whether they were young belles, middle aged matrons or older widows, plantation women overwhelmingly took pleasure in a season in town. Even though a number of them were somewhat ambivalent about the moral and sexual dangers of the city, they still valued the proximity of social networks and the urban amenities. In all cases, however, their enjoyment of the city was based on the exploitation of the enslaved, either in the cotton fields or the urban household.