Scarlett O’Hara a Feminist in the Making

While reading The Reel Civil War by Bruce Chadwick and then watching the movie Gone with the Wind I found myself intrigued by Scarlett O’Hara and her fierce stubbornness to break the modern mold of traditional women while simultaneously sabotaging her own happiness. A woman with such strength and attitude did not fit the predominant southern belle image. The Scarlett O’Hara of Gone with the Wind looks and dresses like a southern belle and her animosity towards the North is in accordance with that of a southern belle, but all resemblance stops there. Her personality which has won over millions of audiences’ hearts depicts the strong spirited and newly liberated woman of the 1920s and 1930s.

Unfortunately there is little coverage regarding American women during the years shortly before and after the Civil War but according to A History of American Women by Carol Hymowitz and Michaele Weissman (this happens to conveniently be a fully accessible and free ebook on Google) women were independent during the war as is typically the case. Hyomowitz and Michaele state, “While the men were away fighting, women became managers, decision makers, heads of families, and income earners—roles that had usually been assumed by men.”* When the war began women readily “took up arms” at home and fought for the cause by providing many essential items such as clothing and food or becoming a nurse. Once the war ended many women were proud of their work. Hymowitz and Weissman state, “Many white Southern women saw themselves as the stronger sex. But though they acknowledged their independence, physical strength, and fortitude they never questioned the traditional image of woman as wife and mother.”** It appears the independent woman of the Civil War quickly relinquished the role given to her during the war, so why then did Margaret Mitchell, author of Gone with the Wind create a southern belle character whose acquiescence does not conform to the typical southern belle of the 1860s and 1870s?

It appears that many southern white female writers began to include plot lines with a strong willed southern belle. According to the review of the The Belle Gone Bad—and Just Gone written by Carol S. Manning and reviewed by Emily Toth, “Gone with the Wind’s Scarlett, the quintessential bad belle, is smart, self centered, and mean when she has to be, and this is what saves her. It is also what makes the bad belle endlessly intriguing.”*** This new “bad belle” is indicative of women’s thoughts and feelings at the time the author’s wrote the stories.

Margaret Mitchell began writing Gone with the Wind the infamous love story in 1926 a time where women made many gains especially in the work arena and as a result they explored greater freedom in America than ever before. In the 1920s two types of women existed: the Gibson girl and flapper. Scarlett’s character combines the “bad belle” and flapper in to a synonymous character that intrigues and infuriates. According to the article Prosperity’s Child: Some Thoughts on the Flapper,” by Kenneth Yellis, in American Quarterly, during the 1920s their existed two types of women the Gibson girl (Melanie) and the flapper (Scarlett).****  Yellis expertly describes the dichotomy of these two vastly different types of women stating:

The Gibson girl was maternal and wifely, while the flapper was boyish and single. The Gibson girl was the embodiment of stability. The flapper girl’s aesthetic was motion, her characteristics were intensity, energy, volatility. While the Gibson girl seems incapable of an immodest thought or deed, the flapper strikes us as brazen and at least capable of sin if not actually guilty of it. She refused to recognize the traditional moral code of American civilization, while the Gibson girl had been its guardian.*****

It appears that whereas the bad belle Scarlett has no physical resemblance to the flapper her attitude fits perfectly.

Scarlett’s character takes a stand against the traditional roles of women, she even refuses to have any more children and seems withdrawn from the only child she had. In addition, she owns her own business, drinks, and will stop at no ends to ensure her own prosperity. Whereas most women were not at the point of giving up motherhood many were in essence sick and tired of the traditional and often boring role of women both historically and figuratively in literature. Women felt liberated during the Civil War and World War I having had the opportunity to break out of the traditional and mundane housewife role to realize their potential to provide and maintain for their families. In the Reel Civil War, by Bruce Chadwick, he admits, “Although about 25 percent of the women in America worked during the late 1930s and women had voted since 1920, they were still constrained, shackled by their role in the family and society.***** The 1920s saw greater advancements for women as compared to any other time in American history but ultimately women still felt frustrated as Chadwick admits and Scarlett O’Hara’s character proves. The proof lies with the stubborn and strong-spirited Scarlett who captured the hearts of women, their admiration depicts a desire to break the traditional mold. As a disclaimer I feel I should also say that whereas women admired her fierceness, her lack of caring for her child and any desire for future children along with her inability to find happiness were probably not sought after characteristics. It is her character as a whole that attracts audiences and the latter that makes a fantastic soap opera.

*Hymowitz, Carol, and Weissman, Michaele. A History of Women in America. New York: Bantam, 1984. chapter 9. (there were no page numbers online, sooo. . . sorry)

**Hymowitz and Michaele, chapter 9.

***Emily Toth. Rev. of The Belle Gone Bad: White Southern Women Writers and the Dark Seductress, by Betina Entzminger. South Central Review. Volume 22. Issue 1. (Spring 2005): pp. 120-122. JSTOR. Web. 13 June 2012.

****Kenneth A. Yellis. “Some Thoughts on the Flapper.” American Quarterly. Volume 21. Issue 1. (Spring 1969): pp. 44. JSTOR. Web. 13 June 2012.

***** Yellis, 44.

****** Bruce Chadwick, The Reel Civil War: Mythmaking in American Film, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf Publishing, 2001), 223.

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6 comments
  1. jadams08 said:

    I really found your post intriguing and led me to question women’s roles in the past as well as today. During the time of the movie the nation was embracing a new era, the Great Depression. I think women have always been behind the scenes taking care of business at home and outside the home. Since most of history is written from a male perspective we don’t generally ever hear about what women were doing or how they were behaving. I relate Scarlet really to today’s woman and more personally myself. How do I balance my psychological manner of pursuing a life outside the home while still having children. Is there a balance or is this something women have struggled with for decades? I really liked your post and caused some deep thoughts within myself and the role of women today.

  2. #2- In reference to the Scarlett O’Hara a Feminist in the Making- I appreciated your post which provided an intriguing feminist angle: In the movie Gone With the Wind, Scarlett definitely portrays a stubborn and strong willed female which would be likely for an overly indulged daughter of a wealthy plantation owner like Mr. O’Hara. Nevertheless, the comment in regards to women having to fend for themselves during wartime is accurate because women have had to “hold up the fort” while their men are at war. Traditionally women have always had the motherly and nurturing roles, but in the hour of need they have also had to take on the role of strength, determination, and in most cases they also needed to be the sole providers when their men were out fighting a war, as was the case during WWII when women went out to work in war time production factories.

  3. I often find myself infuriated and frustrated at the same time just trying to decide if I want to continue on the path of education and adventure or settle down and raise a family. It seems like even today where women have greater equality than ever before that we’re still faced with choosing one or the other. It’s definitely more acceptable to have a job and a family but women who dedicate significant energy towards their career are still scrutinized. The majority of research I’ve completed as well as scientific research suggests that women are happier having a career and family than just one or the other. Quite frankly the many women I know who hold a career and have a family stress me out, lol. I think the fact that women are capable of managing both while playing the role of martyr demonstrates their greatest strength and weakness.

    • Kristen Epps said:

      This is quite true, because I’ve certainly faced some very confused faces when I’ve told people that I put my career first. We are capable of having both, but society still resists women who don’t fit the traditional, feminine mold.

  4. I wonder why women after having gained so much during wars are suddenly inclined to let the men take up residence and return to their routine of housewife? I had an epiphany while completing some of the research for the post, it was that after wars is when women typically make greater gains in equality. The change doesn’t happen overnight by any means but it appears that when things settle down women decide to take a stand and ask for what is rightly theirs. I plan on doing some more research on that and seeing where it goes…

    • Kristen Epps said:

      The 1950s are interesting in this regard, because gender roles became solidified again after World War II. I like to tell my students that progress doesn’t mean a steady march of improvement; there are dips and valleys along that road where we actually *lose* ground.

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