In watching Gone With the Wind I have always been amazed with the helplessness of Scarlett O’Hara and how she both fits the classic mold of the genteel, southern woman who needs someone to look after her. From the very beginning of the film, when Scarlett is doting on two beaus, she gets angry at the word that Ashley is going to marry someone other than herself, she storms off, to which her mammy calls out the window after her that she needs a shawl.
This and many other themes of how a woman should behave and other feminine stereotypes are shown throughout the film, as in other films depicting the era. Stereotypes like the idea that she needs a chaperon wherever she may go, as depicted when planning on going to Atlanta to ask Rhett Butler for money to pay the taxes on Tara, and Mammy asks her who is going to go with her. The idea that ladies do not work, as the hands are a mark of a true lady, when Scarlett goes Rhett and he sees her hands callused and rough. Or that all good southern women help the Confederate cause in any way they can, when Scarlett helps at a fundraiser even though she is in mourning and not supposed to be out in public at all, though this stereotype is broken when she says she will dance with Rhett after he places a bid on her to raise money for the cause.
Scarlett, on a visit to Atlanta, depicts another stereotype that comes out whenever there is any discussion of women’s involvement in the Civil War, nursing wounded soldiers in a hospital, as the stereotype would lead us to believe, to help the cause and their countrymen as best they can. This stereotype is far from true, as southern women, particularly the elites that Melanie and Scarlett depict, were hesitant to take up nursing jobs for many reasons. The first is that it was labor, someone that women should not be doing in the first place. Two southern elites whose diaries survived the war, Kate Cumming and Phoebe Yates Pember both describe that they had to fight snubbing from their equals for even working.*
Melanie Wilkes is Scarlett’s antagonist, and probably the better depiction of the genteel southern woman. She even helps goes so far as to help The Cause by giving her gold wedding band to help raise money for the cause. While serving as a nurse at the hospital in Atlanta, she stands helplessly next to a soldier’s bed with Scarlett while the solider reminisces about his home. Scarlett says she wants to go home, and Melanie expressed the hope that if Ashley is laid up in some other hospital that he would have someone next to his bedside. She even knows that the only reason that Scarlett stayed to help her rather than run when the Yankees are bombarding Atlanta with cannon fire is because she promised Ashley she would look out for her. Melanie fits the stereotype better if only to antagonize Scarlett.
The helplessness displayed by Scarlett only seems to come to an end when Rhett leaves her on the way to Tara, and she must literally take the reins and find the way home herself. This carries on even after she gets home, when she takes charge of running Tara, forcing her sisters to work the fields, and even shoots a Yankee scoundrel who is apparently planning on raping her, though this is not the end of the helplessness for good. After the war she does seem to have control of her life, but that control is once again taken from her in a shantytown on her way out to her lumber mill, when a couple of men harass her to the point of fainting, and only when the audience sees Big Sam running to help does it feel relieved. Her honor then needs to be saved by the southern gentlemen, who raid the town that night.
Stereotypes of women during the Civil War are used in several other Civil War films, like the depiction of Charlotte in The Undefeated, where the daughter of Confederate Colonel James Langdon needing to be protected by the young southern men from the man that she is in love with (the young man just happens to be Native American). It would seem that the only film that breaks the stereotype of the helpless woman in the south is Shenandoah, where the daughter of the main character puts on her brother’s clothes, grabs a horse and helps in the search of her youngest brother who has been captured by Union troops. When she answers her father’s claim “You’re a woman!” she replies “Yes I’m a woman, but I don’t see anyone here I can’t outrun, outride or outshoot.”
Breaking the stereotype of genteel womanhood seems to be a rarity in films depicting the Civil War, and it would appear there is no explanation for this.
* Jane E. Schultz, Women at the Front: Hospital Workers in Civil War America (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 40.