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.