Imaging nineteenth-century women: There’s a tendency, to which I am not immune, to imagine women of earlier centuries as more constrained, mentally and physically, than today’s women, especially those in the western world, and to think that those women of the past were held back personally and professionally by their social and political milieu. Certainly, that was in many ways the case, and the references to women’s lives that have come down to us in non-fiction and in fiction texts convey glimpses of both the sense of promise and of limitation felt by many women.
As I consider not just nineteenth-century women, but nineteenth-century Southern women, I must confess that all those clichés about Southern belles from films, books, and other media also come to mind. Since I began living in this Alabama town, I’ve encountered a version of the past and Southern womanhood in the form of the town’s Belles: young women who are involved in historic preservation and community service. I first saw the Belles at a parade that was part of the university’s game day events. As I walked downtown, I saw them strolling by in pastel dresses with wide hoops skirts that swayed as they walked. The Belles include both white and African American participants; it’s good to see such diversity, one more reminder of how much has changed in Alabama’s history, yet the sight has a particular poignancy given that the period of history to which the Belles’ costumes refer was less than welcoming to non-whites. So too the vision of the Belle—the genteel lady on the plantation wearing clothes meant not for work, but ornamentation—sits rather strangely on the forms of the independent young women of the town, though it’s great to see so many young women engaging with the town’s history.
A challenge to any notion of nineteenth-century southern women as merely ornamental might be found in the history of three women—Louisa Garland, Ellen Clarkson Bryce, and Amelia Gorgas—whose lives were intertwined with the town, the university, and the nearby B___ Hospital. Contemporaries, these women may also have been friends; certainly, they were all resourceful women who wrought change in their community. Garland was the wife of Landon Garland, president of the university during the Civil War. According to the local stories, it was she who saved the President’s Mansion from fire when the university was destroyed by Union troops. She had been sent to the nearby B____Hospital for safety. On that day, she climbed up to the dome at the top of the Hospital’s main building, whose multiple large windows offer 360 degrees view of the town, the university, and the river. Garland saw Union troops advancing towards the university campus and the President’s Mansion. She raced to the Mansion, only to find Union troops setting fire to it. She chastised them for firing a private dwelling, and, abashed, they put out the flames. The Mansion still stands, a physical reminder of Garland’s courage. Bryce was the wife of the first superintendent of the Hospital, and with him she was deeply involved in the Hospital’s care for its 200 plus patients. She played music for a variety of hospital gatherings, organized events with the nearby university, and took part, one source I located says, in thirty civic organizations. Gorgas was the university’s librarian, post-mistress, and a matron at the hospital for several decades. A picture of her adorns the university’s main library, now named for her, apparently the first building on campus to bear a woman’s name.