The American South before the Civil War was the site of an unprecedented social experiment in women's education. The South, which ostracized the strong-minded woman, offered women an education explicitly designed to equal that available to men, while maintaining and nurturing the gender conventions epitomized by the ideal of the Southern belle. This groundbreaking work provides us with an intimate picture of the entire social experience provided by antebellum women's colleges and seminaries in the South, analyzing the impact of these colleges upon the cultural construction of femininity among white Southern women, and their legacy for higher education.
Christie Farnham here discusses the relationships between teacher and student, the nature of female friendship, the impact of slavery on faculty and students, and the role of the schools within the larger social community. Further, she investigates the contradictions inherent in appropriating a male-defined curriculum to educate females in this particular society, and explores how educators denied these incongruities.
Through correspondence, journals, and scrapbooks, the author deftly highlights the emotional life of students, the role of sororities, and the significance of the May Day queen ritual and its relationship to evangelical images of the Christian lady. These same original sources yield fascinating insights into the special intimacy that often characterized friendships between female pupils. Farnham closes her work with a discussion of how the end of the Civil War brought with it a failure to maintain the advances that had been achieved in women's education.
The most comprehensive history to date of this brief and special period, The Education of the Southern Belle is welcome reading for anyone interested in women's history, Southern history, women's studies, the history of American education, and female friendship.
"Farnham has uncovered a wealth of information about a virtually untouched topic."
-Joan Hoff, Professor of History, Indiana University, Co-editor, The Journal of Women's History