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JoAnn Marshall - The Roles of Southern Women, Black and White, in Society

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JoAnn Marshall - The Roles of Southern Women, Black and White, in Society

Lillian Smith provides a description of the typical black woman and the typical white woman "of the pre-1960's American South" (Gladney 1) in her autobiographical critique of southern culture, Killers of the Dream. The typical black woman in the South is a cook, housekeeper, nursemaid, or all three wrapped up in one for at least one white family. Therefore, she is the double matriarch of the South, raising her own family and the families of her white employers: "It was not a rare sight in my generation to see a black woman with a dark baby at one breast and a white one at the other, rocking them both in her wide lap" (Smith 130). The southern black woman's duties extend far beyond rearing children, as she also serves as a family counselor, confidant, and nurse for the entire white family (Smith 129) and her own if time permits. She can do all this and more because she is strong, wise, and insightful in all areas of life (Smith 119). In short, the southern black woman is the cornerstone of the southern, domestic life. The white woman in the South has an equally important role. The southern white woman is responsible for maintaining southern social order, better known as Southern Tradition.

She establishes "the 'do' and the 'don't' of behavior" (Smith 132) in her children and believes, "If you could just keep from them all the things that must never be mentioned, all would be well!" (Smith 142). At the same time, the southern white woman sits atop the pedestal of Sacred Womanhood that her husband and his ancestors built for her (Smith 141). She meekly sits there, a symbol of southern society used to benefit men's ideals, feeling empty and powerless against everything going on around her (Smith 141-2). The whispers in her children's ears and her presence on that pedestal fulfill the white woman's role as protectress of Southern Tradition, but does not fulfill the southern white woman. In fact, the roles of the southern black woman and the southern white woman are equally important and equally oppressive: "In a culture where marriage and motherhood were women's primary roles, neither black nor white women were free to be fully wives or mothers, and neither were able to shield their children from the physical and psychic destruction of the racist society in which they lived" (Gladney 6).
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