Last week at the Oxford film festival, I saw the scariest film I had seen in a good, long while. The monster that re-emerged from its crypt was not a slime-covered zombie, exactly. The thing that made me afraid of things that go bump in the night was not a decaying ghoul. She was wearing a hoop skirt, a corset, and she was about sixteen years old, very cute, in fact. My horror was not due to her so much as the people who were using her image to try to take away twenty-first century women’s sense of their own rights and leadership potential.
Makewright Films, run by two outstanding documentarians, Kathy Conkwright and Mary Makley, documented without apostrophe, for no comment is really necessary, the 1861 Anthenaeum Girls’ School in Columbia, Tennessee, where the antebellum South attempts to rise again, at least the version of it that a man who is clearly at odds with twenty-first century uppity Yankee women like me, founder and historical revisionist Mark Orman has concocted.
The sad thing is that the actual Anthenaeum Girls’ School in Columbia, Tennessee in the actual year of 1861 (not the undead reenactment version) was a place that was exploring the possibility of conferring empowering educations to young ladies of the South. The actual place, shut down some time after shots were fired at Fort Sumter, was a four-year college for young women — this at a time when women’s post-secondary education was a very new thing in this country, North and South. However, Mark Orman, with the conspiracy of several older women, is painting a version of that academy’s past that has no historical foundation. Rather, he gives a speech where he claims to twenty-first century high school girls that the war was over states rights (a view recently decried yet again by credible historians in The Washington Post as recently as this past week) and not slavery, that a greater percentage of freed negroes who remained South owned slaves than did white people in the South, which even if it proved to be true would in no way justify the institution of slavery. He even draws on Paul’s epistle’s exhortation, “Slaves, obey your masters,” as a God-sanctification of the institution as it was practiced in Tennessee in 1861. Let me tell you what I REALLY think, in that offensive Yankee way I have — Mark Orman’s views are repellent, they stem from a clear insecurity about real women’s agency in our current society, and if I were not a Christian (who by the way, would never own slaves or think God wanted me to), I would be out looking for him to kick his ass right now, preferably in front of a bunch of men who would laugh at him later for being beat up by a girl.
Don’t misunderstand me. I have spent a year in the New South — and believe me, brother and sister Yankees, it is not like a black-and-white film strip with fire hoses plowing down scared African-American students praying on courthouse steps. It is a place of vibrant questioning and repositioning, not always smoothly, but always toward a better place. New Southerners are optimistic, progressive, intellectual, curious, and excited about new possibilities in their region and beyond. Guys like Mark Orman are part of a South that New Southerners reject.
Again, I say don’t misunderstand me. Look at this blog — you’ll see a hundred references to Gone with the Wind, a seminal document for Southern Culture. However, at the 1861 Anthaneum Girls’ School, they tell the young women who come there to participate in what can only be loosely called a reenactment that Southern ladies are not allowed in hoop skirts to behave as Scarlett O’Hara. Instead, they exhort them to behave like Melanie Wilkes. Even if I were the most racially and gender-issue insensitive teenage girl bitten by the fashion bug of 1861, I would drop my bustle and get out of the hoop skirt right then — because Scarlett is awesome, and Melanie is mealy-mouthed.
Once they have laid the foundation of a false construction of racial issues in the South, they then proceed with their primary project — that of teaching twenty-first century girls that being a lady means being self-effacing, having no right to decide to move even from one part of a room to another without a proper escort, that it means never standing up to a bully in any direct manner.
Understand that the girls who attend this so-called school are marvelous young women — one was there poignantly looking for a trace of her deceased mother, whom she had seen in a period costume photo taken at Dollywood. Another was clearly bitten by the aforementioned fashion bug, and with the complicity of her mother, she had a million outfits that were spectacular — making her the belle of any Edith Head Hollywood production set in the Old South. Another girl, who won a prize for being the best lady of the term, was bright, lovely, kind to others, beautiful in old-world terms (think not slutty-looking), and mentioned a desire to climb the corporate ladder, but she had decided she wanted to do it — she actually said it — without equal rights. If I were a relative of hers, I’d be staging an intervention right now. The last, and possibly the most disturbing story of the whole film, was a rather geeky girl who had tons of personality, lots of opinions. The film leaves her looking more poised and grown-up, but she says that she has learned that a lady is someone who doesn’t stand out — she is a part of the background, only part, as she put it, of the big picture.
That’s why I’d go to Tennessee, but for the love of Jesus, and beat that fat Mark Orman to a pulp if I hadn’t made a promise to God to behave in a manner not more ladylike but more Jesus-like — for that girl, the one whose character he apparently crushed.
Why do I take this so personally? Because, I, too, received without irony the disempowerment lecture that these girls received.
When I was in eighth grade, I attended a girls’ school — Castilleja School for Girls. On Founder’s Day, back in the 1980s, the year I was in eighth grade, they made us listen to a lecture from the vice president of the alumni association. She told us in no uncertain terms that ladies do not pursue careers and marriages — that the few most spinsterly among us might just need a career, but those of us with the slightest feminine charm should go trolling for a rich husband whose career we would support with our intellectual efforts and whose children we would raise without seeking something that credited us apart from this family unit. Even in eighth grade, some of the girls there had already begun trolling, with their mothers egging them on.
This vice president of the alumni association was eloquent — I remember most distinctly something she said, even today. She said that any woman who had ever protested or fought in any indirect way for her rights, including the right to vote was “a wingless valkyrie of questionable sexual orientation.”
What a vivid turn of phrase! Clearly, she had done well in English before she quit thinking for herself.
I remember, at age 13, sitting there, in the front row (because I had arrived almost late), realizing that I had just seen it all spelled out for me. On one side of an insuperable barrier — there were the ladies, like the woman with the face lift and the slicked-back bun in front of me, talking, insulting my grandmother and great-grandmother and mother, who were all pioneering heroines for women’s rights. On the other side of the barrier — there were my ancestresses and women in viking garb, singing but not flying, Marlene Dietrich, who had already impressed me with her powerful, pan-sexual ethos sizzling on the screen in fishnets in black and white, and other women, complicated, maybe not all happy. However, at least they were not pretending to be happy like the women on the other side, the ladylike side, of the barrier. These wingless women were apparently talking in loud tones about things they really cared about, not like the Castilleja’s mother’s club, that pretended to like each other but stabbed each other in the back while wiping their vampirically lipsticked mouths with monogrammed napkins when any of the others of them would leave the lunch table — yes, I had heard them, too. I knew whose party I wanted to be invited to — it wasn’t the smug supper club. It was the wingless valkyrie rave.
I thank Castilleja School for Girls for trying unsuccessfully to disempower me for the twenty-first century. It clarified a bundle of things.
I left the next year and went to public school in no small part because of this speech.
I thank the makers of Makewright films for clarifying things, too. I have never been prouder of my ancestors who fought with the Yankees against slavery. I have never been prouder of myself for speaking loudly, having opinions and demanding that others who may not find them palatable hear them, for getting arrested for women’s rights and for the end of Apartheid. I know which side of the barrier between Old South and New South on which I belong, and that Mason-Dixon Line I will never cross unarmed.
Every feminist should watch this film. The fight isn’t over. The grapes of wrath are still in the field waiting to be trampled. If anyone wants to come trample them with me, let me know.