21st Century Southern Belles

This looks to be a fairly interesting documentary.  Here is a brief description:

The Civil War may be long over, but the spirit of rebellion is hard to extinguish even in something as innocent as a girls’ summer camp. Southern Belle is an insider’s look at the 1861 Athenaeum Girls’ School in Columbia, Tennessee, where the antebellum South rises again. Every summer, young women from around the world eagerly sign up to become that iconic and romantic image of southern identity: the southern belle, replete with hoop skirt, hat and gloves, singing the region’s anthem, “Dixie.”  However, the camp can only achieve this version of Southern femininity by whitewashing the past. The teachers, all of whom work for no compensation, hope to instill genteel manners and build pride in southern heritage. To accomplish this, they have carefully selected the time period so they can share the “truth” with the next generation about why the South seceded from the Union. For them, the Civil War had little to do with slavery and everything to do with states’ rights and unfair taxation.

The film reveals why the stakes in teaching this romantic, segregated history are high. By promulgating a southern identity that erases emancipation as a cause of the Civil War and glorifies a disempowered female image detached from the brutality of the lifestyle that supported her, the camp ultimately reinforces divisions between race, gender, and geography in the present.  To understand the Athenaeum Girls’ School’s icon of the Old South is to better understand the issues that continue to define and divide America today.

I would much prefer to see a reenactment of one of the famous bread riots.

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66 comments… add one
  • James Monroe Jun 1, 2013 @ 10:25

    Would it make you people happy for your stupid attacks of historical accuracy if they brought a bunch of black girls in & made them slaves for a week??? You people are about the most ignorant bunch of pseudo-intellectuals I’ve ran across in a long time. There was a black girl in attendance at the camp. I’m sure more would go if they didn’t have to listen to ridicule from a bunch of fake liberals & whimsical historians who are more interested in stroking their own egos by spouting negativity instead of seeing what’s fun, interesting & innovated about this camp.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 1, 2013 @ 11:15

      Hi James,

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. Just to clarify, are you upset with the comments to the post or the commentary in the video or both?

  • kristi p Aug 18, 2012 @ 22:33

    i’m a northerner and i just watched the show on pbs. i am also a period romantic and loved the jane austin era. i do not see anything wrong with what the foundation is doing. the school is actually run by the historic foundation to educate girls on the antebellum ways of women of that era. it’s not even a real school it’s more like a retreat. the civil war was fought for many reasons not just slavery! lighten up people.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 19, 2012 @ 3:11

      Thanks for the comment, but with all due respect I would suggest you do some reading. Start with Thavolia Glymph’s Out of the House of Bondage.

  • Andy Hall Jun 20, 2011 @ 11:14

    Why is the male instructor dressed up as a clergyman? Did I miss something?

    • Arleigh Birchler Jun 20, 2011 @ 11:34

      The school was founded by a clergyman and his wife. It was a respected school offering young woman an education comparable to that offered young men, quite an achievment for any time. The fact that they have tied the experience to the year 1861 is what bothers me. Whether or not the founders of the school would approve of this modern event is another thing I wonder about.


      • Mic Theory Oct 10, 2011 @ 4:37

        Whitewashing history is commonplace with organizations like this how could they explain the numerous accounts of child molestation,murder,torture,illicit adulterous relationships between slaves and owners of all genders. Even the vdocumented case of Liburn Lewis President Jefferson’s cousin who chopped a 12 year old slave boy up alive in front of 50 witnesses!Maybe describe how wives were raped by masters in front of their families or explain why 90 percent of lynchings involved cutting off genitalia. How seminole,Cherokee and Choctaw indian tribes were massacred because they intermarried with escaped slaves, something to think about for all the caucasians who claim to be part native. Those are the real stories of the Antebellum south

        • Kevin Levin Oct 10, 2011 @ 4:50

          Slavery was indeed a violent system and while the experiences of those in bondage fall along a wide spectrum there is no doubt that aspects of it have been downplayed and even ignored entirely. One aspect of this is the extent to which white southern women disciplined slaves. I highly recommend Thavolia Glymph’s book, Out of the House of Bondage (Cambridge University Press, 2008).

        • Arleigh Birchler Oct 10, 2011 @ 8:49

          I am sure all of those viscious crimes happened, but I do not believe that they were supported by all of those living in the area, not even all of the free whites. Those actions were condemned by many people. Not enough. But you cannot condemn an entire group of people based upon the actions of a few.

          • Kevin Levin Oct 10, 2011 @ 8:57

            Why don’t you read his comment again. You are reading way too much into his what he said, Arleigh.

        • mark Aug 12, 2013 @ 14:15

          Quite an imagination there.

  • Arleigh Birchler Jun 20, 2011 @ 6:58


    I think you may be aware that the Kansas/Missouri War is extremely personal for me. I had ancestors within a few miles of both sides of that border. One set were in Eudora, just outside of Lawrence. The other set was in Cass County. I take it very personally.

  • Marianne Davis Jun 20, 2011 @ 4:22

    I was completely charmed by the young woman who said she was able to use this week to learn about her past. We must forgive her, I think, for so glibly separating her history for the history of her African-American fellow Americans. She is young, and the young are famously self-focused. What was most charming to me was her assumption that her own ancestors would have been decked out in crinolines and silks. Wouldn’t it be more realistic for most of these girls to have spent a week hoeing crops with wooden tools, carrying the family’s water and mending homespun clothing?
    Shouldn’t they be learning that generations of young Southerners spent significantly less time in schools than their Northern cousins simply because planters refused to tax themselves? Whites suffered from the same economic system that enslaved African-Americans. Then they were sold a bill of goods about states’ rights and heritage and sent off to battle. Perhaps these girls, now that they are allowed to go to school, should spend some time with real teachers.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 20, 2011 @ 5:12

      I don’t blame any of these kids for their distorted views of the past. Most of these girls seem to be transfixed by Gone With the Wind, but what could have been a catalyst for deeper understanding of the history of elite Southern women turned out to be nothing more than an opportunity to push this mythology deeper.

    • Arleigh Birchler Jun 20, 2011 @ 6:36

      I think your post is very insightful, Marianne. Most events anything like this are fantasies. How we wish things had been instead of how they really were. I doubt seriously that the girls who attend this are required to prove that they are direct descendants of aristocratic ladies of central Tennessee. Even for the aristocrats, however, a fancy ball was a fantasy escape from day to day life.

  • London John Jun 20, 2011 @ 0:48

    “That’s probably a good thing. It would have added a whole other layer of crazy to the situation.”
    I assume that in the US, as in the UK, the school would not be allowed to discriminate on racial grounds against applicants. So why would an African-American young lady want to take part? No idea, but I believe that, while there were no Black Confederates, there are A-A Confederate re-enactors.
    I think part of the problem is that many people do not regard history as the best available estimate of what actually happened, but as what they would like it to be, so evidence is irrelevant to them.

  • Arleigh Birchler Jun 19, 2011 @ 13:44

    I totally agree with what you are saying, Kevin. Perhaps I am too senditive about comments made about other peoples sexuality and morality.

  • Woodrowfan Jun 19, 2011 @ 12:09

    OT, but Happy Juneteenth….

  • Karen Cox Jun 19, 2011 @ 10:42

    There was nothing “catty” about what was said. It was simply an observation on my part that this man, were he gay, would not have been (and is still not) accepted within the Confederate tradition. This is why what he is doing is disingenuous. And neither is it catty to say someone is a “confirmed bachelor.” There was nothing hurtful about either comment. As a gay person, I would be the first to call out someone for making derogatory remarks, but that’s not what was being done here.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 19, 2011 @ 10:46

      Thanks for the clarification, Karen.

    • Arleigh Birchler Jun 19, 2011 @ 11:21

      I was certainly put off by the remark. Perhaps my “gaydar” is faulty, but it did not occur to me to think that the man was gay. Nor would I assume that gay people would have been treated worse in Columbia, Tennessee, in 1861 then elsewhere. From what little I know, homophobia became worse during the twentieth century, not better.

      The general tenor of the discussion had already put me off. There seemed to be a whole lot of condemning a group of people based on almost no evidence as to who they were, how they behaved, or what they believed. Just one racial stereotype after another.

      We can be fairly certain that the families of the students at an academy in western Tennessee in the early nineteenth century would be more likely to own slaves then most. We can also assume that the families of young woman being sent to an academy that taught the same courses as those which trained young men would have been fairly (or even greatly) liberal by the community standards of the time.

      There is no doubt what-so-ever that slave owners had sex with slaves in those times. But to make that a blanket condemnation of every male member of slave owning families is rather racist and sexist in the extreme.

      • Kevin Levin Jun 19, 2011 @ 11:24

        No one is “condemning” anyone, Arleigh. Let’s not go off the deep end here. If anything the comments point to the narrowness of the program and its claim to offer children a realistic understanding of plantation culture during the antebellum and Civil War years.

  • Karen Cox Jun 19, 2011 @ 10:08

    Kevin–Yes, this blog thing is VERY new for me. Baby steps. I may have some questions as I get rolling. Right now, I’m just easing into it.

  • Karen Cox Jun 19, 2011 @ 7:40

    There is so much going on here, it’s hard to know where to begin. So, I’ll just point out something that leaped out at me. The male instructor pretty much screams “I’m gay.” Yet, because this is about preserving Confederate tradition, there is no way he can reveal this and so, he teaches the girls to dance. I imagine this is as stifling to him as the dresses being worn by the students. Still, I find him disingenuous in preserving and promoting a tradition that leaves out so many, including men like himself.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 19, 2011 @ 7:51

      Hi Karen,

      It’s really nice to hear from you and congratulations on your new blog. Let me know if you have any questions about blogging.

      You may, in fact, be right about what motivates the organizer, but I completely agree that this is a dishonest approach to preserving tradition. It’s as far from an accurate depiction of the past that I can imagine.

      • Margaret D. Blough Jun 19, 2011 @ 9:18

        A nice conclusion would be for one of the girls to get a visit from her daddy who will announce that he has arranged a marriage for her with a man old enough to be her grandfather & who is a loathsome human being but who has sufficient assets to save the family plantation. and that she has no choice but to go through with it.

    • Margaret D. Blough Jun 19, 2011 @ 9:19

      Actually, I think the euphemism for that in the 19th and much of the 20th century was that the gentleman in question was a “confirmed bachelor” (EXAMPLE: term often used to describer the 15th US president James Buchanan)

      • Kevin Levin Jun 19, 2011 @ 9:21

        LMAO 🙂

        • Ken Noe Jun 19, 2011 @ 10:15

          Wow, I have to say, I’m disappointed at the tenor of this entire sub-discussion. Just one conversation with a suicidal kid will convince you that catty remarks about people’s alleged sexuality are not cool at all.

          • Kevin Levin Jun 19, 2011 @ 10:31

            You are absolutely right, Ken. Sorry about that.

    • Billy Bearden Jun 19, 2011 @ 17:55


      Where does one go in the Northern climes to hear about Abraham Lincoln and his lover Joshua Speed? Maybe Kevin will teach this in Boston? For the sake of your desire to be diverse?

  • marooned Jun 19, 2011 @ 7:01

    One of the great things about this site and comments, hereon, is the degree of civility… or is that the moderator!!??

    Every moment is a potential learning-moment.

    There are a lot of things we can learn from this clip. And, yes, I hope to see the whole documentary.

    In today’s “Boston Globe,” there is an article about baseball teams playing by pre-20th century rules with equipment from the period. That mean, hot wool uniforms and no fielding gloves.

    That is certainly fun.

    But, I’ll bet there is not much attention paid to the horrors of public health, life (and death) in the sweatshops, grinding poverty, disparity of wealth that it has taken a hundred years to replicate, rampant racism that included everybody against everybody… Irish… Jewish… Italian…

    No, there is probably not much chat about such.

    I’ve done a bit of 18th century reenactment. Some do get into the whole socio/political understandings. Many are just as superficial as this seems to present.

    Are they understanding the whole pictures of life in 1861… even in Tennessee?

    There could have been a girl with African-American ancestry in the group. There were people with such ancestry who owned slave-plantations. So, that would be another teachable-moment.

    Of course, this site is a whole series of teachable-moments.

  • Arleigh Birchler Jun 18, 2011 @ 17:47

    I had to check a map to find out where Columbia, Tennessee is. Maury County would probably have been pro-Confederate in 1861, so they at least got that part correct. The biggest problem I saw in the video was the fact that they were focusing on 1861-1865. It appears that they are interested in the Antebellum South. Those four years were definitely not representative of any part of Tennessee’s history during the first half of the nineteenth century. For my own part, I would be more interested in things going on about fourty years earlier, when my ancestors lived there, but that is just my own narrow interest.

    • Ken Noe Jun 19, 2011 @ 5:50

      Sam Watkins was from Maury County.

      • Arleigh Birchler Jun 19, 2011 @ 6:40

        Thanks, Ken. I always wondered where he lived. My ancestors lived in the part of Rutherford County that is now Cannon County. They lived along the river that flows north to Woodbury. There is a Sam Watkins listed in the census next to their names (Porter and McFerrin). There are still a few place names in the area that include McFerrin. Sam Watkins is probably a common name, but he could have been the father or grandfather of the author. Company Aytch is one of my favorite memoirs of the War Between the States. There was a McFerrin who served under Col Feild, in a different company then the one Sam Watkins was in.

  • TF Smith Jun 18, 2011 @ 14:50

    My guess is that Nina Silber and Chandra Manning are NOT on the required reading list…

    • Kevin Levin Jun 18, 2011 @ 15:49

      I would love to see these kids read a chapter from Thavolia Glymph’s Out of the House of Bondage.

      • Margaret D. Blough Jun 18, 2011 @ 16:09

        Or begin to deal with the fact that the lifestyle that they so covet was based on slave labor. And that they, even though they were white, would have very few legal protections against the whims of their husbands and fathers.

        • TF Smith Jun 19, 2011 @ 9:50

          Perhaps they can re-enact realizing that their half-sisters lived in the slave quarters, and dear old poppa (and or hubby) were spending most of his nights down there, rather than in the big house.

  • Christian Snow Jun 18, 2011 @ 14:26

    “If they went to Africa and learned about their heritage, I wouldn’t consider that racist, because they’re learning about their family and where they come from just like i’m doing here. we just come from different places and see things differently.”

    There are so many questions I would like to ask her about that statement alone.

    There is nothing wrong with learning about where you come from as long as it’s the TRUTH and it’s put into CONTEXT. This seems far from it

    • Kevin Levin Jun 18, 2011 @ 15:33

      I don’t know if this girl meant to suggest this, but her comment denies that white and black Americans have a shared history. I don’t know which is worse, being completely ignorant of the past or possessing a distorted and even dangerous interpretation.

      • Christian Snow Jun 18, 2011 @ 15:57

        I would say possessing a distorted and dangerous interpretation is worse than being ignorant, because you can pass on the distorted interpretation.

        she would not be the first to deny we have a shared history, or acknowledge that African Americans play any part, any major role, in American history at all. This was a problem my parents had when I was going through school, they felt like I was learning much about my own race’s part in American history. It just makes me sad that a “school” somewhere is consciously telling revisionist history.

        • Kevin Levin Jun 18, 2011 @ 16:00

          I would consider this to be a school in the loosest sense. I would love to see the qualifications of the people who run this program.

          • Christian Snow Jun 18, 2011 @ 16:02

            I agree. I’m considering applying just to see if they would accept me as an African American woman. It would probably be great help to my research to actually get some quotes from these women

            • Kevin Levin Jun 18, 2011 @ 16:03

              I thought I saw at least one African American girl.

              • Christian Snow Jun 18, 2011 @ 16:12

                I watched it again, I don’t see any African Americans

                • Kevin Levin Jun 18, 2011 @ 16:13

                  That’s probably a good thing. It would have added a whole other layer of crazy to the situation.

              • Arleigh Birchler Jun 18, 2011 @ 17:48

                I thought I saw one African-American young lady, also, but I would not be shocked if I discovered I was wrong.

          • Christian Snow Jun 18, 2011 @ 16:02

            Thanks for posting this!

          • Arleigh Birchler Jun 18, 2011 @ 17:50

            I think that I read that the “School” closed early in the twentieth century. This is simply a historical site, or museum now. They apparently offer a few programs, including this one.

      • Arleigh Birchler Jun 18, 2011 @ 17:53

        That is probably the most important point, Kevin. The history of the South to the middle of the nineteenth century (and also on to today), is a shared history of several ethnic groups. It is that shared quality that tends to be over-looked by most everyone. Instead all we ever see is us versus them.

    • Will Stoutamire Jun 18, 2011 @ 15:44

      That’s the statement that stood out to me, as well. Not only for separating her own Southern white “heritage” from slavery, but for relegating “their heritage” to Africa – it’s like a double-down attempt to erase slavery from the discussion.

      • Kevin Levin Jun 18, 2011 @ 15:47

        She is probably not even aware that she is doing so, which makes it all the more disturbing. Their instructor has created a world for these young women in which they can embrace the images of the South that they learned while watching Gone With the Wind.

        • Will Stoutamire Jun 18, 2011 @ 16:05

          Exactly… except in this world, it’s even laughable to consider that you might have had a “Mammy.” Apparently we’re skipping right over the jolly Mammy stereotype, straight to no slaves whatsoever.

          • Kevin Levin Jun 18, 2011 @ 16:07

            Which makes no sense to me whatsoever. I mean, why skip over all that paternalistic goodness? 🙂

          • Christian Snow Jun 18, 2011 @ 16:11

            What’s laughable is that they are trying to recreate a period of time without all the elements and their excuse for excluding the element is that the major event during that time was “not about slavery”. Well neither was it about skirts and dancing either but you include that because it existed in the lives of people during that time. So did slaves. I don’t know if i’d have more or less respect for them if they actually included slaves in their recreation. I guess more, because at least then the portrayal would be accurate…

            • Kevin Levin Jun 18, 2011 @ 16:17

              Keep in mind that a number of the people interviewed viewed this exercise as an escape from the various trappings of modernism. There is a long history of identification with an idealized image of the antebellum South that goes back to the period following the war. Nina Silber has an excellent chapter in her book, Romance of Reunion, in which she analyzes northerners who visited the South at the turn of the 20th century as a way to escape industrial development.

            • Billy Bearden Jun 19, 2011 @ 17:51

              Miss Snow,
              I have been gleefully reading your bias and hate. OK How does one recreate 2011? Should a person want to wear the clothes of someone from 2011 what would be required by you of them to do in those clothes?

              Do they wear the latest fashion and talk incessantly about abortion? Do they slide on a pair of khaki Levis and discuss the finer points of homosexuality? How about just sporting the standard business suit and sing the praises of how well current socialism efforts by our President is working out for our once great nation?

              • Kevin Levin Jun 20, 2011 @ 1:16

                You never fail to disappoint or miss a point, Billy.

                • Arleigh Birchler Jun 20, 2011 @ 6:22

                  You are right, Kevin. I felt the same.

                  150 years later any discussion still rapidly devolves to vindictiveness and name calling. All the ugliest witticisms that we are capable of come out rapidly.

                  At least the ugliness of the T-shirts at the Kansas/Missouri games are a little playful.

                  • Kevin Levin Jun 20, 2011 @ 6:24

                    “At least the ugliness of the T-shirts at the Kansas/Missouri games are a little playful.”

                    It’s nice to be able to pick and choose what you interpret as “ugliness.”

                • Woodrowfan Jun 20, 2011 @ 7:36

                  to be fair to Billy, his version of 2011 is as accurate as this “school’s” version of 1861….

              • Christian Snow Jun 20, 2011 @ 8:56

                Mr. Bearden,
                I apologize if you sensed any hate on my part. I don’t hate anyone, although I do admit my frustration. Other than that I feel like any engagement in a debate with you would be unproductive for as Kevin said, you completely missed the point and it doesn’t seem as if you would like to get it.

                • Kevin Levin Jun 20, 2011 @ 8:57


                  Don’t worry about it. Billy interprets everything that he disagrees with as a form of hate speech. 🙂

                • Andy Hall Jun 20, 2011 @ 9:56

                  Christian, you have to understand that “Billy Bearden” is merely the online persona of a riot grrrl performance art major from a tiny liberal-arts college in Portland, Oregon.

                  That’s not actually true, of course, but his bons mots are much more fun if they’re read as postmodern meta-sarcasm. With a French accent. 😉

  • Thomas Mackie Jun 18, 2011 @ 14:19

    Perhaps we got something backward. Could we colonize THEM? How many damaging mythic images I could not count I just sat a wept.

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