Documenting the American South Logo
oral histories of the American South
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Harriette Arnow, April, 1976. Interview G-0006. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Expected gender behavior for young southern girls in the early twentieth century

In this excerpt, Harriet Arnow describes how her grandmother, "Grandma Denney," played a prominent role in her upbringing. According to Arnow, it was her grandmother, rather than her mother, who was primarily concerned with teaching Arnow and her sisters how to speak and behave like "ladies." Her description offers a unique perspective on expected gender behavior in the South during the early twentieth century. Moreover, in focusing on the interplay between three generations of southern women, Arnow alludes to changing gender norms as well.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Harriette Arnow, April, 1976. Interview G-0006. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

Grandma tried harder to make what she called "ladies" out of us. We were not supposed to slump. If she found me sitting the way I am now, she'd make a remark about it and suggest or tell me to walk around a while with a book on my head. And she'd talk about the old days. I don't know whether she'd been to such a school or not where the girls in school wore back boards.
MIMI CONWAY:
Oh, like a finishing school or something.
HARRIETTE ARROW:
Yes. To make them sit and stand straight, and she sighed for the days when women were well corseted in those corsets. Mama had such a corset in the attic, but she never wore it. They had steel in them as well as whalebone. M. C.: How did your mother feel about having. . . . I think there were four daughters and one son?
HARRIETTE ARROW:
Five.
MIMI CONWAY:
Five daughters and one son. Did she share Grandmother Denney's, her own mother's, view about having you be ladies?
HARRIETTE ARROW:
She worried less about that, I think. Our mother had migraine headache among other things. When I was a child and walking through Burnside-you know, everybody knew everyone else-and the question was always, "Well, how's your mother holding up?" Mama didn't live; she just held up. And of course she bore six children; that's enough to make anyone feel not too well at times. But Mama held up until she was almost eighty-seven years old. But Grandma Denney was the one who worried more about our manners and our speech. I recall once she told me to sweep the little side porch. The broom wasn't in its usual place, and I yelled out, "Where's the broom at?" And she didn't lift her voice or anything; she just said, "You'll find the broom just behind the at." So I always think of that if I hear someone using "at" at the end of a sentence, or an unneeded one, or if I'm tempted to or do so.
MIMI CONWAY:
How did your father feel about Grandmother Denney trying to make ladies of you?
HARRIETTE ARROW:
Oh, he was always glad to see her. She was a very kind, thoughtful woman, and I hate to say it but she was a much better cook than Mama. Mama, before marriage, had been a teacher for ten years. She was twenty-eight when she married. And I think Grandma Denney had always done the cooking, taken care of her and this and that.