A Celebration of Women Writers

"Who are the Builders?" by Mrs. Jonnie Allen George.
Publication: Eagle, Mary Kavanaugh Oldham, ed. The Congress of Women: Held in the Woman's Building, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, U. S. A., 1893. Chicago, Ill: Monarch Book Company, 1894. pp. 388-392.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 388] 



In trying to solve the vexed questions of today as to the place or sphere or capabilities of women, we really deal with the problems which will involve the good or evil of the future of the human race. The interests of man and woman are so completely united, so indissolubly one, since God "made them twain one flesh," that it is impossible to separate them. "Every nation belongs as much to its women as to its men." What ever then concerns its women concerns the welfare of the entire nation, for it is a long-established truth, that nature has endowed woman with those attributes which aid most in the highest possible development and fullest salvation of the race.

Woman's work and woman's worth have already been discussed in this Congress by some of the most gifted women of the world.

They have brought with them their new and original ideas from England, Norway and Sweden; Germany, Denmark, Switzerland, Bohemia, Australia; and the North, East, South and West of our own country. Surely from these meetings all political lines and national prejudices must pale into nothingness, and every woman carry home with her a new strength to be devoted to private and public weal. It is not of the questions of today, however, that I would speak; I leave that to wiser heads and stronger pens. I only would tell something of the women who live "way down yonder in Dixie Land."

That land, "popularly supposed to be the Nazareth of America"–the South, with its balmy airs and blue and sunny skies, where the creamy orange blossoms, stately magnolias, and clinging jessamines waft their blended perfume from darkest lagoon to furthest pine-clad hilltops, and day and night are made musical by the mockingbird's wild lay.

It is one of the most useful and grateful tasks of historians to bring forward to the eye of each succeeding generation the characters of those who have laid the foundations of society and state; and it is now my pleasure to tell you something of what the women of the South have done for the building of their country's strength.

The Revolution furnished many glorious instances of womanhood in the South, when such women as Lady Washington, Annie Carter, the wife of Light-horse Harry Lee, and the mother of the South's illustrious Robert E. Lee, together with Mrs. Madison, and later on Mrs. James K. Polk, influenced their husbands to grand achievements and inspired in their countrywomen a desire for higher things. Yet, notwith- [Page 389]  standing all this, the social and political condition of women, not only of the South, but of all the world, at that time was not fully committed to the highest development of that sentiment which is woven in the warp and woof of every woman's nature. The sentiment which induces her to wish for that higher education and self-culture that would enable her to become her husband's intellectual companion, his friend and helpmate in the truest sense of the word, and to occupy that place in the world–not man's world but God's world–the place not above her husband, nor below him, but by his side.

Because of the difficulties of travel, and imperfect communication with the outside world, she knew little of the turmoil and strife for self-advancement that moved and swayed the restless heart of a dissatisfied world. Content to dwell at home among her own people, her mind and heart were not busy about the world's affairs. She asked nothing better for herself than that she might become the wife and mother of great men. And true to the traditions of her grandmothers, it would still be, perhaps, an impossible task to convince a Southern woman that there could be any higher mission for her.

With sometimes a hundred trained slaves to attend the immediate household, with better facilities for travel, with new books and imported musical instruments, and foreign magazines and home journals, the minds and hearts of the women of the land were fully attuned to "catch the living manners as they rise." Is it any wonder, then, that the sentiment in favor of the higher education of women first took root in the South and grew and blossomed forth into the building of the first college in the world for women at Macon, Ga?

It was not until the tocsin of civil war had been sounded that the womanliness of the women of the South shone out in all its brightest light; and our men, who had ever been foremost in true chivalry toward women, learned more fully the half-accepted truth, that woman had not been created man's slave, his toy, his household drudge, nor yet, for that higher mission alone, of being his gentle nurse, his faithful companion, his prudent housewife, and the fond mother of his children; but to be also "his disinterested friend, his equal in resources of character and understanding, and his superior in the virtues of heart and soul.

The heroes of the South, who fought those dreadful battles at Gettysburg and Manassas, and enriched the earth with the crimson stream of their life's blood "by the Potomac, and the Cumberland, and in the valley of the Shenandoah," had no cowardly mothers or vain and heartless wives. Their women were as heroic in every fiber as themselves. What a comparison exists between the heroic women of the American Revolution and the women of the Southern confederacy; the story of the one seems in many instances but a repetition of the other, except that women of the South were by far the greatest sufferers. Because of the peculiar circumstances which surrounded them, they passed through "the more fiery ordeal, the one most terrible in its character, inasmuch as no triumph awaited their sacrifices, no glad conclusions wiped out the bitter memory of their griefs."

The women of the South had ever been a peace party in themselves. They loved the Union and honored the Flag. In their hearts they prayed that the cords of love which bound the different sections of the land together might not be snapped asunder; but when one state after another thought it best to withdraw from the Union, and Old Virginia finally threw herself into the breach, the women of the entire land cast in their lot with the Confederacy, and gave as hearty allegiance to the new Government as had been so lavishly bestowed upon the other.

The sudden transition of the land, smiling with peace and plenty, to the awful turmoil of war was swift and appalling, but its women kept pace with the times. After the first burst of the storm the restless misery of the preceding suspense, was followed by the most faithful efforts of men and women alike. "Every village green became a camping ground, and its courthouse or public halls a rendezvous for busy women." The Confederacy–a new government which had sprung into being in an [Page 390]  hour–had no means with which to meet the exigencies of war. There were no trained soldiers, but few surgeons and tailors, no hospitals and trained nurses, no war ships, no arms and ammunition, and no factories of any kind in the land. Where every able-bodied white man so gallantly laid down his plow and plane, closed up his law office, the minister left his pulpit with his Bible in his hand, and went to battle for the cause which he earnestly and honestly believed to be right; the mothers, wives, daughters and sweethearts of these men determined that the army should not want, so long as they had hearts to feel, heads to plan, and hands to labor. Women, old and young, worked together in the construction of soldiers' garments. With a firm faith that success must crown every such honest endeavor, to them an ultimate and complete victory was a foregone conclusion; and though

"Never a morning wore to evening
But some heart did break,"
these women faltered not in the tasks before them. They unhesitatingly spent their days and nights in nursing the sick in camp or wounded in hospitals established and maintained by themselves. They ministered to the dying in the rear of battlefields, and in many instances took in their own hands the spade and shovel in the midst of the night, and lifting their voices to Heaven, gave Christian burial to foe and friend alike.

Soon there came a time when the supplies in hand were utterly exhausted. Then it was that the latent business talent and executive ability of the Southern women began to appear. They renounced all desire for imported luxuries, and pledged themselves to card, spin and weave the clothing, tan the leather and make the shoes for their families and for the army. They had no factories; this had all to be done by hand. They directed the negroes on those immense plantations in the work of tilling the field, planting the crops, gathering the harvest and converting it into food and clothing for the country.

They gave their own personal property for the purchase of arms and ammunition for their beloved army; they melted into money their silverware and jewels, in which many a Southern household was rich. They almost starved themselves and their children at home, that they might purchase a little coffee and sugar and other luxuries for the soldiers. For coffee they often paid as high as five hundred dollars per pound, and for black pepper and sugar three hundred. They sat late into the winter nights over a fire of corn-cobs while they ripped up their carpets of softest pile, took down their richest damask draperies, and made them into blankets; cut their finest upholstery into mittens for the soldiers, and tore up their window curtains and table linen into bandages, to be used in dressing the wounded. They went through the darkened and silent streets of captured cities at midnight, to carry letters which they had smuggled through the lines from soldiers in distant camps to friends at home. They even faced the dangers of death itself in the charge of the bayonets, the tramp of cavalry, and the roar of cannons, as in "La Bataille des Mouchoirs" in New Orleans, that they might catch a glimpse of, and whisper a word of cheer to, loved ones on their way to distant Northern prisons. In every way these women, for the first time in the world's history, gilded the terrors of war with a heavenly beauty."

England has had her Florence Nightingale; Italy her countess, who, dressed in richest silks and brightest diamonds, visited the charity hospitals that the poor and suffering there might be gladdened by the sight of so much beauty; Germany had her princess who fed the hungry populace–the Revolution drew from every colony brave and heroic women, such as Mrs. Mott, of South Carolina. The North furnished many beautiful instances of individual bravery and self-sacrifice among its women during the war; but nowhere except in the South has the world ever witnessed the sublime spectacle of every woman of the land devoting herself entirely–her time, her strength, her talents–to the cause that needed such assistance.

It really seems invidious to mention a few of these noble women. when all worked, [Page 391]  suffered, endured and lost alike. It was the women of the South who made it possible for the Confederacy to last so long. General Grant, while he was in Mississippi, said to "a rebel woman:" "The work of you women surpasses anything in history. It is astonishing. Why, with my overwhelming numbers of trained soldiers I could whip this handful of raw recruits in a little time if it were not for you Southern women."

Finally, however, time and circumstances brought to an end this unequal struggle. The sun of the Confederacy had set never to rise again–set in a halo of glory which will forever far outshine the gaudy triumphs of victory. And the men and women who had suffered every vicissitude of fortune during these four years, though they had been reared as delicately as European princes, turned from the duties and dangers of war times to private life and hard labor. Though the bowl had been broken at the fountain, there was no time for vain regrets. In many instances the mother, or the eldest daughter, or perhaps a maiden sister, because of the ruthless hand of war, was all that was left on distant plantations, or in splendid but totally dismantled city homes, to battle with the world and keep the wolf from the door. When these women, so tenderly reared and delicately nourished, went forth as bread-winners from the very best families, daughters of the South's proudest aristocracy, a new order of things for the Southern women was begun. Though her father, her brother, her husband and sweetheart were gone, her plantations devastated, left without stock, provisions or hands, her city home in smoldering ruins, the world has yet to hear one word of complaint or murmuring from her lips.

Ah! the influence of those women was and is being felt by the younger Southern women of today. During the storm that followed the first cloud-burst in the throes of silent agony, a new creature was born who came into the world possessed of a priceless heritage. The mothers of the Old South have laid a foundation upon which the Southern woman of today may build a personality for herself that will be a force in any undertaking. With no desire for public renown, no hungering for shout and stare and clipping of hands, and empty plaudits, those mothers and daughters mold society into lofty ideals of manhood and womanhood, yet still clinging with loving touch to the traditions of the past.

Underlying all her social conditions, touching life in all its relations, she has always held a place peculiarly her own; but with a new need of self-defense with a more keenly awakened desire and a thousandfold better facilities for obtaining an education, with more of physical culture, despite the languidness of our clime, and a general coming out into the glorious sunshine of a broader world, she has come to the front as never before. Scorning each carping tongue that says

"My hand a needle better fits."

She has grasped the pen, the painter's brush, the physician's science, the surgeon's instruments, the accountant's desk, and a number of other things to be used as tools with which she has builded an independence for herself.

In the beautiful verse of Margaret J. Preston, whose powers were never fully evoked until the ardent patriotism kindled in her bosom, by the afflictions of her country, found vent in truly inspired lines, we find a splendid specimen of a Southern woman's poetical genius. Surely harp never echoed to sweeter music than hers, and following in her wake many Southern women have cheered and gladdened the hearts of thousands of readers and built national reputations for themselves. Notably among them are Mrs. Nicholson, editor of the New Orleans "Picayune," the foremost women in letters in the South, the gifted "Catherine Cole," Mrs. Mary E. Bryan, of Atlanta, Ga., Miss Virginia Wild, the foremost of Southern painters, and indeed one of the most gifted in the world, Miss Julia Tutwiler, a world-renowned teacher, together with a host of others, who have by their own fair hands rebuilt and adorned the South. And while they have builded so nobly for themselves they have not forgotten others. Soon after the war all over the wrecked and desolated South the women again took matters into their own hands, and began to agitate the question of raising [Page 392]  suitable monuments to commemorate the dust of our heroes which they had gathered into hallowed spots. The women in every city, town and country village were organized, this time into Confederate Historical Societies, Ladies Memorial Associations and so forth, and early in the seventies in Richmond and Montgomery and many other Southern cities, splendid monuments began to tower aloft "In memory of the Confederate dead." What the noble women of Memphis, Tenn., have done in this respect, is but an example of what the women everywhere have done, or are doing. In that city within one inclosure nine hundred and fifty-nine graves have been inclosed with a coping, a neat stone tablet marks the head of each grave, and a splendid gray granite shaft rises to heaven bearing the significant inscription on its face "Illis Victoriam non Immortalitatem, Frater, negaverunt," and the simple dedication "To our Confederate dead." This granite shaft cost the sum of $90,000. All this work was accomplished and paid for through the ardent patriotism, business enterprise, and executive ability of the women of that city. Among the women who have builded the monument we cannot refrain from mentioning the names of Mrs. C. W. Frazer, the first president of the Memphis Memorial Society, and Mrs. Luke E. Wright, the charming daughter of Rear Admiral Raphael Semmes, and Mrs. Keller Anderson.

It is the women of the South who–

"Accepting with unmurmuring lips
   War's stern decree, its grief, its losses,
And nobler through that blood eclipse
   And stronger for its burdening crosses–
She folds no hands in languid pause
   Child of her father–true to duty,
She weeps at heart the dear lost cause!
   And fills the busy hours with beauty."

At the same time she instills into the hearts of her young sons and daughters of today an honest pride in the memory of our immortal Jefferson Davis and our host of fallen braves; she teaches them to rejoice in the preservation of, and to stand firm for the Union.

These same women who have already builded so much of their Southland's strength and fame, today unfurl to the breezes of the South the star spangled banner, with as much pride and grace as ever they flung to the same winds the silken folds of their own handiwork, the bonny blue flag of the confederacy.

It was her women who have largely made it possible for the South to be represented here today. And in this Columbian year while Mrs. Grant and Mrs. Davis are sharing the hospitality of the same roof in New York, the Southern woman of today extends her hand in cordial invitation to her sisters of every clime to unite with her in building up

"A perfect woman(hood) nobly planned
To warn, to comfort and command."
An altar at which men and angels may love and worship forever.

[Page 388] 

Mrs. Jonnie Allen George is a native of Alabama. Her parents were Rev. M. E. Butt and Henrietta Allen Butt, of two of the oldest and most influential families of Georgia and among the largest slaveholders of the South She was graduated from Tuskegee, Ala., with high honors, and later she received the degree of M. A. from Logan College, Ky. She has traveled extensively in the United States and Canada. She married Dr. Albert George, who lived but a few years, leaving Mrs. George with two daughters. She is a devoted mother, giving special attention to the training of her children in every department. Her literary works are short stories, which have appeared in Southern journals, and sketches of Shakespeare's characters. She is a most satisfactory and successful teacher. In religious faith she is a Methodist. Her postoffice address is Little Rock, Ark.


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

This chapter has been put on-line as part of the BUILD-A-BOOK Initiative at the
Celebration of Women Writers.
Initial text entry and proof-reading of this chapter were the work of volunteer
Mary Mark Ockerbloom.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom