'You have no idea how entirely different everything is here': Sarah Hicks Williams - a true Southern woman?

Project Details


This research is located in scholarly debates concerning the gender identities of the white elite in the United States, c.1830-1861. Over the past three decades feminist historians have provided detailed analysis of the southern gender ideal of 'ladyhood' as it related to particular notions of femininity and informed ideals of southern masculinity, specifically in relationship to the concept of mastery. Much research has also focussed upon the development of the northern feminine ideal of the 'true women' and the bourgeois culture from which this ideal originated. Nevertheless, ideological divisions between northern and southern gender ideals were much more malleable than past research has supposed. Sustained research has yet to be done on the interactions and articulation of these regional gender ideals and the complexities of identity that were illustrated when the 'true woman' of the north inhabited the southern world of the 'lady.'
The Hicks family very much resembled the archetype of bourgeois lifestyle of the northern middle class during this era. Sarah Frances Hicks was an 18 year old student attending Albany Female Academy, New York, in the early 1830s. Her New England mother came from puritan roots and her father, Samuel, a prosperous and successful industrialist, originated from a family immersed in the commercial and industrial life of New York. The Hicks also had strong moral convictions and Sarah's half sister, Mary, had married acclaimed Ohio abolitionist, James Brown. In 1835 however, after a courtship of eight years, Sarah married Benjamin Franklin Williams, a southern slaveholder and physician from Greene County, North Carolina. After their wedding the couple removed to the Williams' cotton plantation Clifton Grove, in Greene County, North Carolina, where Sarah became the new plantation mistress.
The project will reflect upon Sarah's shifting gender identity as it was articulated within specific social relationships in her life. These will include:
Intimate relationships with her new husband, Benjamin but also with her parents, Samuel and Sarah Hicks, still residents of New Hartford, and wider family and friends. In contrast to these ties of affection this project will consider the volatile relationship Sarah had with her mother-in-law, "Mrs Williams" the former mistress of the William's plantation, whose opposition to her son marrying a northerner was a source of constant concern for Sarah.
Plantation relationships in particular with the slaves of Clifton Grove who featured in her letters often. A particular focus will be her shift in attitude towards them, and the system of slavery as a whole, as she became familiarized with the role of the southern plantation mistress. Adapting to this new role in a place where she had few friends and no family led often to feelings of isolation, particularly in comparison to her life as a young New York women, attending the circuit of parties and gatherings in this vibrant State and comforted by the stability of the family home.
Relationships with the geographical spaces and landscape of North Carolina and how Sarah Hick's Williams personified those notions through a generalised discussion of North Carolinians. Of the letters already examined she reveals much concerning the stark differences between New York 'high society' and the slaveholders of Greene County. In particular she notes the backwardness of the inhabitants of North Carolina assuming a superiority of status over them and narrated through discussions of the 'plainness' of their wardrobe, their peculiar habits such as taking snuff, and their lack of religious teaching and low morals.

The primary analysis will result in a monograph reflecting on the fluidity of idealised gender ideals, which were grounded in the complex realities of regional identities. The project will allow me to explore a number of related issues which will result in three articles to be submitted to refereed journals.
Effective start/end date4/08/098/09/09


  • British Academy: £2,500.00