M. McElveen, I. Padalecki, M. Rankins
On June 8th, 1844, Margaret White attended a “dancing party” in the town of Davidson. Although not eligible to attend Davidson College because of her gender, White was a member of Davidson Presbyterian Church and was expected to adhere to the church’s moral standards. At this time, Davidson’s college, church, and town formed one governing entity that strictly prohibited dancing.1Jan Blodgett and Ralph B. Levering, One Town, Many Voices: A History of Davidson, North Carolina (Davidson, NC: Davidson College Historical Society, 2012). The pastor of the church “admonished” White for her crime.2Minutes of the Davidson Presbyterian Church, June 9th, 1844, Davidson College Archives, (Davidson, N.C.).
Dancing in Davidson College
While often considered more liberal than other Protestant denominations today, nineteenth-century Presbyterianism entailed strict moral codes enforced through community supervision. Dancing fell into a broader category of religious rule-breaking and “worldly amusement” that also included drinking, pre-marital sex, adultery, and profanity. 3W.D., Blanks, “Corrective Church Discipline in the Presbyterian Churches of the
Although religious institutions across the United States acted in this role, social mores were geographically and culturally situated. Just a mile north of Davidson, Iredell County Methodists viewed “shouting, weeping, falling and . . . exhibiting [religious] enthusiasm” as representative of a close relationship with God. For Methodists, such physical expressiveness in worship garnered spiritual-social power, particularly for women, while Presbyterians labeled such acts as suspect.6Cynthia Lynn Lyerly, “Enthusiasm, Possession, and Madness: Gender and the Opposition to Methodism in the South, 1770-1810,” In Beyond Image and Convention: Explorations in Southern Women’s History, edited by Janet L. Coryell, Martha H. Swain, Sandra Gioia Treadway, and Elizabeth Hayes Turner, 53-73. (Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 1998): 61. Further, in communities with large Methodist populations, like Mooresville, residents understood physical expression as compatible with pious womanhood. Conversely, in Presbyterian towns, respectable citizens deemed these actions as expressions of feminine deviance. At this time, Davidson was deeply entrenched in Presbyterianism, a religious ideology members of this community utilized to claim moral superiority over surrounding areas. This difference in religious perceptions of social dance can perhaps be further explained by the fact that Methodists tended to be of lower economic strata, and idealized standards of white womanhood were harder for women who had to work in the fields and perform manual labor to attain. Women like Margaret White, from wealthier Presbyterian communities, had more to lose by exhibiting “scandalous” behavior; for Margaret, one dance could prevent marriage to a wealthy Davidson student, while a woman in Methodist Mooresville would not likely have had that opportunity to lose.7Blodgett and Levering, 7-21.
Presbyterian moral prescriptions were not limited to women. Henry E. Fries, a Presbyterian student of Davidson College in 1876, wrote in a letter to his mother that he would no longer partake “in the dancing portion of parties” as it was a “worldly pleasure, though apparently innocent, [that] come[s] between the sinner and his God.”8Henry E. Fries, Letter to Mother, April 2nd, 1876, “College Letters,” Davidson College Archives, (Davidson, N.C.) Religious punishment existed for both male and female Presbyterians engaging in the “worldly pleasures” of dancing. However, it was primarily when women participated in social dancing that Presbyterian leaders understood this action as inherently related to impure, illegal behaviors like extra-marital sex and fornication.9Kirsten Fischer, “Common Disturbers of the Peace: The Politics of White Women’s Sexual Misconduct in Colonial North Carolina,” In Beyond Image and Convention: Explorations in Southern Women’s History, edited by Janet L. Coryell, Martha H. Swain, Sandra Gioia Treadway, and Elizabeth Hayes Turner, 10-28 (Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 1998) This was due to the social standard of “separate spheres.” While white men engaged in the corrupt “sphere” of politics, material production, and economic development, these powerful men expected white women to exist only within a morally pure “sphere” defined by uncompensated reproductive and domestic labor.10Jeanne Boydston, “The Pastoralization of Housework,” in Women’s America: Refocusing the Past, ed. Cornelia Dayton, Jane De Hart, Linda Kerber, and Judy Wu (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 128-139.Perhaps the association between the impurity of social dancing and the role ascribed to white women as guardians of social purity, an extension of separate spheres ideology, prompted Henry Fries to write about his moral failings to his mother, versus a male friend, father, or brother.
Agency and Fornication
White women in Presbyterian Davidson performed deviance by exercising bodily agency outside of pious, domestic womanhood (for example, attending a dancing party).11Victoria E. Bynum, Unruly Women: The Politics of Social and Sexual Control in the Old South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992). The crime of social dancing was closely aligned with legal definitions of feminine deviance. Local courts frequently accused women of fornication.12WM. J. Yates, “Mecklenburg Inferior Court,” The Charlotte Democrat (Charlotte, NC), January 18, 1878; WM. J. Yates, “Superior Court,” The Charlotte Democrat, September 4, 1876. Fornication, used to indict women for participating in interracial or adulterous sex, was primarily leveraged against poor women of color.13Bynum, 94-97. Like social dancing, this charge made deviant women’s claims of bodily autonomy and pursuits of sex outside of marriage. Together, legal and religious definitions of feminine deviance that focused on women’s autonomous, non-reproductive use of their bodies assumed that women were defined by their reproductive capabilities rather than their intellect. By claiming agency and pleasure for their bodies, these women were deviant. That deviance was so closely related to use of the body makes sense, given that the physical body is often seen as the site through which institutions like churches define and enforce normative social codes of behavior. For example, by deeming social dance impure, churches assert their authority in describing what is and isn’t a permissible use of one’s body.14Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality (New York: Random House, 1978), 140-160.
In the case of both dancing and fornication, the legal and extralegal institutions that defined morality criminalized marginalized women who used their bodies for their own personal pleasure, rather than their husband’s.15Jenkins, 101-122; T. Meredith, “From the Presbyterian: Dancing,” The Biblical Recorder (New Bern, NC), May 24, 1837. Because wealthy, nineteenth-century white women reproduced the white race in the South, the deviance the deviance they performed was seen as especially egregious, as their behavior directly implicated the reputations of the white fathers and husbands expected to protect them. Because white poverty was equated with immorality, the state and community institutions like churches often saw it as their legal role to extend the patriarchal authority of these protective men in places where their own authority was weak; for example, in reference to dance parties.16Bynum, 2.
Deviance and the Institution of Slavery
Under the institution of slavery, Black women also destabilized the boundaries of gender and race. Enslaved Black women participated in secret social dances that provided them with “moments of relief from black gender hierarchies as well as from slaveholding control.”17Stephanie M. Camp, Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 76. The bodily deviance projected onto women of color includes and extends beyond fornication and dancing.18Bynum, 94-100. For enslaved persons, judgment rarely, if ever, reached the courtroom. Rather, white slave-owners took matters into their own violent hands, because an enslaved person who violated the very laws that denied their humanity inherently took part in acts of resistance against the slave system.
Additionally, enslaved women engaged in everyday resistance to deprive slave owners of property and profit. These acts of rebellion ranged from feigning illness to committing arson.19Camp, 35-60. Mary Lacy, the wife of Davidson College President Drury Lacy, accused an enslaved woman, Aunt Maria, of pretending to be ill in order to avoid work. Additionally, Mary suspected bootleg parties were occurring near campus in the woods, hosted and attended by enslaved people.20Mary Lacy to Bess, August 6, 1856, in The Mary Lacy Letters: Davidson College, ed. Carlina Green, Kate Donahoo, Mary Beth Moore, Kenzie Potter, Lucy Prothero, Ellen Spearing, Scott Stegall, Mary Walters, and Sarah Zeszotarski, https://his306sp17blog.rosestremlau.com/letters-and-transcriptions/. Though feigning illness or sneaking away for clandestine bootleg parties might seem like relatively small acts of deviance, this demonstrates that by reclaiming time and withholding labor, enslaved women asserted agency within a racialized economic system that depended on their exploitation.21Camp.
By governing appropriate behavior, powerful extra-legal institutions like the Presbyterian church and the plantation collaborated with legal institutions to label certain people and actions as deviant.22Jessica L. Flinchum, “In Subjection: Church Discipline in the Early American South, 1760–1820.” (