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Thursday, June 16, 2011 - 12:25pm

Margaret Mitchell, An Independent Woman

In 1914 author Margaret Mitchell’s mother Maybelle was elected president of the Georgia Equal Suffrage League. A passionate campaigner for women’s rights she urged her daughter to get a good education and be able to support herself.

In our continuing series about Margaret Mitchell, GPB’s Josephine Bennett reports on how that upbringing influenced what she wrote.

As a girl Margaret Mitchell spent many nights attending suffragist rallies with her mother. At one of those rallies, Maybelle Mitchell tied a “Votes-For-Women” banner around Margaret’s waist. The elder Mitchell also encouraged her daughter to become a doctor or lawyer. Instead, Margaret became a writer.

“As God is my witness, as God is my witness they’re not going to lick me. I’m going to live through this and when it’s all over, I’ll never be hungry again. No, nor any of my folk. If I have to lie, steal, cheat or kill. As God is my witness. I’ll never go hungry again.”
That, of course, is Mitchell’s protagonist Scarlett O’Hara uttering one of the most iconic lines from her 1936 novel “Gone with the Wind.”

Scarlett is no ordinary southern belle. As her world collapses with the Civil War, she survives by running the family plantation, killing a Union soldier for breaking into her house, and ultimately opening a successful lumber business.

Mitchell always said the characters in her novel were products of her imagination. But it’s likely Maybelle Mitchell’s influence wove its way into her daughter’s book, says Sarah Gardner, author of “Blood and Irony: White Women’s Narratives of the Civil War.”

“Scarlett O’Hara for example is very much a modern woman. She’s a new woman of the 1920’s even though she’s living in the 1860’s.”

Gardner says Scarlett is more striking in contrast to one of the book’s other central figures, Melanie Wilkes. She’s kind, humble, and mannerly.

“Melanie’s the character who represents the ideal type of antebellum Civil War woman, not Scarlett.”
When Scarlett is rumored to be having an affair with Melanie’s husband Ashley, Melanie innocently believes her strong-willed friend incapable of the betrayal.

Gardner says Mitchell’s own life as a journalist at a time when few women had careers more closely resembled Scarlett’s.

“She’s working on an Atlanta paper. So, I think you can see some of that coming out in Scarlett ….she’s not Melanie.”

Susan Lindsley wrote the book, “Susan Myrick of Gone With the Wind.” Her aunt, Susan Myrick, met Mitchell at a Georgia Press Institute meeting in 1928.

“They snuck off and had a cigarette together. But the friendship became very, very strong and Mitchell would come to Macon to visit with Sue and Sue would go up to Atlanta to visit with Mitchell and they would sit up all night talking.”

Lindsley says her aunt saw plenty of her friend in Scarlett.

“Somebody asked Sue if Scarlett or Melanie was Mitchell, and Sue would sometimes respond, ‘Well Margaret Mitchell was always the life of the party. Would you want to go to a party with Scarlett or would you want to go to a party with Melanie?’ ”

Mitchell gave Scarlett a lively independence to the end. At the conclusion of the book Scarlett begs her estranged husband Rhett to stay. His rejection of her is now movie history.

“Frankly my dear I don’t give a damn.”

At first, Scarlett collapses on the staircase in tears. Then, undeterred, her eyes brighten with that old self-reliance.

“Tara….home. I’ll go home. And I’ll think of some way to get him back. After all, tomorrow is another day." That strength keeps Scarlett O’Hara an icon of strong women characters all these years later.