Guest Blogger: Isabel Padalecki on “Dancing, Deviance, and Davidson Presbyterians”

In Fall 2019, Archives, Special Collections, & Community (ASCC) had the privilege of working with Dr. Rose Stremlau’s “HIS 306: Women and Gender in U.S. History to 1870” course. Over the course of a semester, students researched the history of women and gender in the greater Davidson, North Carolina area using materials in the Davidson College Archives and other local organizations. The following series of blog posts highlights aspects of their research process.

Isabel Padalecki is a sophomore at Davidson College. She is majoring in Gender and Sexuality Studies and History. 

Handwritten minutes of the Davidson College Presbyterian Church from June 9, 1844. Digitized microfilm.
Minutes of the Davidson College Presbyterian Church from June 9, 1844. Digitized microfilm.

In 2019, dancing in Davidson is not unusual. From Fall Fling to Friday night parties, dancing is a normal and healthy part of the social fabric of Davidson. This, however, has not always been the case. On June 9th, 1844, the Davidson College Presbyterian Church minutes (displayed above) stated the following: “Margaret White…had taken part in…a dancing party. It was agreed upon that the Pastor should confer with and admonish her.”1 The members of the Davidson College Presbyterian Church found Margaret’s attendance at a single dancing party noteworthy enough to merit both punishment and notation in the Church records. Clearly, dancing was not widely accepted for nineteenth-century Southern women like Margaret. 

Clipping of a digitized copy of the May 24, 1837 edition of The Biblical Recorder. Article titled “From the Presbyterian: Dancing.”
May 24, 1837 edition of The Biblical Recorder. Article written by T. Meredith, editor of The Biblical Recorder.

We can learn a lot about deviance and womanhood in nineteenth-century Davidson from Margaret’s story. During the nineteenth century, the town of Davidson defined itself as morally superior to its surrounding areas because of the extent to which it embraced strict Presbyterian moral values.2 Among these values was the idea that “worldly amusements,” like dancing, were deviant acts that pastors should discourage.3  North Carolinian Presbyterians condemned dancing as an impure and impious exercise of bodily autonomy. For example, T. Meredith, editor of The Biblical Recorder, wrote the following in 1837 (displayed above): 

“It can easily be conceived that a simple, harmless action…may become criminal. In the case of dancing, we conceive this to be true.” 4 

Presbyterian leaders did not criminalize dancing equally for all citizens; rather, they primarily targeted women with accusations of criminal dancing.5 This is because dancing represented sexual and bodily agency, and powerful institutions like the Presbyterian Church during this era defined normative and moral womanhood in ways that excluded women who used their body to produce pleasure rather than children. 

By participating in a dancing party, then, Margaret didn’t just break the church rules. Rather, she pushed against the boundaries of normative womanhood, claiming ownership of her body and its usage in a society that told her she should only find pleasure through marriage and motherhood.6 Through her dancing, Margaret engaged in an everyday act of resistance, deconstructing the boundaries of gender that institutions used to justify control of her body and problematizing the ideology that women existed as a pure and pious counterpoints to men.7 Margaret’s story, while one of punishment and silencing, is also a story of agency and pleasure, shining amongst the darkness of patriarchal oppression that exists in the archived history of women in the nineteenth-century South. 

By finding power in small, everyday stores of resistance like Margaret’s that appear to us in the archives, we don’t just empower women like Margaret as active and important historical agents. We also give ourselves, the feminist historians in the present, permission to see ourselves as powerful activists even when it seems that our work can only make small interventions in large structures of power. 


Blanks, W.D. “Corrective Church Discipline in the Presbyterian Churches of the Nineteenth Century South.” Journal of Presbyterian History 44, no. 2 (June 1996): 89-105. 

Blodgett, Jan and Ralph B. Levering. One Town, Many Voices: A History of Davidson, North  Carolina. Davidson, NC: Davidson College Historical Society, 2012.   

Bynum, Victoria E. Unruly Women: The Politics of Social and Sexual Control in the Old South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992.  

Jenkins, Jane R. “Social Dance in North Carolina Before the Twentieth Century- An Overview.” PhD diss., University of North Carolina Greensboro, 1978. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing (7824302). 

Meredith, T. “From the Presbyterian: Dancing.” The Biblical Recorder (New Bern, N.C.), May 24, 1837. 

Minutes of the Davidson Presbyterian Church, June 9th, 1844. Davidson Archives and Special Collections (Davidson, N.C.). 

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