Guest Blogger: Mads McElveen on “Dancin’ in Davidson: A Glimpse of Female Deviance in the Old South”

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.

Mads McElveen is currently a senior at Davidson College. She is pursuing a major in German Cultural Studies and a minor in Health and Human Values. 

Back in the day, being a church-goin’ Christian who enjoyed kickin’ off your Sunday shoes and dancing was regarded as immoral, and thus, deserving of discipline. On the eighth day of the sixth month in year eighteen forty-four, a woman name Margaret White attended a “dancing party” at Davidson College. White, a member of the Davidson Presbyterian Church, was “admonished” for her crime, as the church strictly prohibited dancing.1 Getting any 1984 Footloose vibes?  

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 (right image).

In the mid-nineteenth century, the quaint town of Davidson, North Carolina was deeply rooted in Presbyterianism, a religious ideology that informed notions of pious womanhood. The Presbyterian Church perceived dancing as an anti-religious, impure activity that led to the premature incitement of sensual passions and permitted perverse forms of sexual pleasure.2 Women, more specifically white women, were to exist in a morally superior sphere – confined to domesticity and ascribed the purpose of reproduction. To engage in social dancing was to be labelled as deviant by the Presbyterian Church.  

The deviance of women is an area of human behavior that has been notably ignored in literature. In order to create a more comprehensive narrative of female deviance, one must learn how to extrapolate meaning from little tidbits of information. The affairs and details recorded in the 19th century session minutes for Davidson College Presbyterian Church, including the admonishment of Margaret White, exemplify the manner in which the Presbyterian Church functioned as an extra-legal determinant of social morals and surveyor of discipline. The predominant approach to female criminality was moralistic – judged against the patriarchal society’s notion of the ideal woman. Through governing appropriate behavior, institutions like the church often reinforced the socially-prescribed boundaries of normative womanhood and perpetuated the control and ownership of women by white men.  

By choosing to engage in the fashionable amusement of social dancing, women were exercising bodily agency and consequently destabilizing the very boundaries of gender that allowed institutions to exert control over female bodies and actions. So, in the words of Lee Ann Womack and in the spirit of Margaret White and other women like her, “If you get the choice to sit it out or dance…I hope you dance!” And, remember, well-behaved women seldom make history.3  


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). 

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

Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. “Vertuous Women Found: New England Ministerial Literature, 1668-1735.” American Quarterly 28, no. 1 (1976): 20.