Writer, professor explores a subculture shrouded in secrecy.
By Lisa A. Patterson
When she’s not penning an academic piece, Charles A. Dana Professor of English Cynthia Lewis specializes in a genre of writing referred to as literary non-fiction.
The Shakespeare scholar’s latest essay, a foray into debutante society, reveals a subculture the origins of which trace to Europe. Published in the journal Southern Cultures, “Secret Sharing: Debutantes Coming Out in the American South” explores how tradition survives societal change, and what happens to tradition when its purpose becomes obscure to its practitioners.
Cynthia Lewis relishes the opportunity to entertain questions of human behavior, motivation and choice in her prose—she is one part observer, one part detective, one part interpreter and analyst.
In “Secret Sharing,” she writes, “As an essayist concerned with American culture, I’m used to starting on the margins and moving inside the protected world of my subjects. I’ve interviewed law enforcement officers about an open case on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list and police detectives about ongoing, confidential cases of spousal murder; I’ve spoken with women bodybuilders about using steroids to enhance their musculature; and to professional gamblers in Las Vegas who must protect their identities in order to move freely from one casino to another.”
What leads contemporary women to draw firm social boundaries, protected by the rites of a sorority or the rituals of coming out, for the sole apparent reason of inviting some people in and excluding others?
She continues, “Never, however, have I encountered the diffidence that I’ve faced in attempting to learn more about debutante culture—what I would have thought was a relatively straightforward sliver of American society. At one point, I had so many requests from interviewees to remain anonymous that I was worried I’d have only a string of statements spoken by a ‘source who asked not to be named.’”
Debutante societies were created to mark the transition to adulthood for young women of a certain social standing, the likes of which is determined chiefly by family wealth or heritage. Now, particularly in the West, the debutante society remains one of the last vestiges of a bygone era, among the few culturally entrenched bridges to adulthood not dictated by law or religion.
Queen Elizabeth I, the famously unmarried monarch, began the custom of formally presenting eligible young women at court in the second half of the 16th century. Three centuries later, Queen Victoria of England shaped the ceremony to more closely resemble its present form by instituting requirements such as the white dress (Vera Wang wedding gowns are de rigueur these days). At their “debut,” girls were presented to society at the age of 18 and were thereafter allowed to engage publicly in the rituals of courtship.
The custom crossed the Atlantic in the latter part of the 19th century and has since established roots in all regions of the country.
Lewis’ essay began as a comparative exploration of debutante culture, from New York to Texas to South Carolina.
“I had to cut that loose because it was just too unwieldy. The other thing is, I’m not sure there are that many differences between northern and southern societies,” she said. “The culture is similar no matter where you are when you’re talking about some of the most exclusive societies, and New York has some of the most exclusive debutante societies, like Charleston, S.C., and Dallas, Texas do.”
In New York, young women gain entrée into two of the four main debutante societies through family wealth when they do not qualify through family heritage.
Not so in Charleston, where the St. Cecilia Society is perhaps the most exclusive, and secretive, debutante society in the country. This difference among societies in the south emerged after the Civil War to re-affirm the social standing of those who had been well-born before the impoverished post-war years.
“You’re not fighting tooth and nail to get in in Charleston—either you have the pedigree, or you don’t,” Lewis said.
Though no longer thought of as a young woman’s grand entrance into the matrimonial market, the year-long debutante season, with its lavish parties culminating in a formal ball, still symbolizes family wealth, social status, lineage and, perhaps most of all, exclusivity.
“Coming out across the country is about underlining boundaries and reaffirming exclusivity,” Lewis writes. “It does far more to preserve connections than to create them.”
After reading the essay, a woman contacted Lewis to relay the disappointment she experienced decades ago when she was the only person within her social circle not chosen to debut. She later heard that the decision was made because her father was “too blue collar.”
“I will admit it was a tough senior year for me that year and that learning a lesson of ‘otherness’ so early and cruelly so young was difficult,” she wrote. “I did go on and do things in my life; college, graduate and professional school, travel, marriage and kids, but after having your mother prepare you all those years with junior cotillion classes and manners classes for something that you weren’t good enough for is a lesson you don’t forget.”
Perhaps among the most mysterious aspects of the tradition is the debutante selection process.
In “Secret Sharing,” Lewis chose to focus on two societies— Charleston’s St. Cecilia Society and Dallas’s Idlewild Club—that share one uncommon commonality: They are both managed openly and solely by men.
The men administer the debutante societies. And, at least in the case of the Idlewild Club, the selection criteria are hidden from everyone but the male members themselves.
“The privacy of debutante societies has the capacity to keep secrets from those within, as well as those outside, the organizations’ protective barriers, enabling the justification of elitism by the elite,” Lewis writes. “Rationalization can eventually assume the appearance of reason, though appearance without substance is fragile.”
An Ohio native who earned a bachelor’s degree from The Ohio State University before pursuing graduate work at Harvard University, Lewis understands and embraces the role of outsider without exempting herself from the trappings of bias and the appeal of elitism.
“I’ve brushed up against debutante culture my whole life,” Lewis said, “but I started to wonder why some of my students, brilliant students, choose to do it. Why would a self-respecting, intelligent woman who doesn’t need that vehicle for entering into society, or for entering the marriage market, do it?”
With the aid of former student Leah Swaney ’08, Lewis asked that question of countless debutantes and their family members, often with unsatisfying results.
“I was really kind of shocked by the lack of reflection on the part of the people I spoke with, and I hate to say that because it sounds critical… but I really did feel that part of what makes it possible for women to continue to do this is they don’t really think it through to a very deep extent,” Lewis said.
Some of the women Lewis interviewed considered declining the invitation to participate but did not for fear of disappointing their families; others participated because they relished the attention or, in the case of one deb, were bribed with a new Honda. Few had contemplated the symbolism inherent in the tradition, albeit outmoded.
A self-described “Happy Flower Farmer” from North Carolina contacted Lewis after hearing her on WFAE’s Charlotte Talks to share that she had refused the opportunity to debut as a young woman.
“I understand from my mother that the first thing my father’s mother said when I was born was ‘I hope I live to see her make her debut!’,” she wrote. “I recall subtle and not-so-subtle messages from my grandmother during my youth related to my making my debut. It was something that always gave me a feeling of discomfort.”
Her grandmother, who engaged in civic service and often preached that a woman should have a financial safety net of her own, attended the listener’s graduation from Smith College in 1981, where Betty Friedan happened to be the commencement speaker.
“After that, my grandmother always teased me about my belief in equal rights, giving me an apron after my marriage that read ‘For this I spent 4 years in college!’”
‘They were pleasantly aware that life didn’t get any better than this. I mean, I feel very content quite often, but this was different. This was like, ‘I have more power than almost every other 18-year-old girl in the world.’ —Bernadette DiPrisco ’08, guest at the 2004 New York, Junior League Debutante Ball
Prior to the sexual revolution, a woman’s identity as an adult and her relationships with men changed dramatically after her debut—today the message has changed, but the meaning is the same.
“The message is not you’re going to get married to somebody in this closed group, but I do think there’s a message about what society you’re going to keep, what friends, what couples you’re going to associate with from here on out, and you may not be in Charleston, but I think it circumscribes the notion of the acceptable social circle,” Lewis said. “That’s the whole purpose of it—there’s this notion that these are the people you need to procreate with in order to extend this purity, however you construe it.”