Maybelle Stephens Mitchell is best remembered as the mother of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Margaret Mitchell. But this brilliant woman lived a life all her own – as a suffragist, club woman, and a progressive voice in her community.
Born Mary Isabel Stephens on January 13, 1872, Maybelle Stephens was the seventh child of John Stephens and Annie Fitzgerald, a couple with Irish roots. John emigrated from central Ireland as a young man and Annie (who is widely believed to be the inspiration for Scarlett O’Hara) had an Irish-born father. Young Maybelle attended finishing school at Villa Maria Convent in Quebec and graduated from the Atlanta Female Seminary. She married Eugene Muse Mitchell, an Atlanta lawyer and a passionate historian, in 1893. The couple had three children: Russell (born 1894), Stephens (born 1896), and Margaret (born 1900). Russell only lived for six months and is buried near his parents.
Brilliant, witty, and charming, Maybelle Mitchell was loved by her family and respected by the Atlanta community. She was known for her uncompromising morality, progressive opinions, and political enthusiasm. In a time when they say that a woman’s name should only appear in the newspaper three times – when she was born, when she married, and when she died – the name Mrs. Eugene Mitchell was splashed across the pages of The Atlanta Constitution. Mitchell helped to found the League of Women Voters in Georgia and served as the president of the Atlanta Women’s Suffrage League in 1915. She often took Margaret to suffrage rallies. Carrie Chapman Catt, a leader of the national movement for women’s suffrage, even called Margaret “the youngest suffragette in Georgia.” According to stories, Mitchell once gave a speech about women’s rights to a crowd and happened to look over at Margaret, who was sitting on the stage steps and blowing kisses to all the gentlemen in the crowd.
Margaret spent her youth fighting for her mother’s approval and Mitchell, in turn, was her daughter’s biggest supporter. Even before she could write, Margaret showed signs of her gift for storytelling. As a child, she would dictate stories to her mother, when then transcribed the tales. She later made books with cardboard covers. Only a few of Margaret’s childhood stories still exist today. During summer vacations, the Mitchells would take their children to the Fitzgerald family home in Jonesboro, Georgia. Margaret grew up listening to the stories of her maternal great-aunts, Mary Ellen Fitzgerald and Sarah Fitzgerald, who were young women during the Civil War. These tales, along with other stories from older relatives who survived the Civil War, inspired Margaret’s interest in the antebellum era and post-war South.
When Margaret was six years old, Mitchell drove her on a buggy tour of Jonesboro. The pair visited the ruins of antebellum plantations, and Mitchell told stories of the families that had owned the once-stately homes. She explained that those families placed too much faith in the status quo, so when war broke out and their worlds exploded, the families fell to pieces. Mitchell stressed that one day Margaret’s world would fall apart and she would need a weapon to face any challenges that came her way. This weapon would be her education. Margaret later attended the Woodbury School and the Washington Seminary. At the Washington Seminary, she developed her writing skills as the literary editor of the yearbook and the president of the literary society. Margaret was accepted to Smith College in Massachusetts, which Mitchell considered to be the best women’s college in the United States.
During Margaret’s freshman year at Smith, Maybelle Mitchell contracted Spanish influenza and her illness developed into pneumonia. Margaret traveled home to visit her ailing mother but arrived too late. Maybelle Stephens Mitchell died on January 25, 1919. Her illness and tragic death may have inspired part of the Gone with the Wind narrative. In the novel, Scarlett O’Hara escapes the Atlanta siege and returns home to Tara only to find out that her beloved mother, Ellen, died from typhoid the previous day.
Many in Atlanta society mourned Maybelle Stephens Mitchell. Her obituary in The Atlanta Constitution read:
“A woman of splendid education and of brilliant qualities of mind, as well as of a most lovable personality; she was always popular and always welcome in all efforts in which women were interested….her sudden death will be a source of grief in many Atlanta homes.”
Maybelle Stephens Mitchell was laid to rest in Oakland Cemetery and her husband in 1944. Margaret Mitchell was buried across from her mother, friend, and biggest cheerleader when she died in August 1949.
Learn more about Maybelle Mitchell from Margaret Mitchell: American Rebel on PBS here.