Born Mary Isabel Stephens on Jan. 13, 1872, Maybelle Stephens Mitchell is best remembered as the mother of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Margaret Mitchell. Maybelle was the seventh child of John Stephens and Annie Fitzgerald. She attended finishing school at Villa Maria Convent in Quebec and graduated from Atlanta Female Seminary. In 1892, she married Eugene Muse Mitchell, an Atlanta lawyer and historian. The couple had three children, but only two survived infancy – Margaret and her brother, Stephens Mitchell.
Maybelle was one of the most important people in her daughter’s life and Margaret spent her youth fighting for her mother’s approval. Maybelle was well-respected by her family and the Atlanta community. She was known for her extraordinary intelligence, uncompromising morality, political enthusiasm, and personal charm. She was heavily involved in the suffrage movement and would take young Margaret to suffragette rallies. Maybelle was a founder of the League of Women Voters in Georgia and served as the president of the Atlanta Women’s Suffrage League in 1915. She championed educational causes and was a member of both the Pioneer Society and the Atlanta Woman’s Club.
Maybelle played a significant role in her daughter’s writing career. 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 her own books with cardboard covers and Maybelle stored the books. A few of the hundreds of Margaret’s childhood stories still exist today. During summer vacations, Maybelle and Eugene would take their children to the Fitzgerald family home in Jonesboro, Ga., in Clayton County. 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, Maybelle drove her on a buggy tour of Jonesboro. The pair visited the ruins of antebellum plantations, and Maybelle 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. Maybelle stressed that one day Margaret’s world could fall apart and she would need a weapon to face any challenges that came her way. Margaret’s weapon would be her education, and she later attended the Woodbury School and the Washington Seminary, where she developed her writing skills as the literary editor of the yearbook and the president of the Washington Literary Society. Margaret was accepted to Smith College in Massachusetts, which Maybelle considered to be the best women’s college in the United States.
During Margaret’s freshman year at Smith, Maybelle 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 when she died in August 1949.