The Civil War Connections Blog

The First Step: How Women Were Affected by the Civil War

Howdy folks, and welcome back to the Connections blog! Today, I’m going to look at how women remember the Civil War. For those of you interested in the subject, the noted female historian (and President of Harvard) Drew Gilpin Faust wrote an excellent book on the subject titled “Mothers of Invention.” This book covered the roles of upper class women in the South during the Civil War, and explored how they dealt with the changes the war brought to their responsibilities. Central to her thesis is the idea that the war violently and shockingly uprooted women from their rigidly defined pre-war domestic roles, and when they were called upon to expand into the roles traditionally occupied by men – i.e. managing the household slaves while the men were away, and serving in hospitals as medical staff and nurses – they failed to adequately rise to the occasion. She also states that the violent destruction of their rigidly defined pre-war roles helped retard the rise of feminism in the south, since the movement out of their gender roles was such a traumatic experience.

One of these pictures shows Drew Gilpin Faust at Harvard, and the other one shows her book. I myself have the large print version shown above, and can confirm that the print is almost comically large.

 

Faust’s argument is interesting for many reasons, but to me the most interesting idea she presents is that the war radically changed women’s gender roles and responsibilities, and in doing so forced women towards suffrage and political inclusion. If one were to examine the industrial period of the late 1800’s and the first few decades of the 1900’s one would see a remarkable proliferation in the types of roles women played in American society, from the suffragette and the flapper to Annie Oakley and Amelia Earhart. One would also notice that this progress was most obvious in the north and west, and that in the south women were not so quick to explore their increasing freedom. In the north and west, women were not forced out of their social roles as much as they were in the south: they were free to expand their roles at their own pace. As a result, they may have been a bit faster in demanding freedom in the early 1900s than their southern sisters.

When she flew solo across the Atlantic in 1932 (she was the first woman to do so), she landed in Northern Ireland on a pasture. Legend has it a local farmer saw her land and asked her where she flew from, to which she nonchalantly replied “From America.” Well Played, Madam.

 

Unfortunately, many women today do not understand the link between the Civil War and the eventual liberation of women. For example, one anonymous and well-educated woman who works in the field of public health stated in an interview that although she appreciated the war as an important historical event, she felt that “it didn’t spur any movements to gain rights for women” and therefore didn’t affect her. This testimony highlights the problem with trying to cover an event as monumental in importance as the Civil War: many specific groups of people (like women) often don’t get the attention they deserve, especially when they suffered serious and long-lasting effects from the war that affected their future social and political development. While the modern woman may rightfully view the women’s lib movement of the 1960s as one of the biggest and most recent steps on the path out of a patriarchal society with rigid gender roles, she should also consider how the Civil War forced women – especially in the South – into making one of the essential first steps on that path.