The exigencies of war encouraged white women to develop a political outlook and prove their patriotism, in contrast to the antebellum period when they were considered too delicate and pure to become entangled in the public world of politics. Many Confederate women sewed presentation flags for local regiments or became involved in organizations that sponsored every cause from aiding soldiers to supplying hospitals to arming gunboats. Others contributed through unofficial channels, such as making and sending food and clothing to enlisted men. Some vocalized their newfound political identities in letters to government officials, newspapers, and even their husbands. A few Southern women went as far as becoming spies or disguising themselves as men and enlisting in the army to demonstrate their patriotism.
Another, and perhaps more problematic, effect of the war required women to assume and exert power, a position for which they had been considered temperamentally unfit during the antebellum years. With traditional male authority figures absent from families and communities, women faced the difficult task of convincing themselves and the rest of Southern society to recognize their new authority and abilities. In many cases, women took over the management of shops, farms, and plantations. Black and white mothers struggled to provide shelter, nourishment, and safety for their families, and they faced additional challenges in disciplining their children without a father's assistance. Slaveholding women faced the additional challenge of supervising and providing for slaves. While some women enjoyed their new independence, the ever-increasing demands of the war drained the patriotism and self-confidence of many others.
Class and race played crucial roles in determining which Southern women were likely to seek work outside the home and what duties they would perform. Wealthy white women often had the privilege of volunteering, rather than working for wages, and they were frequently awarded positions of greater authority. Enslaved women represented the majority of Southern women workers. Immigrants, working class women, and free women of color constituted the majority of paid workers, primarily because they desperately needed a steady source of income. Black women, both enslaved and free, held positions subordinate to white women and generally performed the more unpleasant and physically demanding tasks.
Medical work was one of the most significant ways that Confederate women contributed to the war effort. Women rarely worked as nurses outside the home in the antebellum period, but numerous wartime factors, including the lack of available manpower and Confederate women's close proximity to battlefields, demanded their increased participation. Although the precise number of women in the South who volunteered or hired their services is unknown, thousands of black and white women nursed, cooked, cleaned, sewed, and did laundry for military hospitals during the war.
The most genteel and well-paid positions were reserved for middle- and upper-class white women. The Confederate government, particularly in Richmond, hired them to sign banknotes at the Treasury, sew uniforms for the Clothing Bureau, and sort letters at the post office. Schoolhouses and academies across the Confederacy hired them to nurture and instruct children and youths. Some were embarrassed to admit they needed a paycheck, while others reveled in a newfound sense of achievement and independence.
Some women were opposed to the Confederacy from the beginning of the war, and demonstrated their dissent in a variety of ways. Many enslaved women thwarted their owners' efforts to use their labor by doing everything from slowing their work to running away. Some women remained loyal to the United States throughout the war, and many expressed their Northern sympathies by feeding and quartering Union soldiers, hiding escaped Union prisoners, or, like Elizabeth Van Lew, even serving as spies. As women suffered increasing privations on the home front, many previously loyal Confederates began voicing their discontent in diaries, newspapers, and letters to the Confederate government and loved ones on the battlefront. Their actions revealed not only the depth of their restlessness, but their insistence that government take action to alleviate their suffering.
The creation of the Confederate nation required Southerners to reconsider many of their time-honored assumptions about the differences between men and women and among women of different race and class. Poor and once-wealthy women found themselves toiling at the same labors to eke out a living under difficult circumstances. Women surprised others, and themselves, with their ability to perform the many tasks previously thought too difficult for them to comprehend or accomplish. This redefinition continued into the postwar years, as millions of newly freed black women explored the meaning and limits of freedom, and white women forged a place in a new society. Ironically, that accomplishment went largely unacknowledged by the Lost Cause interpretation of the war, which explicitly lionized "Old South" womanhood.
- "The Civil War: Civil War Women and the Home Front." Teacher Oz's Kingdom of History
- "Civil War Women: Primary Sources on the Internet." Sallie Bingham Center for Women's History and Culture, Duke University
- "Hearts at Home: Southern Women in the Civil War." Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia
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First published: April 1, 2009 | Last modified: April 3, 2012