Sunday, December 20, 2009

Just finished reading - Civil Wars: Women and the Crisis of Southern Nationalism by George C. Rable

In graduate school I took a class that has had a significant impact on my overall historical understanding; "U.S. Women to 1900." I suppose, at that time, I had not really thought much about the importance of studying specific avenues of history. Sure, I had had classes in specific eras such as, Age of Jackson, Early America, World War I, and a host of others, but I hadn't fully grasped the importance of studying gender history. The class really opened my eyes and got me interested in women's history; especially 19th century Southern women's history.

Author George C. Rable, professor of history at the University of Alabama, focuses Civil Wars: Women and the Crisis of Southern Nationalism upon the white women of the antebellum, Civil War, and postwar South. Their stories are as diverse as the women who left the letters, journals, and diaries that make up much of his research. Not only does he look at the voluminous amount of material left by those elite women of Southern society, but he also searched for and examines the scraps of information left by middle-class and poor white women.

The overall theme that came to me from reading this story is one of tragedy. These women were part of the Southern world that saw unprecedented change in such as short span of time. Whether these women were slaveholders or not, they lived in a society based on the uncompensated labor of others and rarely questioned the right or wrong of it. The level of loss and suffering that the Civil War brought these women is staggering. Not only did Southern women have to deal with the grief of losing kin and friends, the economic losses and social changes they endured is heart breaking. During the war and Reconstruction years they faced challenges they thought they would never see, and like all wars, opportunities came as well.

As their fathers, brothers, and husbands were sent off to war women accepted many of the roles that were traditionally held by men. Women were hired to do all kinds of work that was formerly thought unlady-like. Southern white women often sought out any duty that they felt would help their cause. They filled in as store and government clerks, they served as nurses (at the time a role traditionally filled by men), they held fundraisers, they formed sewing circles, and they managed businesses, and ran farms and plantations. Southern women made sacrifices in food and clothing and they and their children suffered for those decisions. Many was the woman who asked why she was made a woman instead of man, because if she was a man she could go out and fight the hated enemy Yankees.

While some Southern women proved to be the greatest supporters of the Confederate war effort, others proved to be some of its greatest destroyers. As the war continued on into 1863 and 1864, women, like some soldiers in the Southern ranks, lost heart due to the enormous toll that the war brought to their lives. Especially poor white women petitioned their governors and President Davis for the exemption of their husbands from conscripted service. Others skipped the formality of corresponding through official channels and asked their husbands to desert and come home or else they and their children would surely starve.

Rable takes great care to cover just about every facet of Southern white women's worlds. His look at the strained relationships between white women and black slaves during the war is especially interesting. But, one area that I noticed Rable did not cover was Southern white women's formal literary efforts during the war. While I was in that "U.S. Women to 1900" class I researched for a paper the role that writing played in allowing Southern women to express themselves patriotically and as a "vent" during the Civil War. Women poured out their patriotic feelings in letters to editors of newspapers, in magazine articles, and in poems, and songs, and even in a few novels. Writing in a public forum had not been part of Southern women's sphere before the Civil War to large extent. Yes, a few Southern women such as Augusta Jane Evans had written books in the antebellum years, but they were certainly in a small minority. However, the war brought the opportunity for women to show that they could contribute in yet another way; by submitting their literary efforts. Some prudent women used pseudonyms to mask their true identity, but others such as the previously mentioned August Jane Evans, Julia L. Keyes, and Margaret Junkin Preston wrote and published extensively during the war years and after.

The Reconstruction years up to the end of the 19th century brought a continuation of challenges and opportunities to Southern white women. This period saw the rise of the Lost Cause theme of remembrance, which was promoted heavily by Southern white women. Numerous ladies memorial societies and the United Daughters of the Confederacy formed to make sure that the suffering and sacrifices during the war years by white Southerners would not be forgotten. These organizations raised funds to erect memorials, and established cemeteries to honor those that they saw as having fallen in honor of a worthy cause. Part of Rable's last paragraph of the book expresses an important concluding point, "As important participants in the rebuilding of the Southern economy and culture, they [Southern white women] remained loyal to their class and race, avoiding the risks of becoming involved in sexual politics. Although a few boldly looked to the future, and more nostalgically looked back to a glorious past, most lived from day to day, much as their mothers and grandmothers had done, praying for their families, perhaps hoping for better days, but seldom expecting miracles."

Civil Wars is a great option for those looking for an better understanding of what life was like for Southern white women during the mid-19th century, and I certainly recommend it along with Drew Gilpin Faust's Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War.

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