Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Women in the Civil War

Women in the Civil War, Mary Elizabeth Massey

This title caught my eye at Half Price Books the other day, and I knew as I took it off the shelf that I'd be adding to the stack I was carrying to the register.  But I didn't realize until later that the edition I bought is a re-issue of a classic work, originally entitled Bonnet Brigades.  Published in 1966, it was the first comprehensive survey of how the Civil War affected American women, looking at their contributions and activities during the conflict, and the changes that came during and after the war, particularly to accepted "women's roles."  This book was part of a series marking the centennial of the war.  The author, Dr. Mary Elizabeth Massey, a professor of history at Winthrop College in South Carolina, was the only woman invited to contribute to the series.

Massey begins with an exploration of women's lives in the 1840s and 1850s, as the tensions leading to the Civil War were building up.  She uses archival sources, including letters, diaries and newspaper articles, as well as secondary sources like community histories.  As the introduction by Jean V. Berlin notes, while the use of primary sources allows the women to speak for themselves, it also limits Massey to primarily educated, middle- and upper-income white women, who had time and leisure to write, and this skews her narrative.  There were resources available for lower-income and African American women (north and south), but these were not as readily accessible in the 1960s, when history still tended to focus on the Great Men.  The idea of studying (let alone writing about) every-day people, the experiences of women, people of color, the poor - all this was still developing.  To Massey's credit, she includes these groups in her narrative, though not with the same depth.  I noticed this particularly in sections about African American women, who are presented mainly through the words of white women.  Massey adds to the unevenness by focusing more on the South than the North, arguing that the war's impact fell most heavily on southern women, who had to deal with invasion and then with Reconstruction, while northern women experienced the war at a distance.  This approach reflects Massey's own research interests.

Massey suggests that before the Civil War, women north and south were focused primarily on the home, following what a later historian has termed the "cult of domesticity."  In the North, women sometimes worked outside the home, particularly in the factories of the northeast.  This was much rarer in the South, at least for women of the middle class and planter society.  Generally, there were only a few occupations open to respectable women.  Teaching was one of them, though men were preferred and better-paid.  Women could be domestic servants, sempstresses and writers (but not reporters), and in the North they were just beginning to be accepted as store clerks.  They were generally barred from nursing (considered too rough for delicate women), and from public speaking.  Only a handful of women had succeeded in earning medical degrees, against great opposition, and exactly one woman was an ordained minister.  Among the least respectable professions was acting, and of course prostitution flourished, particularly in the cities, often a last refuge for women who could find no other work.

From the moment that Fort Sumter fell in April of 1861, women north and south determined to do their part and especially to support their soldiers.  Massey documents the different ways that women became involved, and how their involvement brought lasting changes.  They started forming aid societies, collecting food, clothing and medical supplies.  They insisted on nursing, despite the armies on both sides trying to discourage them, and the popular perception that they were only there to meet men (which some of the more frivolous were).  As men went off to war, in the North at least, women moved into schools, factories, shops, and even into government work.  Northern women came south with the Federal armies to work with the newly-freed slaves, and they began to write about their work, and even to lecture about it.  In the less-developed South, women had fewer economic opportunities, but they still moved into factory work and into teaching, as well as nursing and government work.

In one chapter, Massey considers the women who fought in the war, a particular interest of mine since reading DeAnne Blanton and Lauren Cook's They Fought Like Demons.  As they noted, Massey was the first modern historian to discuss women soldiers in the Civil War.  Unfortunately, she dismissed most of them as "prostitutes or concubines," as did the historians who followed her.  Here again, more recent research in primary sources has provided a richer and more accurate account of the women who served. 

When the war ended after four long years, there was pressure on women to give up the jobs they held in favor of returning veterans.  Yet many professions were now permanently open to women, including teaching, sales, nursing, and the civil service, though women received less pay than men (which made them even more attractive to some employers).  The first women's colleges were founded in the post-war years, as were industrial and nursing schools, and "normal schools" to train teachers.  Women joined reform movements as never before, started social and service clubs, and pressed for woman suffrage, As Julia Ward Howe wrote, "Woman refused to return to her chimney-corner life of the fifties."  Reading this, I was reminded that in the 20th century, the two world wars would bring the same kinds of changes - and advances - to American women.

Despite its limitations, I enjoyed this book very much.  The frequent quotations from letters and diaries - and from newspaper accounts - personalize and enliven Massey's account, so that we see the impact of events on the lives of individual women.  There is unfortunately no bibliography, but from the notes I have found several diaries and reminiscences that look promising.

On a side-note, this was another draw from my book box.  This project is making it very clear how many books I buy thinking, "Oh, I'll want to read that someday."  I'm like a squirrel, storing books away for later (sometimes years later, and I am trying to convince myself there is a difference between that and hoarding).  Here again, as with the C.S. Lewis book, I just wasn't ready to read it now, and I obviously need to keep that in mind when buying books.  I'm also starting to eye that book box a bit askance.  It seems to feel that I need to read more non-fiction! 


  1. It's so sad when you flip to the back of a non-fiction book and there's no bibliography - it's not a difficult thing to include, surely?

  2. vicki, I notice the lack more in older books, even those (like this one) from the academic presses. Apparently they weren't always standard, which seems strange to me.

  3. Really interesting! (Although I also think it's strange not to have a bibliography.) I never thought about the Civil War expanding women's roles in the way that other wars have.

  4. elizabeth, I knew that the war opened nursing up to American women (and made it a more respectable profession), but I had no idea about government work or sales departments opening to women - or that all those women's colleges were founded after the war.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!