By the time the Civil War broke out, there were 15 million women in all of America, a number that amounted to little less than half of the population as a whole. Women often are not discussed when considering the Civil War, though they did play a role, however small or underappreciated. With so many men volunteering for war, and many who were conscripted near the midway point of the conflict, women had to take up the work of men who had gone off to fight. Southern women had a harder time accomplishing these tasks, because the majority of the fighting occurred on Confederate soil, and the physically destructive force of war was harsher on Confederate women because of this fact. The majority of women on each side were supportive of their respective war causes due in large part to their husbands’ involvement in the conflict.
In the period before the war women were romanticized as women who remained within the domestic sphere of life. This “cult of domesticity”, or (as a gross over-generalization) homemakers, was more prominent in the North. Women and men, in all states of the country, were placed in different spheres, or responsibilities. Women generally remained at home with family matters as men remained outside of the home and dealt with most non-family matters such as politics and, in the case of 1860, war. The idea of women was taken one step further in the South, as women were thought of as pure and were managed with a more “chivalrous” outlook by the men. Despite these customs, women all over were plagued with general inequalities.
Without the ability to vote, education was less important for homemaking women, and as a result education was more limited for girls. Even for women in the industrial north who held jobs in manufacturing, they made half the pay that men did working the same jobs. In order for a woman to hold a job they were usually unmarried and unattached, so that they did not have the responsibility of maintaining the home and raising the family. Women who worked outside of the home but not in manufacturing were teachers and in other education-related work. Many women, over a decade before the Civil War, were involved in abolitionist movements as the so-called “women’s movement”, in which women vied for equal rights compared to that of men, including suffrage. Once war broke out, however, many of these movements had to be put on hold as the role of women and their lives changed.
Some women decided to attempt to improve the lives of the men fighting in the war, most of who were in poor conditions in their army camps. The U.S. Sanitary Commission used women to help raise money that would be used to help supply these men, though women were not allowed to hold any positions of significant authority within these organizations. This as well as other war-time organizations used women to support the fighting, and these women gained knowledge and the understanding of political organization that would be useful once the women’s suffrage movement began many years after the Civil War ended. Some northern women were recruited as nurses as men left the field of medicine for war, and the Red Cross was formed during the Civil War with the help of Clara Barton.
Women were also hired in governmental offices, though no administrative positions. Women served as secretaries and other menial jobs in the government as elsewhere, which began a paradigm shift of the perceived “gender roles” in areas such as clerks as well as secretaries. Women in industrial jobs suffered some, as the value of wages declined during the war for both men and women, whose work remained at only half of the value as the same men’s work. Women whose husbands died during the war faced many hardships because of the sharp decrease in income, and many of these women even spent time in prisons so that they would have a roof over their head and food to eat. Though men returned to their jobs once they came back from war, women in the north had already made significant headway in terms of importance during the Civil War.
“Divide Houses: Gender and the Civil War” edited by Catherine Clinton and Nina Silber, with commentary from historian James McPherson
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