By Dr. Ashley Whitehead Luskey
Nina Silber is an award-winning teacher at Boston University where she teaches in both the department of history and the program in American and New England Studies. Her research and teaching have focused mainly on issues related to historical memory, gender, and the Civil War. A recipient of numerous awards – including fellowships from the Fulbright Commission, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and Harvard University’s Warren Center – Professor Silber has also published works that have helped to expand the scholarly horizons in the study of the Civil War. Among her most important publications are: The Romance of Reunion: Northerners and the South, 1865-1900 (1993); Divided Houses: Gender and the Civil War (1992); Daughters of the Union: Northern Women Fight the Civil War (2005); and, most recently, This War Ain’t Over: Fighting the Civil War in New Deal America (2019). Professor Silber has also worked in the field of public history, consulting on projects with the Gettysburg National Military Park, the History Channel, and the National Park Service. She currently serves as president of the Society of Civil War Historians.
CWI: The crisis of the Civil War was clearly disruptive to the Northern home front when men left to join the Union armies. What were the expectations in the North for how women would factor into the war for the Union in 1861? Did these expectations shift during the course of the war? How did the war affect traditional gender roles in the North?
Silber: Unlike Confederates, who went to war to protect their homes and families, Northern men spoke explicitly about putting the fight for the country above the fight for home. Confederates, for example, said things like this: “We are fighting for matters real and tangible, our property and our homes.” In contrast, one Union soldier told his wife: “My duties to my country are of more importance now than my duty to you.” That’s a very different kind of sentiment. And I think that language reflected certain assumptions about women and gender: That Northern men expected women to fend for themselves, even doing chores (at least temporarily) that men normally carried out. One soldier from Iowa said precisely that to his wife: That she should “take hold and do for thyself and use thy own judgment about matters”. In other words, he urged her to become more self-sufficient, while Confederate men emphasized male protection and authority.
The one shift I noticed, mid-way into the war, was the way Northern men, perhaps because the war was not going well, urged women to show even greater patriotism and sacrifice than before. Women, I think, were increasingly becoming a convenient scape goat: Men were connecting their military failures to women supposedly failing to do their part, yet there’s not really any evidence to back that up. If anything, evidence points to active participation on women’s part, especially in procuring supplies for soldiers, sending aid packages to the front, and sponsoring fairs that raised significant funds for Union troops.
CWI: How did Northern women respond to these changes? Were women more willing, or even eager, to push these boundaries and move out of their traditional domestic sphere? Did their responses to wartime changes depend on certain external factors, such as their geographic region; socioeconomic status; or the type of work they took on?
Silber: Women often had no choice but to assert the kind of self-sufficiency that some Union soldiers expected. They often did take on new responsibilities – from going to work in factories to doing men’s jobs on farms (e.g., chopping wood; harvesting crops; bringing produce to market). Some moved in with other family members (their own or their in-laws) to relieve some of the financial and physical burdens. Still, I don’t think women usually did these new chores with a sense of liberation. Indeed, many were often frustrated when they discovered how little they knew of the work men did: Debts that may have been owed or even the overall state of the family’s finances. Additionally, I think many simply felt overwhelmed by how much was expected of them during the war. Many couldn’t wait until their husbands came home so they could turn those “male” responsibilities back to them.
One exception to this may have been the kind of pride and ownership many women demonstrated when it came to their heightened political involvement: They became invested in partisan struggles, supported specific candidates, and learned as much as they could about the political and military struggles of the moment. Recognizing how critical women’s input was to the challenges at hand, one Connecticut woman wrote a letter to her husband in which she asked “why don’t they let the soldiers’ wives vote” while the soldiers are away.
Working class women faced added difficulties in losing the regular income of husbands and fathers. Some of those women found jobs – for example sewing uniforms or making other military supplies – but because they often worked for sub-contractors, not directly for the US government, their pay was exceedingly low. In some towns and cities, officials pledged relief money for struggling families, although women often had to wade through a considerable bureaucratic apparatus to procure this assistance. Increasing numbers of families, having no other means of support, found themselves turning to almshouses in these years.
CWI: Did the impact of wartime changes on gender roles extend beyond the war? What happened to the women who became wage earners or participants in politics or nurses? Did their engagement in wartime activism end when the conflict ended? Where do most Northern women find themselves in the late 1860s?
Silber: Some things changed, and others did not. Many women who went to work in factories lost those jobs when the war ended; there simply wasn’t the need for the kinds of factory jobs women had occupied– in arsenals or in workshops that made uniforms or blankets or tents. In the nursing field, there was a growing acknowledgement of nursing as a profession, something which required precise and scientific training. Nursing schools – which admitted women – opened up in the postwar years.
Other women, those who had been politically active for causes like abolitionism and women’s suffrage, continued the campaign for suffrage and also for protecting the rights of freed people after the war ended. There was, however, considerable disagreement about how to prioritize those campaigns with some, including many African American women, ranking the struggle for black men’s suffrage and civil rights for African Americans as more important than winning votes for all women. Other women’s rights activists chose a different path: Refusing to support the fifteenth amendment – which granted black men the right to vote – they sought to build a new campaign focused solely on gaining the vote for women, a campaign that increasingly put white women at the center.