Fallen Leaders: What About The Women?

I’ve been trying to think of a different angle of “Fallen Leaders”: the context of women’s studies. While many women made great sacrifices and endured significant hardship of social “falls” due to the war, I wanted to keep a literal sense of the word leader. Female leadership certainly looked different in the 19th Century than it does today, but I’ve been framing the idea around who was in a leadership role or highly visible place. Here are two women who might particularly fit the pattern of “fallen leader”:

Mary Todd Lincoln

Though she might not have won a popularity contest with Washington City society or certain members of Congress, Mrs. Lincoln can be seen as a visible leader during parts of her husband’s presidency. Perhaps she did not fully embrace that 19th Century leadership role, but she held it in society and as an example of supporting the war effort which she sincerely tried to fill as she was able.

Mrs. Lincoln’s “fall” in her leadership role can be argued as happening twice. The death of her son Willie in 1862 prompted deep mourning and significant health challenges. Then, in 1865, her husband’s assassination plunged her into another grief that lasted and affected the rest of her life. With the president’s death, Mrs. Lincoln struggled financially and as stories circulated about her. Though temporarily committed to an asylum, she eventually regained her semi-independence and lived out the rest of her life with one of her sisters. Sadly, many stories and interpretations have not shown Mary Todd Lincoln favorably, often overlooking the successes she did accomplish in her feminine leadership role as First Lady before and during periods of great grief.

Varina Davis

Like Mary Lincoln, Varina Davis was not welcomed with open arms by the society of her capitol city. When her husband took office as President of the Confederacy, Mrs. Davis became its First Lady with the duties of hosting social-political events, making influential friends, and setting an example for Richmond society and beyond.

Mrs. Davis’s “fall” occurred in 1865—both publicly and personally. With the capture of Richmond and defeat of the Confederacy, she lost of position of importance and also lost her husband to imprisonment. However, her “fall” did not crush her, and Mrs. Davis lobbied for husband’s release, and after it was obtained, spent the next years being supportive or accepting of his wishes and becoming a somewhat visible leader at events reflecting on the former Confederacy. After Jefferson Davis’s death, Mrs. Davis fell in favor with the Confederate veterans when —instead of playing the grieving widow for the rest of her life—she moved to New York City, wrote for publications, and even befriended “Yankees.” Perhaps the remarkable part of Mrs. Davis’s story is in her resilience from each social fall and how she remade her life each time.

Who are some other women from the Civil War era that might be considered fallen leaders?

(I’m thinking Mary Edwards Walker and Dorothea Dix might also be seen to have held real leadership positions and fell out of favor.)

4 Responses to Fallen Leaders: What About The Women?

  1. Great read Sarah! I agree it is a bit harder in trying to find a female leader. My mind instantly went to the Confederate spy, Rose O’Neal Greenhow. Some credit her with the Confederate victory at Bull Run by getting word to Beauregard about McDowell’s plan.
    She is found out, and eventually imprisoned, but is still active in her duty as a spy. Then after being released and sent to Richmond, Davis rewards her with a large sum of money, and sends her to Europe to help gain international support for the Southern Cause.
    While traveling back to the states, the ship she is on runs aground and to avoid capture by a union gun boat she flees in a small life boat, only for it to capsize and she drowns.

  2. I agree that it is harder to find women leaders in the 19th century–especially if you only look at a national scale. However, if one looks at local scales–local charities, the early days of the local Sanitary Commissions (before it became a centralized national organization), Phoebe Yates Pember, the 1864 bread riots in the South, Elizabeth Van Lew, etc. there are many more women leaders.

  3. Jessie Benton Fremont- wife of the 1st candidate for the Republican Party as President and one of the early political generals. She did get to meet President Lincoln and argue the politics of slavery. The Fremont’s spent most of the war in political exile.

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