2023 Women’s History Month Chat, Part 2

Earlier this month, JoAnna M. McDonald, Sheritta Bitikofer, Meg Groeling, Cecily Nelson Zander, and Sarah Kay Bierle gathered virtually to chat and celebrate Women’s History Month. We took some notes from a few of the discussion topics that were discussed and hope you’ll enjoy Part 1 and Part 2 of the conversation!

Topic: Thinking about the topic “how the Civil War changed women” and maybe highlighting some of the individual stories that have caught our attention of what women did after the war?

Elizabeth Bacon Custer

Cecily: My favorite example of this is Elizabeth Bacon Custer, who I have written about quite a bit. I think marrying George Custer and being drawn into the war gave her the confidence to speak her mind about the world she lived in. Her three memoirs offer compelling proof that she believed strongly in saving the Union and took seriously the process of Reconstruction. Her stories were so sought after that Mark Twain offered Libbie a $5,000 advance to publish her second memoir!

Freedman’s School c1867 North Carolina

Sheritta: Maybe not a specific woman, but I think it’s important to talk about a particular group of women. Former enslaved women had to figure out a new life and what it meant to be free. Families were separated because of slavery, and I’ve been reading about newly freedwomen taking advantage of new mobility to try to find their children and other loved ones who had previously been sold away from them. Sometimes that journey might be just down the road, but other times they traveled across state lines. I’ve read sad stories about women never finding their families, or finding their children who did not even remember there. I think it’s also important to consider that freedom from slavery gave women the choice of how to legally marry and even having to consider “do I want to be married?” For the first time in their lives, these freedwomen had a choice about marriage, they had to figure out what that meant, and how to make it work. While some women chose to be legally and religiously married to the men they had lived with and had children with, freedom gave other women the choice to leave forced partners and abusive unions that enslavers had mandated. Also, think about the new autonomy and individuality these women faced as they figured out the job market and answered the question “what do you want to do?” They had to learn to stand up for themselves and have autonomy over labor. Then there was the challenge of trying to figure out who they were as Black women and break the stereotypes that they had been forced into. For Black women, the Civil War brought freedom, but also an intense struggle for their place and image in society…really a social revolution through the Civil War.

JoAnna: It’s fascinating to me how many families relocated to the West after the Civil War. That seems like a gap in our understanding of women’s Civil War history and the connection to post-war movements. I think about the courage it must have taken to relocate and try to build a new life in a new place.

“he Empty Sleeve at Newport”, from Harper’s Weekly, August 25, 1865, by Winslow Homer.

Sarah: We need more studies on this (or I just haven’t found the books yet?)…but I think we can’t underestimate the challenges that women faced when soldiers came home with physical injuries and trauma from the Civil War. There are some really incredible accounts when we read between the lines of soldiers’ letters written from hospital beds of women promising to stand by them and find a way to stay together or continue with marriage plans despite the difficulties that might come from his limited ability to work, build a home, or have/care for children. The relief in soldiers’ written words when they have been reassured that they will not face the pain or disability of their wounds alone is really noteworthy. Then, there is the darker side of the same issue. What about the women who were legally and socially trapped in relationships (marriage or parent/child) that turned abusive because of war trauma? Whether it was a positive or negative situation, the war’s physical and mental effects on men put additional strain and challenges on women in the post-war era.

Which? A timely question [man labeled “popular vote” looking at Republican, Democratic, women suffrage, and temperance advocates] Library of Congress
Meg: Northern women that I’ve read about certainly stepped forward to help in the war; nurses, USSC Fairs, home front effort. After that many years of the war, many women weren’t going to go back. They had started small businesses and would continue that cottage industry or place in their communities. We also see a lot of women inventing, discovering and patenting in the post-war era. Then, of course there was working of the vote. I do want to observe something that a friend of mine pointed out a while back: perhaps women never stood on their own as they advocated for suffrage? Notice that women’s vote was often tied or attached to another cause, like abolition, the temperance movement. For many decades, other causes were allowed to overshadow women’s suffrage. I wonder why?

Sheritta: Meg, I’ve read a book called A Fierce Discontent that spoke to that theme. Women not always involved with politics, but they advocated from/through the domestic sphere. The Temperance movement is an example of something that heavily affected women. Then abolition, too, was often rooted in the concept to restore the Black family. These movements focused on something for social good. Suffrage was/is an individualistic idea while the other movements were more mutualistic based. Perhaps it was partnering that individual right with a charity ideal that better fit the 19th mold for women.

JoAnna: Just adding to the conversation here. Think about this. Women pushing the vote (19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution) in 1919; those were  the daughters and granddaughters of the Civil War. “Radical” movements come out of the social changes brought about by wars.

Thanks for reading the notes from our discussion! What are some other ways that the “Civil War changed women”? We look forward to reading your comments. 

3 Responses to 2023 Women’s History Month Chat, Part 2

  1. I’m always surprised why commentaries about “Women in the Civil War” always leave out the leave out the most effective spy of the whole war, Elizabeth van Lew. She personally had more impact on the outcome of the war than any other woman. But almost nobody knows anything about her.
    Why? Because she ran her amazing spy ring out of her hometown of Richmond, Virginia, and, after the war, the residents worked very hard to completely destroy the reputation of her and of anyone who opposed slavery in the South.
    I did extensive research on Ms. Van Lew for my recent book “The Greatest Escape, a True Civil war Adventure”, since she was key to the escape’s success. And what I learned (among many other things) is that this post-war campaign to slime her has worked very well. They called her “Crazy Bet” and “The Lone Vixen”, trying to assert that she was a looney who acted on her own—instead of the fact that she led a diverse, racially mixed group of spies and saboteurs so valuable to Ulysses S. Grant that he appointed her Postmistress of Richmond for the entire 8 years he was President! Of course most Richmonders hated her—she not only hired African-Americans but she also agitated for the right of women to vote.
    Her legacy is complicated and complex. Much of it will forever be unknown.

    However, Americans should know about her, about all she sacrificed, and about her heroism.
    There were many Southerners, like her, who risked everything over their hatred of slavery. They should be celebrated.

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