In typical fashion, women put aside their needs and the fight for suffrage in order to come together and help their families and country during the Civil War. Before the war, women were mostly trapped by the “Cult of True Womanhood” that regulated them to aspire to the four cardinal virtues of piety, purity, domesticity and submissiveness… to be the “light of the home” and her value as a woman depended upon her ability to exemplify these qualities. Being modest, dependent upon a man, and creating a beautiful home as a refuge from the cruel world were sure signs of a woman’s femininity and grace. Regardless of the side they chose and their personal reasons for doing so, for the first time in American history, women played an invaluable part in the war effort thus expanding their roles in society and awakening the realization that they should have a say in defining “True Womanhood.”
Inspired by the British Florence Nightingale, many women chose to go to the front lines and help establish the new field of nursing as a career. In 1861, the U.S. Government created the “United States Sanitary Commission” to prevent disease and provide care for the sick and wounded.
Some famous names associated with this organization are Louise May Alcott, author of Little Women; Clara Barton, founder of the Red Cross; and Dorothea “Dragon” Dix, who was a no-nonsense pioneer in nursing, patients’ rights, and humane treatment of the mentally ill including asylum and prison reform.
Women on both sides provided supplies and services by sewing, laundering, cooking, and raising funds; some women were even spies. There are estimates of 400-750 women who served as soldiers in the field by disguising themselves as men. Sarah Edmonds Seelye, also known as Franklin Flint Thompson of the 2nd Michigan Infantry said of her choice to fight as a soldier in the war, "I could only thank God that I was free and could go forward and work, and I was not obliged to stay at home and weep."
With men being away from home, women were taking on more and more responsibilities to keep households, farms, businesses and whole communities running during the war. It is within this new-found confidence and competence that women began to understand that they were more than deserving of equality within the law and the right to have a voice in making the laws.
Despite Clara Barton feeling that the four years of the Civil War was ultimately a good thing for women’s rights because it advanced the cause by fifty years, it was still war, and loss, and “victories” came at a very high price.
“There are no winners in war, only widows” Spoken in Mandarin (with no subtitles) by Dr. Louise Banks to General Chang to prevent a war in the movie Arrival.
This week’s song pick:
La Llorna (the weeping woman) traditional Mexican folksong sung by Angela Aguilar https://youtu.be/h5z99EYHY4I
Episode 17 Sources: