Women and the Civil War

by Katie Oldaker

“What do women have to do with the origins of the Civil War?,” begins Elizabeth R. Varon’s piece on the New York Times website. “Growing up in Virginia in the 1970s, I often heard this answer: nothing.”

It’s an answer we all hear as girls in history classes: men went off and made all the wars happen and women sat at home tending the children or planting gardens. I think once I was told about women’s involvement as nurses in the Revolutionary War, but that actually may have been something I read about on my own. Women are rarely attributed with having an active role in truly making history in the United States, except, perhaps, when they fought for their rights to vote and choose. 

Varon’s piece explores the notion of women’s involvement in history within the scope of the Civil War. She discusses the new discoveries scholars are starting to unearth about more women and their thoughts on the war, as well as connections between women and the rising conflict. 

Her prime example is Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin–a book we’ve all heard of within the canon of Civil War-era Literature–which was much more controversial than I’d ever learned of it being, splitting the proslavery and antislavery press and causing outrage and several response books from the proslavery side. One of said books was named Aunt Phillis’s Cabin; or, Southern Life as It Is, a clear take on the title of Stowe’s novel. It too was written by a woman–Mary H. Eastman–so while the fighters may all have been male, the women were certainly adding fuel to the fire. 

As someone who had a basic public school education, I was not exposed to the idea that women could do much to change history–or that they had before. Women leaders like Hillary Clinton were mocked while male ones George W. Bush, with his initiative to start wars, were praised as somehow having more courage and influence.  It’s somewhat refreshing to see that something so male-driven, like war, might actually be extremely influenced by the actions–or, in the aforementioned example, words–of women.

New York Times

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