Adapting to a World Forever Altered by the US Civil War
Wartime responsibilities made the lives of Southern women harsher - and more expansive
MOTHERS OF INVENTION: WOMEN OF THE SLAVEHOLDING SOUTH IN THE AMERICAN CIVIL WAR
By Drew Gilpin Faust
University of North Carolina Press,
384 pp., $29.95
With her wardrobe in tatters, Scarlett O'Hara took down the living-room drapes and made herself a handsome new velvet gown.
Like the fictional Civil War heroine of "Gone With the Wind," women in the slaveholding South were adept at finding creative solutions to the shortages, privations, and challenges of war at their doorsteps. Historian Drew Gilpin Faust calls them "Mothers of Invention," the title of her fascinating account of how they coped with the demands of "necessity" as their privileged social order crumbled.
The war between the states disrupted a way of life more profoundly perhaps than did any other American war. For women, this involved more than the end of a slave-based economy.
As Faust writes: "The harsh realities of military conflict and social upheaval pushed women toward new understandings of themselves and toward reconstructions of the meanings of southern womanhood.... Many women of the wartime South invented new selves designed in large measure to resist change, to fashion the new out of as much of the old as could survive in the altered postwar world of defeated Confederates, regional poverty, and black freedom."
Using as source material an extensive collection of diaries, letters, and memoirs written by women who were members of the slaveowning elite, Faust explores the changes in women's attitudes and actions as the daily privations and horrors of the war dimmed any early enthusiasm for separation from the Union. Yet even at the start, women who supported the Confederate cause wanted their men whole rather than heroic.
Each chapter of Faust's book considers an aspect of these women's lives: learning to maintain a household - including plantation slaves - without men; working for needed money at jobs like teaching and nursing (a radical step for Southern ladies); adjusting to being without a man - temporarily or permanently as husbands and sweethearts became casualties of battle; finding expression in writing (journals, letters, even novels) and in women's groups.
One chapter deals with the problem of clothing. Faced with shortages of fine fabrics, Southern women not only made dresses out of drapes - and underwear out of bed linen - they also had to abandon the hoop skirt, a symbol of Victorian femininity. "With the decline of hoops, female silhouettes became less artificial," Faust writes. "The distinctions separating upper-class women from women of the lower orders became less sharp, and ladies gained a freedom of movement often required by their new wartime responsibilities. In a sartorial sense that paralleled broader wartime social realities, women experienced a decline in the separateness of their female sphere and in the size of the protected space that surrounded their persons."
Without the impetus of war, women's rights advocates in the North had begun to push for greater freedom a generation earlier. At the end of the fighting, their Southern sisters wanted to build on their wartime independence, enlarge their educational opportunities, and eventually gain the vote so that they would not be less empowered than freed black men. But, as Faust notes, they wanted to remain "ladies."
Faust comments that she "tried to write this book as if my mother and grandmothers were going to read it.... I have tried not to drown out the Confederate women's voices with my own." Their voices, like the somber faces of the young women on the book cover and the photographs throughout the book, are real and haunting. The phrases and fragments of their writing give immediacy and strength to the historian's narrative.
Faust saves her discussion of complex scholarly questions for the 50-plus pages of endnotes. But a section with brief sketches of the most frequently quoted characters in her extensive cast would have been a useful appendix in this otherwise splendid study of how Southern women defined and redefined themselves.