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5. Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War, Drew Gilpin Faust

Drew Gilpin Faust used to be my boss. Okay, technically, she was my boss's boss's boss, but close enough. I revered this woman as a god when I worked with her at Radcliffe, purely for her skill as a leader (justly recognized a few years later when she was elevated to the Presidency at Harvard), and had only really heard about her scholarship secondhand. Yeah yeah, history, women, something like that. Well, it turns out she is kind of a big deal -- I should have guessed. This is her first book, from 1996, and it is not only a fascinating subject but very, very well-written (bestill my beating heart). Civil War history is also a subject that was very new to me, so reading this book encompassed not only learning some basic facts about the war (the South thought it would last only a couple months!) and then googling up various battles and towns and people as they were mentioned, to gain a greater context. Don't get me wrong, this is a fascinating book even without side-googling, it just made my enjoyment all the greater to go on little treasure hunts (albeit bloody and depressing treasure hunts).

Faust is largely here to dispel some of the big myths of white southern womanhood during the Civil War -- aside from a lot of noise and exhortations in the press, white women did not take up nursing, or teaching, or weaving cloth, or other industrial needs, in large numbers. They did not become capable household managers, either domestically or in the sense of farm and slave management. Apparently some of these ideas were well accepted as fact, some of them perhaps because of the 'Lost Cause' efforts in the post-war South, when women were energetically going around basically propping up white male entitlement and going overboard with honoring heroes etc etc, in order to enforce gender and race paradigms of power and hierarchy.

Not all women were abject failures, but the first half of this book is a lot of bitching and moaning, I'll say that. Southern women were stirred with very patriotic feelings at first, and then as the realities set in of all white men going off to war, and the slaves (depending on the area) either leaving for freedom up north or becoming verrrrrrry reluctant to do any work, there was a lot of huffing and confusion and wounded-heart ladies who finally experienced the negative side of white femininity in the south: all their lives, they had traded subservience and submission, getting protection and support in return. The war basically threw this all to hell, and the women, by and large, were not very good at getting on in the absence of the expected social systems. Some became teachers, yes; some became nurses -- though what we think of as nursing today was largely performed by slaves, and white women would read the bible or occasionally wash someone's face if they were deemed especially hardy. Many more had to decamp to relatives' homes further from battle lines, or took in large numbers of refugees themselves. Many were forced by necessity to actually become mothers to their children, when the slave nannies were gone. Since power and household management was so paternalistic, with a kind of "for your own good" violence practiced only as a (paternal you see) last resort, women in charge did not or could not take over physical punishment (for slaves and for unruly white boys, many of whom were raised to be kind of belligerent and wild) and thus either gave up considerable power and were unable to farm or run the household, or they resorted to violence in desperation and lack of control. Over and over again in diaries, letters and other forms there was the sentiment that women would not mind if all the slaves left them entirely, so as to lessen the burden of managing them...as long as the women had 'one good one left to attend to me.' Honestly, it was astounding the scale of tasks they were unable to do -- many had never cooked a day in their lives, never mind dressed themselves or brushed their hair. Throw in extreme deprivation of consumer goods, a kind of hysterical constancy of mourning (which for many became a numbness), and you can begin to picture the abject chaos of domestic and social life for most of these women.

As losses mounted during the war, many women outright encouraged desertion through their letters, and as soon as two years into the war many encouraged their men not to re-enlist when their term was up. There are many excerpts from pleading letters sent to various men in power, begging to have one son spared, or a patriarch sent back to manage the plantation; aside from remarking that many were simply stamped 'File', Faust does not specify whether any of these letters were ultimately successful, though there was a lot of politicking by women to gain favored positions in the capitol, such as the jobs signing massive stacks of new currency, though ultimately that was done by a relatively small group of women. And you would not believe how shocked -- shocked! -- and unwomanly they felt collecting a paycheck. If they had not been starving, many would have been too embarassed to do so; even to have their names mentioned in the paper was considered a disgrace. I don't know how they remembered all of this, it's ridiculous. White womanhood was one big ritual of staying inside your tiny circle.

Late in the war, as Faust chronicles, women in high society turned from self-interest to outright self-indulgence, throwing lavish balls and parties at times when poorer people were starving themselves to feed their children (though even the rich were not immune from these shortages) -- a kind of defiant assertion of class privilege. At the same time, lower class women engaged in widespread bread riots, and raided fields before harvest. Faust offers some very trenchant critiques of the gender, racial, and class dynamics that were so in flux during the war. This is not a rosy portrait, nor is it a derisive picture of upper-class failures. She is a very balanced writer. She points out quite plainly that while northern women came into greater power during this era in a kind of triumphant way, due to their yearning for it prior to the war, southern women were uncomfortable with what power they were forced to take on, and after the war began many social projects aimed at both reinstating the antebellum status quo and asserting a tiny bit of power juuuuuust in case the menfolk failed them again. Faust also discusses how this history played into white southern suffrage movements in the south, which were focused on maintaining racial control over blacks as opposed to evening out gendered power in the polls.

I thought about this book a lot when I was watching Say Yes To The Dress: Atlanta last week (sick day tv FTW), comparing in my head some of the unfamiliar behaviors I was seeing in the show to what I was reading in the book. I'm still not sure what to make of those parallels, but knowing the historical background of white southern womanhood through Faust's book certainly gave me better context. There is a lot more in this book, parts of history that were appalling or charmingly bizarre or just unexpected (did you know as many as 300 women cross-dressed in order to fight in the Civil War?) and I recommend it if this era is interesting to you. But it is officially a Serious History Book written by a Very Serious Historian so it is not a light read. Still, I loved it.
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