The Real Role of Women in the Civil War

In class, we have argued the role of women in the Civil War. I delved further into the role of women during this period by researching Elizabeth R. Varon and her podcast interview with the Organization of American Historians.  Varon argues that the role of women during the Civil War was not just an occasional appearance by a few well-known women, such as Harriet Beecher Stowe. She argues that women were an integral part in the origins of the Civil War. [1] Her article in the New York Times, which the interview draws from, discusses individual case studies of women who made difference.[2]  For example, many historians are aware of the importance of Harriett Beecher Stowe’s writing of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It has been credited with bringing awareness of the horrors of slavery. I, however, was not aware of books written in response to Stowe’s novel. Varon attributes these novels as, “enduring volley in the ongoing literary war over slavery,”[3] that leads to Margaret Mitchel and Gone with the Wind.   In her interview, Varon discusses the repercussions women experienced because of their public involvement in the abolition movement. Women, such as the Grimke sisters, were considered a threat to traditional values and were therefore divisive and destructive. The Grimke sisters were actively involved in abolition conventions during the mid-1800s.[4] Many religious groups considered women’s involvement in these actions as unwomanly.  I could see where men, Northern or Southern, would see this as a threat to their way of life.  If white males considered themselves as the top of the hierarchical food pyramid, then any changes in at the foundation would be taken as a threat.  Women were even a hazard in the North. Men allowed women to be part of the abolition movement as long as they were being foot soldiers. The north did not want women to take on public roles because it only caused more division between abolitionists and anti-abolitionists.  That did not stop men from asking women to be part of the political process, and legitimizing it with a women’s stamp of approval. Each side counted on women as being the mediators of their cause.

Even though men regarded women with importance when it came to counting them as part of the abolition movement, men on either side did not want women to publicize their help.  For women this fight continued beyond the Civil War.  The Civil War became a battleground for more than abolition. It became a proving ground for women.  Varon brings to light many of the individual battles that women had to fight, and the important role that women played in dividing the North and the South.


[1] Elizabeth R. Varon, interview by Carl R. Weinberg, OAH Magazine of History, Organization of American Historians, podcast audio, March 2011,  http://www.oah.org/programs/civilwar/podcast/.

[2] Elizabeth R. Varon, “Women at War,” The Opinionator(blog), New York Times, February 1, 2011, http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/02/01/women-at-war/.

[3] (Varon, 2011)

[4] Karen Board Moran, “The Grimke Sisters,” Worcester Women’s History Project, accessed on June 28, 2012, http://www.wwhp.org/Resources/Slavery/grimkesisters.html.

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5 comments
  1. Who are the Grimke Sisters and what do they have to do with your arguement? Did I miss something?

    • Kristen Epps said:

      I’ll let Magali answer this in more detail, but they were sisters who were raised in the South (in SC), but both moved North and became abolitionists. Angelina Grimke married a famous abolitionist named Theodore Dwight Weld.

  2. jmmblog said:

    I agree with you in that “The Civil War became a battleground for more than abolition. It became a proving ground for women.” I further believe that the American Civil War was the just the begining of the Civil Rights Movement. I don’t really see that the American Civil War ended, but evolved into a more civilized war which is the war for human equality(Civil Rights Movement.) Native Americans, African-Americans, Women, and many other groups have fought and are still fighting for equality to this day.

  3. catymark said:

    I agree completely that the Civil War became a fight for more than just slavery because of women. Women like the Grimke sisters’ work before the war was in the border land between the two spheres, public and private, of which a woman’s place was the former. After the Civil War when several women had to fend for themselves while the men were off fighting, women had found they were not as helpless as they seemed. The Civil War was definitively a time that tested the spheres that women could participate in. Seems to me that the reason men and religious organizations were trying to keep women out of the abolition movement is because they wanted to maintain the status quo.

  4. jadams08 said:

    I think that you make some interesting points about the involvement of women in the Civil War. One thing that stuck out though is you say that Stowe argued that women were part of the origins of the Civil War. Do you mean the causes or their participation like becoming nurses? Women have always played an important role in history, it just seems they have been on the back burner and not in the light. The Civil War, with photography coming into play, really visually lets people see that women were there and they were working and contributing. The men were caught up in fighting and trying to make sense of it all while the women snuke in and rolled up their sleeves to get the job done. After the Civil War it seems the men were trying to regain what masculinity they had left and really did not pay much mind to the women but it was too late. Women could be strong, they could work, and they proved that, whether men wanted to pay attention or not. I think it was a changing time when everything too place so fast that it was hard for women to figure out just what their role in the changing landscape was, and that is really shown in the dichotomy of southern women with their traditional values mixed with their new independence.

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