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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.

*Posted on behalf of Mario Arellano.  Please direct your comments to him.*

Gone with the Wind (1939) highlights the evolution of gender roles.  First, gender roles began and remained traditional in that men displayed power and masculine characteristics whereas the women displayed sanctity and innocence.  Bruce Chadwick’sThe Real Civil War also speaks to the male gender issues not only during the Civil War but also during the many decades after.  Similarly, the women in the film maintained traditional gender roles whereas all sought the perfect man or someone to take care of them for the years to come.

During and after the war however, the women in the film realized their handicap and aimed to achieve more not out of pride but out of necessity. As time progressed, women in America aimed to achieve more by relying on the African American precedents, as well as their much earned right to establish themselves as citizens by taking on new roles and new challenges.  Moreover, female gender roles were evolving and continued to evolve following the American Civil War whereas opportunities to express one’s beliefs and opinions grew to the point that they would forever continue to evolve.   Indeed this was quite evident in the film.

From the beginning, the males in the film aimed to display an image of power and strength in arguing for the Confederacy going to war. They not only romanticized the idea, but they even went as far as to threaten Captain Butler when he made the comment about the North possessing more of the resources needed to fight a war.   In addition, Bruce Chadwick speaks to the issue of male gender roles claiming that Clark Gable’s character Captain Butler questioned the idea of crying on film because of the idea that it might tarnish his masculine image.*  This suggests that nearly sixty five years later, men still desired to display manly images of themselves similar to the men in film.

On the other hand, Scarlet’s attitude from the opening scene to the part where all the boys left for war tended to focus on the female desire to find love.  Her personal image is worth mentioning because she went above and beyond to acquire the attention of the boys at the picnic.  Hoping to win the heart of Ashley and secure her own future, Scarlet displayed a sense of innocence in order to win the attention of all the males at the party including Ashley.  Then later in the film after realizing she has nothing left to rely on because the war ruined her families land and Ashley was now married, Scarlet does something totally outside a females means in purchasing a lumber mill to provide herself and her family.  Prior to the war, the idea of a female performing predominantly male jobs remained unheard of.  However, as the times changed during and after the war, Scarlet was forced to take action in order to make amends.

Viewing the film from the gender perspective, it is quite apparent that the evolution of gender roles continued to change during and after the Civil War. Women accepted new roles out of necessity while men aimed to portray masculine characteristics to compensate the ongoing changes that women continued to take advantage of.

*Bruce Chadwick, The Reel Civil War: Mythmaking in American Film, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf Publishing, 2001), 186.

Many things in Gone with the Wind (1939) have an overt allusion to the Lost Cause ideology.  Consequently, pinpointing something disconnected from this concept becomes something of a masterful game.  Indeed, Gone with the Wind seems to have borrowed much from the intricate memories of Southern histories written post-American Civil War.  Seeing the war in terms of a ‘War of Northern Aggression’, the movie becomes as one critic put it, “an over inflated example of the usual false movie approach to history.”[1]  However, one scene in particular was not so ‘over inflated’, that being when a band of highwaymen attacks Scarlett O’Hara.  This results in one of the most important scenes in the movie and underscores the significance of the Crime Wave of 1865.

Believing the film to have sensationalized crime incidents following the Civil War is to diminish the real impact of the hole left in law and order following the war, and underplays the role of women in the Crime Wave of 1865.  One observer immediately after the war said, “crimes had changed from fraud to violence”.[2]  Women in particular played an important role in the violence and their populace in the local prisons shot up during and after the conflict.  Historian Lisa Frank writes, “Many Georgia women grew desperate by the war’s midpoint.  This desperation led to the widespread looting of stores and raids on warehouses by groups of destitute women, often driven by hunger.”[3]  O’Hara’s hunger pains come to mind quickly.

The role of women in the Crime Wave of 1865 is correlated to the war itself.  Historian Edith Abbott notes that during the Civil War there were four stages in crime:  a decrease in male prisoners during the war, an increase of female prisoners, an increase of children prisoners, and an increase of male prisoners following the war with the number of female prisoners not having a stark drop off.[4]  Frank points out, “In April 1863, for example, sixty-five women, some armed with pistols and knives, moved down Broad Street in Columbus, looting several stores before police were able to restore order.”[5]  Indeed, O’Hara’s harrowing run in with the highwaymen mirrored the void left in law and order as much in the South as in the North.

Found in: Edith Abbott, “The Civil War and Crime Wave of 1865-1870, Social Service Review 1, no. 2 (June, 1927): 217.

In the North, the Crime Wave of 1865 became so devastating that one Milwaukee newspaper declared, “Milwaukee was swept by a wave of crime in 1865, following the close of the Civil War.  So acute did the situation become that the common council ordered the renting of two additional police station houses for the detention of prisoners.”[6]  Additional police did come, in the form of military tribunals.  Keeping in mind that many of these prisoners in the North following the war were soldiers[7], one organization dedicated to studying this phenomenon noted, “During this turbulent time of reconstruction, swift justice was meted out through the use of military commissions.”[8]  Furthermore, the abolition of the South left a void in crime control as Historian Christopher Adamson notes, “With the abolition of slavery, alternative forms of race control had to be found and race control naturally became a major aim in crime control.”[9]  Focusing attention on these slaves and less on bands of highwaymen, highlight the issues of the Crime Wave of 1865.

The Crime Wave of 1865 was widespread and the attacking marauders in Gone with the Wind would be found as much in the South as in the North.  As a result, the attack on O’Hara seems less fiction and more fact and highlights an important phenomenon occurring after the Civil War.  What seems ridiculous fiction is that Big Sam drives off the attacking men to save O’Hara who just so happens to be in the area with a fondness for his former master.  Do not let this diminish the important statement made by this scene, that the restoration of law and order following the Civil War did not come swiftly or easily.


[1] Lincoln Kirstein, Film Magazine, quoted in Bruce Chadwick, The Reel Civil War: Mythmaking in American Film (New York: Knopf, 2001), 189.

[2] The Executive Committee of the Prison Association of New York, 1865, quoted in  Edith Abbott, “The Civil War and Crime Wave of 1865-1870,” Social Service Review 1, no. 2 (June, 1927): 223.

[3] Lisa Tendrich Frank, “Women During the Civil War,” The New Georgia Encyclopedia, http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/nge/Article.jsp?id=h-2719 (accessed June 14, 2012).

[4] Edith Abbott, “The Civil War and Crime Wave of 1865-1870,” Social Service Review 1, no. 2 (June, 1927): 215-216.

[5] Lisa Tendrich Frank, “Women During the Civil War,” The New Georgia Encyclopedia, http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/nge/Article.jsp?id=h-2719 (accessed June 14, 2012).

[6] Edward T. Kaveny, “Crime Wave Here in 1865 Became so Alarming as to Cause Petitions or Additional Police and Jails,”Milwaukee Sentinel, December 27, 1923.

[7] Frank Sanborn, Massachusetts State Board of Charities, 1872, quoted in Edith Abbott, “The Civil War and Crime Wave of 1865-1870,” Social Service Review 1, no. 2 (June, 1927): 215.

[8] Tobin T. Buhk, True Crime in the Civil War: Cases of Murder, Treason, Counterfeiting, Massacre, Plunder, & Abuse (Mechanicsburg, PA.: Stackpole Books, 2012), 221.

[9] Christopher R. Adamson, “Punishment After Slavery: Southern State Penal Systems, 1865-1890,” Social Problems 30, no. 5 (June, 1983): 558.