Beginnings of Women’s Equality and the Civil War

senecafalls-womanspeaking

Seneca Falls Convention

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

This is a newly written section of my introductory chapter for my Civil War and Gettysburg text. In that introductory chapter I dealt with many of the tactical, technological, doctrinal and military sociological changes which occurred in the Civil War. In later revisions I added a section on emancipation and the role of African American soldiers during the war. However, I realized when doing my research that in the years leading to the war and during the war that the modern women’s movement really began, in large part due to the role of women in Abolitionist circles. Thus as a coda to the section on emancipation and African American soldiers I added this small section.

Have a blessed weekend,

Peace

Padre Steve+ 

 

Garrison and the leaders of the abolitionist movement came into contact with two southern women who had converted to the abolitionist cause; South Carolina cotton heiresses, Sarah and Angelina Grimke. The two women were passionate as well as eloquent and became popular lecturers on the abolitionist speaking circuit. These women brought Garrison into contact with the early leaders of the new women’s rights movement. The leaders of the movement, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Abby Kelley, and Lydia Maria Child were outspoken in their belief that “a campaign to emancipate slaves could not avert its eyes from the need to emancipate American women from social conventions and legal restraints that prevented them, like the slave, from owning property and voting, and kept them altogether subservient to the interests of white males.” [1]

Women in the United States were bound by English common law, and “marriage very nearly meant the legal annihilation of a woman…once a woman was married all property and property rights were transferred to her husband, and she was permitted to own nothing in her own name. Married women could not make contracts, could not sue, could not buy or sell, except over their husband’s signatures.” [2] A married woman’s position was as close to being a slave as could be, and only the plight of black female slaves was worse, for they were simply chattel. The few free black women mainly stayed unmarried “in order to maintain what few property rights they were entitled to.” [3] As they also did over blacks, white men ruled over women in all spheres of life.

Stanton was among the most vocal of women’s rights advocates. She believed that a woman’s place in the home “reflected her subordinate position in society and confined her to domestic duties that served to “destroy her confidence in her own powers, lessen her self respect, and to make her willing to lead a dependent and abject life.” [4] She noted that women were “more fully identified with the slave than man possibly can be… For while the man is born to do whatever he can, for the woman and the negro the is no such privilege.” [5] Since nearly all of the most “outspoken feminists had been schooled in abolitionist movement” they were “suspect in the South, where society was conservative, patriarchal, and insistence that ladies live in a kind of earthly limbo.” [6] Since the South was turning away from anything closely connected with the abolitionist moment, many there also rejected any form of women’s rights.

But even with the abolition movement there was opposition the women’s rights. In May of 1840 Garrison’s American Anti-Slavery Society split when leading evangelicals led by the Tappan brothers withdrew from it. But that neither stopped Garrison from working with them, nor Frederick Douglass from embracing them. From this rather inauspicious beginning, the women’s rights movement began to infiltrate society, especially in the field of education. In 1848 at Seneca New York there was a convention which launched the modern women’s rights movement. Led by Stanton and Elizabeth Mott the delegates published a “Declaration of Sentiments, modeled on the Declaration of Independence, proclaimed “that all men and women are created equal” and deserved their “inalienable rights” include the right to elective franchise.” [7] The declaration was bold and its denunciation of the place of women in society to be considered revolutionary in character. Part read:

“He has never permitted her to exercise her inalienable right to elective franchise. He has compelled her to submit to laws, in the formation of which she had no voice. He has withheld from her rights which are given to the most ignorant and degraded men – both natives and foreigners… He has made her, if married, in the eye of the law, civilly dead. He has taken from her all right to property, even to the wages that she earns…. After depriving her of all her rights as a married woman, if single, and the owner of property, he has taxed her to support a government which recognizes her only when her property can be made profitable to it. He has monopolized nearly all the profitable employments, and from those she is permitted to follow she receives but a scanty remuneration. He closes against her all the avenues to wealth and distinction which he considers honorable to himself. As a teacher of theology, medicine of the law, she is not known… He has created a false public sentiment by giving the world a different code of morals for men and women, by which moral delinquencies which exclude women from society, are not only tolerated, but deemed of little account in man. He has usurped the prerogative of Jehovah alone, claiming his right to assign for her a sphere of action, when that belongs to her conscience and to her God. He has endeavored, in every way that he could, to destroy her confidence in her own powers, lessen her self-respect, and to make her willing to lead an abject and dependent life.” [8]

The declaration also stated, in words which inflamed many men that :“the history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object of an absolute tyranny over her.” [9]

While the movement made modest progress regarding property rights in some states, they made little progress in terms of elective franchise and better wages and working conditions. During the ante-bellum period, women who lobbied for such rights were met with open opposition and scorn. The press “frequently denounced and ridiculed the “strong-minded women…” [10] Despite such attitudes women did make some significant advancements, particularly in lay aspects of the church, such as Bible societies, moral reform organizations, as well as the abolition and temperance movements, which had gained prominence during the Second Great Awakening.

Educationally women made great progress. By 1850 the United States was the only country where “girls went to elementary school and achieved literacy in virtually the same proportion as boys.” [11] Likewise a few women entered higher education, particularly at women’s seminaries, which were for all practical purposes boarding schools which produced teachers and writers, as well as the Oberlin College which was founded by Christian abolitionists and welcomed students of both genders as well as of any racial minority. During the three decades prior to the war women made some specific gains, but more important “was the development to their talents for organization, cooperation, leadership, and self expression. It was a time of beginnings and not fulfillment, a time when most women realized and accepted the fact that they lived in a man’s world, a time when a few dedicated but belligerent visionaries were frustrated in their attempt to remake the social order “overnight.” [12]

However, the war would help bring about many more opportunities for women. In 1850 a follow on conference to the Seneca conference, the National Women’s Rights Convention denied the right of anyone to dictate what women could do with their lives:

“The right of any portion of the species to decide for another portion, of any individual to decide for another Individual what is not their “proper sphere”; that the proper sphere for all human beings is the largest and highest to which they are able to attain; what this is, can not be ascertained without complete Liberty of choice; women therefore, ought to choose for herself what sphere she will fill, what education she will seek, and what employment she will follow, and will not be bound to accept, in submission, the rights, the education, and the place which man thinks proper to allow her.” [13]

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Of course when war broke out the logical end of this train of though was should women be allowed to serve in the military. Quite a few women on both sides of the conflict chaffed about not being allowed to fight for their countries. However, despite official prohibitions that kept women from serving in any capacity but nursing, a good number of women found their way to war, taking male identities in order to gain the economic privileges, and in the case of war, the glory reserved to men. In our modern parlance they would be called transvestites, but their “transvestitism was a private rebellion against public conventions. By taking a male social identity, they secured for themselves male power and independence, as well as full status as citizens of their nation. In essence the Civil War was an opportunity for hundreds of women to escape the confines of their sex.” [14]

During the war hundreds of women went to war, taking on the identity of men. They enlisted under male names and pretended to be men. Unless they were discovered to be women, or unless they confessed to their wartime service either during or after the war, most of their records are lost. At least five women, two Federal and three Confederate took part at Gettysburg. All three Confederates were either killed or wounded, or captured, including two women who took part in Pickett’s Charge.

Wartime records are sketchy but as a minimum it is believed that “between 250 and 400 women disguised as men found their way into either the Federal or Confederate armies.” [15] Women known to have served had a “combined casualty rate of 44 percent” including the fact that “eleven percent of women soldiers died in the military.” [16]

Other women would serve as spies or nurses and some of those discovered remained protected by fellow soldiers. Many received promotions and even served as NCOs or junior officers. With women now serving in combat or combat support roles in the U.S. Military since Operation Desert Storm in 1991, the stigma and scandal that these cross-dressing women soldiers of the Civil War has faded and as scholars and the public both “continue probing cultural notions of gender and identity, the reemerging evidence that women historically and successfully engaged in combat has met with less intellectual resistance and has taken on new cultural significance.” [17] As the United States military services examine the issues surrounding further moves to integrate the combat arms we also should attempt to more closely examine the service of the brave and often forgotten women who served on both sides of the Civil War.

Notes

[1] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening pp.49-50

[2] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.391

[3] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.391

[4] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.74

[5] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.50

[6] Massey, Mary Elizabeth, Women in the Civil War University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln NE 1966 p. 19

[7] Ibid. McPherson Battle Cry of Freedom p.36

[8] Blanton, DeAnne and Cook, Lauren M. They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the Civil War Vintage a books, a Division of Random House New York 2002 pp.3-4

[9] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.392

[10] Ibid. Massey Women in the Civil War pp.21-22

[11] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.36

[12] Ibid. Massey Women in the Civil War p.23

[13] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.392.

[14] Ibid. Blanton and Cook They Fought Like Demons p.5

[15] ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.394

[16] Ibid. Blanton and Cook They Fought Like Demons pp.206-207

[17] Ibid. Blanton and Cook They Fought Like Demons p.204

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Filed under civil rights, civil war, History, Military, Political Commentary

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