Introductory Remarks: The Study of Gender and the Civil War

Introductory Remarks: The Study of Gender and the Civil War

When we began planning for the SCWH 2020 conference, one critical component of our planning entailed a special plenary that would survey the field of gender and Civil War history.  This is a field of long-standing interest for me, going back to the publication of the co-edited collection I did with Catherine Clinton, Divided Houses: Gender and the Civil War.  Published in 1992, this path-breaking (for its time) volume brought together the work of eighteen different scholars, including many younger scholars just entering the Civil War field, and offered one of the first wide-ranging looks at the different ways gender shaped the war and the war shaped gender.[1]  Since that time, a veritable revolution has transpired in this field of scholarship; numerous prize-winning and influential books and essays have appeared examining the experience of enslaved women and the push for emancipation; free Black women and the anti-slavery struggle in the North; and both yeomen and slaveholding white women in the South.  Although the coronavirus pandemic forced a postponement of the 2020 conference, we were able to reconvene the conference, along with that special plenary, in a virtual format in June 2021.  This online forum draws from that plenary session.

As the chair and moderator of the session, I asked the panelists to think about how this field has changed in the last thirty years – using the publication of Divided Houses as a kind of benchmark – and to consider the kinds of questions and challenges scholars continued to confront in this work.  As I saw it, many things had changed radically in the field.  Perhaps most important was the way scholars had centered Black women’s experiences in the larger narrative: as participants and leaders in wartime rebellions; as enslaved women working against the oppressive demands of the slave plantation system on a daily basis; as free women who initiated campaigns in northern states that would give support to the abolitionist and civil rights struggles.

It’s clear, too, that the new scholarship has also greatly complicated our understanding of patriarchy in this era.  Increasingly, a picture was emerging not of undifferentiated women’s oppression at the hands of men, but a system of oppression and exploitation that often made white women the beneficiaries and practitioners of social and economic power.  White slaveholding women, we have learned, had a strong economic stake in the slave system and were often ruthless perpetrators of plantation exploitation.  Even white northern women who came South to aid the freed people, in the immediate postwar era, had been shaped by a system of racial power which strongly affected their interactions with Black women.  In her remarks, Judy Giesberg observed how the “moral high ground” which northern white middle-class women once occupied has started to crack.  As Thavolia Glymph put it, long-standing assumptions about gender solidarity, the “bonds of womanhood” that some saw extending across lines of race and class, can also no longer withstand scholarly scrutiny.

My initial question for this panel  – to consider the changes in the field over the past 30 years –  was meant as a prompt, encouraging us to think broadly about the field in terms of chronology, in terms of region, and in terms of historical actors and to think, too, about the kinds of challenges we still encounter in this field.  The panel elicited some deeply insightful reflections from the panelists as well as an exciting and lively exchange with the audience.  Judy Giesberg asked one of the most provocative questions when she wondered why all the new and exciting scholarship on gender and the Civil War had failed, thus far, to change the general narratives about the war.  Fay Yarbrough brought the discussion into the present day, observing how the study of women and gender in the Civil War era has become a highly-charged political act, an act that is currently under attack as state legislatures across the US have begun enacting laws to promote “patriotic education”.  Indeed, listening to Fay’s presentation, I was surprised to learn how this reactionary legislation has not just voiced opposition to “critical race theory”, but also to work that considers the structural basis of sexism.   Scholars working in this field face a particularly difficult confluence of events: a tendency among Civil War scholars to overlook scholarship on women and gender as well as a political climate that actually tries to outlaw classroom discussions that focus on sex and gender.

Still, this is a field that continues to draw a host of scholars, including many junior academics and graduate students, and the work here remains exciting and dynamic.  With more attention shifting to the study of the reconstruction era, scholars would do well to learn more about how gender, and women’s experiences, shaped this critical historical moment: how, for example, did formerly enslaved women find new opportunities, perhaps in terms of property ownership, professional work, or education? What challenges did women (and men) face as they tackled the work of reconstituting formerly enslaved families?  What can we learn about nonslaveholding white women in this postwar era, including their own dislocations in the shift away from the slave economy?  An obvious blind spot exists – one that was highlighted during the plenary discussion – regarding our knowledge of same-sex relations and a larger array of queer gender experiences, among both men and women in this era. Likewise, to echo a point Judy Giesberg made in the discussion, our understanding of working-class women occupies a distinct void in our picture of the Civil War era: how, for example, did the labor and racial upheaval of the Civil War era shape the political identities of Northern white working women? And while we know quite a bit about elite southern white women in the post-war resurgence of white supremacy, it might be useful to ask how northern white women may have also contributed to that resurgence since the ascension of racist power was hardly limited to the states below the Mason Dixon line.  I look forward to reading work on these subjects, and more, in the years to come.



[1] Catherine Clinton and Nina Silber, eds., Divided Houses: Gender and the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).

Nina Silber

Nina Silber is the Jon Westling Professor of History at Boston University and recently served as the President of the Society of Civil War Historians. Her most recent book is This War Ain’t Over: Fighting the Civil War in New Deal America (Chapel Hill, 2019).  She’s currently at work on a history/memoir about her father, a central figure in the mid-twentieth century folk revival.

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