Women and Gender History of the Civil War Era: A Roundtable

Women and Gender History of the Civil War Era: A Roundtable

We are delighted to publish three essays on women’s history of the Civil War Era by three leading scholars in the field. This roundtable draws on a lively session at last summer’s Society of Civil War Historians conference. Together these pieces provide a wide-ranging assessment of the field as a scholarly endeavor and its translation into teaching, both through textbooks and in K-12 classrooms.

Our Women and the War, from Harper’s Weekly, September 6, 1862

Nina Silber’s essay, “Introductory Remarks: The Study of Gender and the Civil War,” asks what has changed in the field since the indispensable book she co-edited with Catherine Clinton, Divided Houses: Gender and the Civil War (1992). Silber describes important developments, particularly in scholarship on African American women, and identifies some intriguing questions that remain understudied.

Judith Giesberg anchors her piece, “Why We Should Forget the Civil War,” with a quotation from a 2002 essay by Thavolia Glymph: “From any perspective, women’s history remains the least studied and analytically sophisticated aspect of the Civil War and Reconstruction.  For a period that witnessed the most voluminous outpouring of writing by and about women of any in American history. . . this seems on the surface an odd result.”[1] Giesberg proceeds to describe the growing body of scholarship in the field, including books that have been widely lauded and won multiple awards. Nevertheless, she points out, recent surveys of the Civil War Era, many of them designed for teaching, still largely ignore women and their history. Why is this so, and what can be done about it?

In “The Gendered Consequences of Legislation Targeting Critical Race Theory,” Fay A. Yarbrough reminds us that teaching the history of women and gender remains intensely political. Taking us to Texas, where she teaches, she reveals how a new state law barring the teaching of certain “concepts” focuses not just on race, but on sex as well. Her piece concludes the roundtable with the urgent reminder that women’s history itself is under attack in many places and that “we do not and should not write only for other academics.”

[1] Thavolia Glymph, “The Civil War Era,” in ed. Nancy A. Hewitt, A Companion to American Women’s History (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2005).

Kate Masur and Greg Downs

Kate Masur is an associate professor at Northwestern University, specializing in the history of the nineteenth-century United States, focusing on how Americans grappled with questions of race and equality after the abolition of slavery. Greg Downs, who studies U.S. political and cultural history in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, is a professor of history at University of California--Davis. Together they edited an essay collection on the Civil War titled The World the Civil War Made (North Carolina, 2015), and they currently co-edit The Journal of the Civil War Era.

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