Roles of Women in the American Civil War

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The American Civil War was, as all wars are, affected not only by the men fighting on the battlefield, but by the women who served on the home front, in military hospitals, and occasionally next to men on the battlefield. Just as women influenced the war, the war changed the world in which the women lived. The women’s rights movement began shortly before the Civil War, and continued through the war, growing stronger as women were touched by the war, and longed for rights equal to men. Women supported men by donating supplies to the effort in both the North and the South. Women served as soldiers, worked in military hospitals, and spied to discover valuable information to aid their homeland. Women were a very valuable resource during the war, and the war was very influential on the way women lived their lives in America.

Before the Civil War, women’s roles in America were changing. Economic modernization caused the production of items previously made by women to occur outside of the home. In some cases, families needed women to work for wages in or out of the home.[i] In most cases, however, the men left for work while the women stayed at home to tend to the house and raise the children. This caused the existence of “separate spheres.”[ii] With this shift in production, the purpose of the home changed. Mothers were the source of love and nurturing for the children. When families became more centered on love and affection, midle class families started having fewer children.[iii] This, in turn, caused women to be able to be more active in society, since they were not constantly expecting or nursing a newborn.[iv]

In the early and middle 1800s, women moved out of the home and into the public sphere. Many unmarried women had little chance of being planters, and they were not hired in the city.[v] Most commonly, women worked from the home. Occupations that took place outside of their home were traditional feminie roles of seamstress, laundress, or nanny. Few women were able to acquire jobs in retail, and women with larger homes could open a boardinghouse.[vi] Women (and children) worked in factories for wages and served humanity, and were generally overlooked by others.[vii] In the North, the manufacturing of cloth items such as clothing moved from the home to factories. Northern women increasingly could purchase thred, cloth, and clothing, while the South had fewer factories, so clothing was made in the home.[viii] Southern women did not question their place in society and admired the traditional way of life on their plantations.[ix]

With fewer children and much less work at home, families sent their children to school more, and the public education system changed. The school became responsible for education and social skills. Women became more involved in the schooling system, and most teachers were women. Because of this, women needed to be educated, too.[x] Women found work as schoolteachers because the environment was safer and more comfortable than a factory.[xi] Other women worked as private music, dance, or art tutors. They did, however, make low salaries. Though women found employment as teachers and in factories and shops, they longed for a traditional family life.[xii]

Education was viewed different in the North and in the South. In the North, women were expected by intelligent and independent free thinkers, while Southern women were expected to use their intellect to make polie conversation and support their ladylike character.[xiii] Increasingly during the Antebellum period, women learned how to read. More families owned books and taught their children how to read.[xiv] Wealthy families may have had private libraries, from which daughters could read a variety of literature to maintain intellectual abilities.[xv] Though more women learned to read, many Southern women remained illiterate - some white women could not even write their own name.[xvi] Young women often preffered romantic novels that described a...
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