In the years before the Civil War, the lives of American women were shaped by a set of ideals that historians call “the Cult of True Womanhood.” As men’s work moved away from the home and into shops, offices and factories, the household became a new kind of place to private, feminized domestic sphere. “True women” devoted their lives to creating a clean, comfortable, nurturing home for their husbands and children.
During the Civil War, American women turned their attention to the world outside the home. Thousands of women in the North and South joined volunteer brigades and signed up to work as nurses. It was the first time in American history that women played a significant role in a war effort. By the end of the war, these experiences had expanded many Americans’ definitions of “true womanhood.”
With the outbreak of war , women and men alike eagerly volunteered to fight for the cause. In the Northern states, women organized ladies’ aid societies to supply the Union troops with everything they needed, from food. The women's baked and canned and planted fruit and vegetable gardens for the soldiers, aslo they sewed and laundered uniforms, knitted socks and gloves, mended blankets and embroidered quilts and pillowcases. To get the money they organized door-to-door fundraising campaigns, county fairs and performances of all kinds to raise money for medical supplies and other necessities.
But many women wanted to take a more active role in the war effort. Inspired by the work of Florence Nightingale and her fellow nurses in the Crimean War, they tried to find a way to work on the front lines, caring for sick and injured soldiers and keeping the rest of the Union troops healthy and safe.
In June 1861, they succeeded: The federal government agreed to create “a preventive hygienic and sanitary service for the benefit of the army” called the United States Sanitary Commission. The Sanitary Commission’s primary objective was to combat...