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Women and The Civil War

How Women Were Affected by the War and the Societal Shift That Followed

Published onApr 29, 2022
Women and The Civil War

Antebellum America was a time when women primarily stayed in the home, took care of the children, and obeyed their husbands. This all changed when the country went to war in 1861. Conflicts over slavery between America’s North and South drove the country apart, resulting in the bloodiest four years in America’s history, the Civil War.

Women were affected in countless ways, from their domestic lives to the society they once were a part of, even if they were only a very small part of it, every little aspect of their lives was turned around.

The war lasted from 1861 to 1865 and brought on a plethora of social changes, including a new role in society for women.

Before the American Civil War, women primarily spent their days in the home. They were expected to look after the kids, prepare the food, and keep the house in order. Women began venturing away from the home, and in the 1820s began working in textile mills.[1]

 Ideas of femininity began changing when women went to work.

With the men away at war, women were the main group of people left to keep the economy in line. Working in the mills, they faced mistreatment and worked long and hard days for less than adequate pay, housing, and benefits. [2]

Many African American women in the antebellum period were still enslaved. The average life of white women in this same period is not comparable to this lifestyle in the slightest. There were hardships that white women didn’t have to concern themselves with that African American women had to worry about daily. This includes the separation of their families in the slave trading system, the fear of being beaten or killed by their owners, and the sexual harassment faced by many female slaves. [3]

During the antebellum period, women followed and were confined to a set of ideas known as the cult of domesticity. Men’s work moved out of the home, but women’s remained there where she could easily manage the household chores and the children.

A huge reason that women were not encouraged to join the workforce, was because they were not equipped with the same educational resources as men. So, they were stuck with dirty and unsafe jobs that didn’t offer much money, such as the mills.

It was pretty rare for women to participate in work outside of the home before the 1860s, and we have a pretty good understanding of why that is, the lack of education and the cultural ideas of the time, are two examples. We see women slowly start to infiltrate the labor force, starting in the textile mills.[4]

When the Civil War began, women started filling new roles to support their families while the country was at war. Roles such as nurses, spies, advocates, and even soldiers proved to be extremely important to the war effort. Women everywhere, regardless of race, age, or class, were affected by the war in some way.

The shift in gender roles during and after the war primarily changed the lives of white women, considering the fact that these roles and norms are generally more flexible for African American women, especially in the south. This shift that was so major and life-changing for white women didn’t have the same effects on African American women, simply because the gender norms, in general, didn’t apply to them in the same ways.

During the years of the war, women were challenged to participate in society, officially, for the first time. This, of course, challenged the ideas and cultural norms of the antebellum period. Norms like, women being confined to the home were turned upside down when women went to work in mills, as nurses, and even on the front lines. It was during this time that the idea of femininity was challenged and expanded. The great bravery and strength exhibited by women all across the country was inspiring. The post-war period in America is when we start to see a big increase in the women’s rights movements. They’ve gotten a taste of freedom, and there was no going back.[5]

The major shifts in society that were initiated by the beginning of the Civil War have brought us from a society where the women worked primarily in the home, with a fraction of the rights that we enjoy today while taking care of everything but the family finances to a society where women can work wherever they want, vote, and even hold political office. All of which was unheard of in Antebellum America. The entry of women into the labor market has resulted in drastic changes and can be attributed to much of the country’s prosperity today.[6] These changes are significant, because this shift in the lives of women in America from 1861 influences our lives still, today. 

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