Among the madams in their carriages and the painted girls on horseback, went haughty Mrs. Greenhow, and gay Belle Boyd, and Mrs. Lincoln, with madness in her eyes. Living and dead, the wind of time had blown them all from Washington. In the streets were only tired people, wandering home through dust and manure and trampled garland. -- Margaret Leech, Reveille in Washington, 1860-1865.
The end of the war was a time to heal the wounds of the country and build a stronger nation. The women of the North and the South had played many roles during the war and the women written about are only a shadow of the contributions by so many. But for all the independence and opportunity for women in those four years, what happened afterward? Clara Barton, in a Memorial Day address in 1888, said, “woman was at least fifty years in advance of the normal position which continued peace …would have assigned her.” Were these advances bestowed on women freely and if they were, what advances can be attributed to the war? Also, what problems did women face after the Civil War ended? And what effect did these changes have on women in the future? These are all questions that need answers to understand the true benefits of the war for the advancement of women. Women had various expectations after the war’s end. Some women looked forward to returning to life as it was before the war: the men would be the breadwinners and the women would take care of their home and family. Others wanted to take advantage of their new skills and independence. The reality was a difficult transition for all of them. Mary Massey wrote: The end of the war found many women in all parts of the country destitute, despairing and embittered. They had presumed conditions would be vastly improved after four years of bloodshed, and while there were hopeful signs on the horizon, they were distant. People could later look back and see that during the war much had been done by and for women, but those who were hungry, confused and in mourning could not recognize their gains. To talk to these women about the stronger nation welded together by the conflict would have been useless.
Those who made great sacrifices and received nothing but problems in return took a pessimistic view, some for only a brief time and others for the rest of their lives. The return to normalcy proved elusive for many women whose returning husbands struggled to deal with their physical and mental handicaps. Women were often forced to continue as the managers and directors of family farms and businesses.
Life was particularly difficult for many wealthy Southern women, like Mary Chesnut, who had lived on plantations with slaves doing all the work. Things were much different for many of them, such as the plight of Grace Elmore’s neighbor after the Union occupation of Columbia, South Carolina. She wrote in her diary: The poor old lady literally descended in one night from great wealth to abject poverty, she whose recreation it had been to clothe the naked and feed the hungry, is now absolutely without clothing and bread except what others give her, and she is sheltered by a shanty knocked up in a few hours from planks picked out of the ruins. Mary Chesnut once the “center of political and social activity in Richmond during the war, lived out her latter years burdened with debt, her home in Camden, South Carolina, ransacked and the fields burned.” She explained: There are two classes of vociferous sufferers in this community: those who say, “If people would pay me what they owe me!” “If people would only let me alone. I cannot pay them. I could stand it if I had anything to pay debts.” Now we belong to both classes. Heavens! What people owe us and will not or cannot pay would settle all our debts ten times over and leave us in easy circumstances for life.
But they will not pay. How can they? While many women in the South were trying to rebuild their shattered lives, Northern women, with or without the husbands, migrated West when jobs and or husbands couldn’t be found. The story of Mrs. Bickerdyke’s homesteaders in Kansas is one example. Another is Asa Mercer’s colonizing effort in the Northwest. He advertised for unattached women of good character and on January 16, 1866, forty-seven ladies sailed to San Francisco aboard the Continental. Most of the “Mercer girls” married and any one wanting a job found them. Taboos against women working outside the home relaxed as a result of their wartime accomplishments. Many war widows and wives of disabled veterans had little choice but to work to support themselves and their families rather than depend on the charity of family and friends. In the South, Marjorie Mendenhall, described a transition in the eighties and nineties from planter families to merchant-farmers. This shifted the population to towns where “ideas circulated more freely and where women had greater opportunities for employment, group activities and leadership.”
Women in the North had different adjustments to make. As soldiers returned home, they often faced long periods of unemployment, leaving to their wives and children either supporting them or relying on charity. Another problem for women was job displacement. Women who needed jobs faced greater competition from men after the war and to make matters worse, employers were under pressure to hire veterans. Often left destitute wives of the handicapped and many of the four million widows and orphans in desperate need. In spite of the contributions of women during the war, many of the same male biases resurfaced. Many conservatives still did not approve of women working outside the home.
Mary Massey described how the industrial revolution wasn’t meant for the women according to men: After the invention of the typewriter, there were men who maintained stenography could never be a field for women because it required so much concentration and physical endurance that it “would break a young woman down in a short time.” More than twenty years after the invention of the sewing machine it was declared too dangerous for women to operate; and a Boston physician testified that in a survey among sixty-nine of his medical colleagues, forty-four stated woman’s physical structure did not permit her to sew by machine without permanently damaging her health. In spite of some setbacks, much of women’s postwar progress can be attributed to increased employment opportunities. Women in greater numbers worked because of ambitions for advancement and recognition. “The economic emancipation of women was the most important single factor in her social, intellectual, and political advancement,” wrote Massey, “and the war did more in four years to change her economic status than had been accomplished in any preceding generation.” By 1875, the number of women working in government jobs had doubled.
Federal, state, and local agencies, business firms and institutions were employing women clerks, bookkeepers, stenographers and receptionists. Competition for civil service jobs was great because wages were higher and workdays shorter than most other occupations. And many women found government work a chance to “lose” themselves in Washington and earn a living away from tragic memories.
Women’s involvement in ladies’ aid societies also helped make post-war volunteer work for hospitals, veterans’ rehabilitation centers, temperance societies and orphanages an admirable service. The quest for more knowledge grew as women sought higher education. More colleges opened their doors to women and more women attended college. There was a virtual education revolution for women between 1865 and 1890. Several women’s colleges were founded during this period: Vassar, Smith, Wellesley, Bryn Mawr, Barnard, Radcliffe, Goucher, Sophie Newcomb and Agnes Scott. Coeducational universities were Cornell, Michigan, Wisconsin, Kansas, Missouri, California, Texas and Kentucky. To meet the need for teacher training and vocational courses, institutions such as the George Peabody Normal School in Nashville opened. The medical profession was still slow to accept women as equal contributors. Ridiculed, ignored and harassed by surgeons, many nurses returned home feeling unappreciated and with no future in their chosen profession. In fact, it took an organization of Civil War nurses and the Women’s Relief Corps to pressure Congress to approve pensions for these women in 1892.
In spite of the obstacles, educational opportunities for women in medicine increased. By the mid-1880’s there were twenty-two schools for nurses in the nation and a number of medical colleges. In addition to the Blackwells’ New York Medical College, the Woman’s Medical College of Chicago was founded in 1870. In 1871, the University of Michigan’s Medical School admitted women although they took their courses separate from men. By the 1890’s Syracuse, California, Iowa and Howard Universities were among the dozen coeducational medical colleges. Civil War nurses, such as Mary Safford, Belle Reynolds and Nancy Hill, completed their medical studies to become physicians. Dr. Safford was one of the foremost women surgeons in the country and is credited with being the first women to perform an ovariectomy. Women became more vocal after the war, advocating temperance and women’s suffrage. Annie Wittenmyer, Laura Haviland and Mary Livermore were among the war workers who supported the temperance movement. Susan B. Anthony is well known for her efforts in promoting suffrage, as did Ms. Livermore. For all the advancements made by women as a result of the Civil War, a role for women in the military was not one of them. While there were women on the battlefield, they were not considered soldiers. And those women who fought as soldiers did so under disguise. More extensive pre-enlistment physical examinations would eliminate this recurrence in the future.
The prejudices that precluded women from military service remained for many years afterward and many still remain today. They include:
1. Females do not have sufficient upper-body strength.
2. Females do not have the aggressive tendencies necessary for warfare.
3. Female presence would disrupt the male bonding necessary to cement the fighting force.
Of course, men of the nineteenth century also believed women couldn’t physically handle a typewriter or sewing machine. General Philip Sheridan recalled a complaint by Colonel Conrad of the 15th Missouri about two women, one a teamster in the division wagon train and the other a private cavalry soldier attached to the headquarters for escort duty. He claimed the women had become an “annoyance” and contributed to “demoralizing his men” by getting drunk. For all the concerns of women’s ability to fight, women like Sarah Edmonds, Jennie Hodgers, Elizabeth Walker and Kady Brownell proved otherwise. These women and many others served with distinction and led the way for American women of the future to serve their country.