Once war broke out, expressions of dissatisfaction with the gender prescriptions of Confederate womanhood proliferated among Southern women. "I wish I were a man!" became a common refrain in women's diaries and letters. 1 Such laments span the entire war, from the firing on Fort Sumter to the last desperate battles of 1865. In the days after Sumter, Cloe Tyler Whittle, as committed a secessionist as one could find in Virginia, experienced not only anticipation but also a gnawing frustration that bordered on self-loathing -- for she was barred, by virtue of her sex, from taking part in the "action," namely in the male work of fighting. To celebrate the bombardment of the fort, Whittle put on her "Secession Dress," but felt shame that all women could do was "to put a few brass buttons up the front of their dresses!" "When I see young men wasting their time and talents I can scarcely help the thought arising, 'Why hast thou made me thus?'" she wrote in her diary in April of 1861. Her curse, as she construed it, was to have been given male qualities without male opportunities: she lamented that "Ambition to excess, & Persevereance [sic] indefatigable should be given to me & still the thraldom of Womanhood thrown around me, making these qualities which would so advance my cause were I a man, turn almost to indwelling fiends to torment & mock me by continually showing me my incapacity for action!" 2
Two years later, in August of 1863, Lucy Breckenridge of Grove Hill expressed similar frustration. "I wish the women could fight," she confessed to her diary, "and I do think they might be allowed to do so. . . . Their lives are not more precious than the men's." Two years later still, on the eve of Confederate defeat, Caroline Davis wrote, "I sometimes wish I was a man that I might take my place among the gallant defenders of our rights instead of being contented to work in the sphere in which Providence has placed me." 3
For Whittle, Breckenridge, and Davis and others like them, such laments were acts of fantasy; only an infinitesimal fraction of women actually took up arms during the war. 4 When looked at in the context of their antebellum political experiences, however, women's wartime fantasies take on a new significance. In some sense, the women who lived through the secession crisis and war had, of course, long been barred from taking a full part in the "action" -- they could neither vote nor hold
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Publication information: Book title: We Mean to Be Counted:White Women & Politics in Antebellum Virginia. Contributors: Elizabeth R. Varon - Author. Publisher: University of North Carolina Press. Place of publication: Chapel Hill, NC. Publication year: 1998. Page number: 169.
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