Women's Radical Reconstruction: The Freedmen's Aid Movement

Women's Radical Reconstruction: The Freedmen's Aid Movement

Women's Radical Reconstruction: The Freedmen's Aid Movement

Women's Radical Reconstruction: The Freedmen's Aid Movement


In this first critical study of female abolitionists and feminists in the freedmen's aid movement, Carol Faulkner describes these women's radical view of former slaves and the nation's responsibility to them. Moving beyond the image of the Yankee schoolmarm, Women's Radical Reconstruction demonstrates fully the complex and dynamic part played by Northern women in the design, implementation, and administration of Reconstruction policy. This absorbing account illustrates how these activists approached women's rights, the treatment of freed slaves, and the federal government's role in reorganizing Southern life.

Like Radical Republicans, black and white women studied here advocated land reform, political and civil rights, and an activist federal government. They worked closely with the military, the Freedmen's Bureau, and Northern aid societies to provide food, clothes, housing, education, and employment to former slaves. These abolitionist-feminists embraced the Freedmen's Bureau, seeing it as both a shield for freedpeople and a vehicle for women's rights. But Faulkner rebuts historians who depict a community united by faith in free labor ideology, describing a movement torn by internal tensions.

The author explores how gender conventions undermined women's efforts, as military personnel and many male reformers saw female reformers as encroaching on their territory, threatening their vision of a wage labor economy, and impeding the economic independence of former slaves. She notes the opportunities afforded to some middle-class black women, while also acknowledging the difficult ground they occupied between freed slaves and whites. Through compelling individual examples, she traces how female reformers found their commitment to gender solidarity across racial lines tested in the face of disagreements regarding the benefits of charity and the merits of paid employment.


The freedmen’s aid movement began in November 1861, when the Union army took control of the Sea Islands and the area around Beaufort, South Carolina. This Northern victory provoked a mass exodus of white Southerners who left behind their plantations, their houses, and their slaves. Hearing of an area controlled by the Union, slaves also left inland farms to seek safety and freedom on the coast. the government and the army enlisted the assistance of Northern missionaries, abolitionists, and businessmen, led by Edward L. Pierce, to aid them in the care of former slaves and the reorganization of labor on abandoned plantations. This group of reformers, known as “Gideon’s Band,” a name reflecting the religious and antislavery zeal of their endeavor, initiated the “Port Royal Experiment,” which tested the possibilities of freedom for former slaves.

As the Union army occupied more Southern territory, freedmen’s aid reformers followed closely behind, distributing food and clothing and reporting back to the North on the condition of former slaves. Sympathetic Northerners established freedmen’s aid societies as religious missions, as auxiliaries to antislavery or soldiers’ aid societies, and as independent “commissions” intended to work closely with the government in aiding slave refugees. All these groups had roots in the antislavery movement, and most of their members either belonged to antislavery societies or, at the very least, opposed slavery. Women were especially active in the freedmen’s aid movement, sewing clothing in the North, traveling south as teachers, working as agents and officers of Northern aid societies, and distributing relief to freedpeople in the South. in addition, women sought to shape the policies of the movement and the government. in so doing, they confronted social tensions over the nature of benevolent work and women’s public activism.

From the moment these experiments began, reformers, the military, and government officials debated how to best assist former slaves. They discussed the wisdom of charity and the most effective means of introducing free labor values to freedpeople, grappling with their own preconceived . . .

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