Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War

Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War

Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War

Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War

Synopsis

When Confederate men marched off to battle, white women across the South confronted unaccustomed and unsought responsibilities: directing farms and plantations, providing for families, and supervising increasingly restive slaves. As southern women struggled "to do a man's business", they found themselves compelled to reconsider their most fundamental assumptions about their identities and about the larger meaning of womanhood. Drew Faust offers a compelling picture of the more than half-million women who belonged to the slaveholding families of the Confederacy during this period of acute crisis. According to Faust, the most privileged of southern women experienced the destruction of war as both a social and a personal upheaval: the prerogatives of whiteness and the protections of ladyhood began to dissolve as the Confederacy weakened and crumbled. Faust draws on the eloquent diaries, letters, essays, memoirs, fiction, and poetry of more than 500 of the Confederacy's elite women to show that with the disintegration of slavery and the disappearance of prewar prosperity, every part of these women's lives became vexed and uncertain. But it was not just females who worried about the changing nature of gender relations in the wartime South; Confederate political discourse and popular culture - plays, novels, songs, and paintings - also negotiated the changed meanings of womanhood. Exploring elite Confederate women's wartime experiences as wives, mothers, nurses, teachers, slave managers, authors, readers, and survivors, this book chronicles the clash of the old and the new within a group that was at once the beneficiary and the victim of the social order of the Old South. Mothers of Inventionshow how people managed both to change and not to change and how their personal transformations related to a larger world of society and politics. Beautifully written and eminently readable, this study of women and war is a

Excerpt

When I was growing up in Virginia in the 1950s and 1960s, my mother taught me that the term "woman" was disrespectful, if not insulting. Adult females--at least white ones--should be considered and addressed as "ladies." I responded to this instruction by refusing to wear dresses and by joining the 4-H club, not to sew and can like all the other girls, but to raise sheep and cattle with the boys. My mother still insisted on the occasional dress but, to her credit, said not a negative word about my enthusiasm for animal husbandry.

Looking back, I am sure that the origins of this book lie somewhere in that youthful experience and in the continued confrontations with my mother-- until the very eve of her death when I was nineteen--about the requirements of what she usually called "femininity:" "It's a man's world, sweetie, and the sooner you learn that the better off you'll be," she warned. I have been luckier than she in that I have lived in a time when my society and culture have supported me in proving that statement wrong.

My professional historical interest in the South grew out of those early years as well, for I lived in Harry Byrd's home county during the era of Brown v. Topeka and "massive resistance" to school desegregation, a time when even a young child could not be unaware of adult talk and worry about social transformations in the offing. It was not until I heard news about the Brown decision on the radio that I even noticed that my elementary school was all white and recognized that this was not accident. But I quickly penned a letter to President Eisenhower to say how illogical I thought this seemed in the face of the precepts of equality I had already imbibed by second grade. I confronted the paradox of being both a southerner and an American at an early age.

That I should become a historian, focus my scholarship on the South and the Civil War, and write a book on white women in the Confederacy seems almost overdetermined. That I should dedicate it to the memory of my mother and my two grandmothers--"ladies" who were at the same time the most powerful members of my family--seems entirely fitting. All three were, in fact, women deeply affected by war, though for them the homefront did not merge with battle the way it did for Confederate women. But my grandmothers sent husbands off to Europe in the First World War, and one lost an only brother in a volunteer flying mission over the English Channel. My mother was married in 1942. with less than a week's notice, and my parents . . .

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