The Freedmen's Bureau and Reconstruction: Reconsiderations

By Paul A. Cimbala; Randall M. Miller | Go to book overview

8
"Because They Are Women":
Gender and the Virginia
Freedmen's Bureau's "War on
Dependency"

Maty J. Farmer

"THERE IS STILL a complaint that the freedmen exercise no control over their families," a somewhat perplexed Edwin Lyon, agent of the Freedmen's Bureau in Charlotte County, Virginia, reported to his superiors in May 1866. More than a year after the Civil War had ended, freedmen in his district were "allowing their children to follow their own inclinations" and, even more disappointing to him, some were "encouraging their wives to idleness." But perhaps what frustrated this agent more was that despite the growing inclination among most freedmen "to put their wives and grown daughters to work," freedwomen were "determined on resisting the authority of their liege lords."1 This agent's frustrations underscore the importance that both the Freedmen's Bureau and its conceptions of gender played in defining the meaning of freedom for more than four million former slaves in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. As part of their principal task, Bureau agents throughout the South were instructed to teach the freedpeople to be "a self-supporting class of free laborers" who understood the necessity of steady employment. Still, and as a component of this task, the Bureau also considered it crucial to teach freedmen to be responsible husbands and fathers who provided for their families and, similarly, freedwomen to be good wives and mothers.2

Despite the voluminous scholarship on the Freedmen's Bureau, remarkably little has been written about the role that gender played in the federal agency's efforts throughout the South; neglected as

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