So Pleasant to Be a School Ma'am: The Civil War as an Educational Force for Women
Bailey, Lucy E., Advancing Women in Leadership
This paper draws from a collection of over one hundred and fifty letters Northern women wrote during the American Civil War to consider aspects of women's education during this devastating national conflict that spanned four bloody years and involved millions of Americans. Women's historians have explored the Civil War's varied reverberations for women's social roles, gendered consciousness, and political organizing, yet its educational implications remain an under-theorized aspect of the war's complicated legacy worth exploring further. Scrutiny of the documentary traces of women's lives reminds us of the significant variability in what constitutes women's "leadership" and "advancement" historically. During war time, even the act of writing a letter offered women opportunities to advance their learning. The letters under study reveal four compelling aspects of women's education during the American Civil War: (a) women's varied attitudes toward new "opportunities" to teach and attend school, (b) the function of wartime correspondence as an informal educational tool, (c) home front demands as an obstacle to women's pursuit of formal education; and, conversely, (d) war events as an educational force in women's lives.
Key words: Women, education, school, civil war
This paper draws from a study of over one hundred and fifty letters Northern women wrote during the American Civil War to consider four aspects of women's education during this devastating national conflict that spanned four bloody years and involved millions of Americans. Women's historians (Silber, 2005; Attie, 1998; Faust, 1996; Clinton & Silber, 1992) have explored the varied reverberations of the Civil War for women's social roles, gendered consciousness, and political organizing, yet its educational implications for women remain an under-theorized aspect of the war's complicated legacy. Thus aspect is worth exploring further. In a century in which women's intellectual capacities were still deemed inferior to men's and their formal education considered of lesser importance than their other roles and responsibilities, the collection of letters from which this study draws suggests that some Northern women pursued educational opportunities in the midst of war even as national upheaval, gendered demands of war work, and concern for the men they loved consumed women's emotional and physical energies. Northern middle-class white women slipped into classrooms that soldiers left vacant, engaged with such informal educational mediums as letters, newspapers and literary societies, and pursued educational opportunities with varying degrees of reluctance and enthusiasm. For other women, demands on the home front forced them to defer their educational dreams.
Although the costs of the Civil War differed for men and women-over 620,000 men lost their lives in the war's hospitals, camps, and battlefields-and women's roles in the war have historically received little attention, contemporary social historians have worked to document the varied social, economic, and political effects of the war for women's lives nearly one hundred and fifty years after Confederate forces surrendered at Appomattox. The scholarship of Drew Gilpin Faust, Jeannie Attie, Catherine Clinton, Nina Silber, Patricia Richard and the Society for Women and the Civil War has contributed to this notable effort. Yet, much is left to mine in the diaries, letters, and other documents women left behind. In this paper, I draw from a unique collection of letters women wrote between the years 1862 to1867 to focus on four aspects of women's education during the Civil War, a period in which American print culture flourished and citizens exchanged letters with a degree of vigor and fanfare previously unknown in American history: (a) women's varying attitudes toward formal "opportunities" to attend school or pursue teaching as a profession, (b) the function of wartime correspondence as an informal educational tool, (c) home front demands as an obstacle to women's education, and conversely, (d) war events as an educational force in women's lives. …