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Southern Women versus Northern Women


Since very few black women knew how or had an opportunity to read or write before the civil war, there is very little documentation that exists about them compared to white women.  Plantation records, slave letters and the diaries and letters of white women can be used to explore various aspects of African American women's lives during the civil war period.  During and especially after the civil war, household slavery based on the race dominated in the south.  Before the American civil war in south, there were few opportunities available for either black or white people.  Women were expected to be submissive at their homes and were also involved in field work and management of plantations.  White women lived and existed in isolation due to the rural setups of the south before the civil war begun.  Women slaves had some advantages, but their stability and personal safety was not promising because of the conditions that involved slavery.  These southern women lived in harsh conditions that trained them to live a harder way of life.

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 The south adjusted to a new social order following the defeat of the confederacy.  In the nineteenth century, several changes took place in social order, courtships and marriages, family life and travels, religion and education and the life-and-death matters that made up the ordinary and extra ordinary world in the past. Being a woman from the north, Tryphena a diary writer of 'A northern woman on plantation,' remained silent and adopted regional customs as she wrote  about the social, political and economic conditions that prevailed in the nineteenth century south.  Racial prejudices and class biases did not exist with her as there were numerous interactions with domestic servants, black or white, neighbors who were either rich or poor.

Women who came into intimate contact with white men experienced class, racial and sexual identification that haunted them.  The number of free-born black population is difficult to determine yet their influence in the lives of their fellow freemen, newly freed slaves in the North and later for enslaved blacks, extended beyond what numbers can imply.  If ones identity as American citizen means 'free,' then free-born blacks hold a unique position among black abolitionists.

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Southern women versus Northern women in the civil war

In the early south, once a woman was married their role was to bear and raise children. These women were married at an early age and continued bearing children even until their death. The urge to increase population that could help in farm work added to these early marriages.  Black slave women encountered several diseases and bore several children than white slave women.  Education was reserved for free white and black women and was meant to increase the feminine character.  Both white and black women observed their religion.

Reviewers and historians have been examining the fundamental relations of generous women involved in the civil war while emphasizing on their good and bad side, difference in class and gender roles.  According to Rable, there were divided loyalties that were so pronounced at the time and adverse daily effects of the war on civilians.  Referring to herself as a 'very violent rebel,' Rable joined her family and adapted to their way of life.  Black and white men in the south were entrusted to be soldiers and women were assigned home front chores, while northern women played roles as nurses and spies.  Slavery in the south was considered to be a foundation of liberty to whites.

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Diaries that were written during the civil war reveal people's attitudes, values, motives and their actions.  Most of the diaries written by women writers revealed women's feelings toward family and friends, their everyday activities, and the impact of the civil war on their lives and attitudes.  Women expressed themselves in terms of love and marriage ranging from war to slavery and through their writings, the values of middle class women living in the mid-nineteenth century is taken into consideration.  Home and family issues constituted the central part of a woman's life in which she should devote herself to the nurturance of her loved ones as domesticity was an integral part of their personalities.

The civil war while challenging women's minds and expanding their range of activities, did not lead these women to abandon their responsibilities.  However, they ventured into activities that were necessary to protect themselves and their families.  These women revealed another side of women who balanced the demands of wartime life against their values of traditional life.  The women who are diary writers expressed their thoughts and opinions about the civil war - its tragedies, its personalities, frustration, politics and direct impact of the war on their lives.  Most of the southern women who expressed themselves on institution opposed slavery and celebrated when it ended.  The easy availability of black slave women caused much resentment among white women, who by nineteenth-century were supposed to remain faithful even if their husbands where unfaithful in the marriage.

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Women of southern plantations are not written about in many ways.  Many southern women are mentioned in many books only as part of the males.  Rich white women of the south spent their time at home raising children and many acted as teachers who taught how to read, write and study religion.  White women in the south suffered under heavier burdens than northern women.  White women of the south engaged in fewer charitable organizations or reform movements than northern women (Jeannie, 1998).  In order to carry on their managerial skills well, southern women are supposed to be humble and submissive.  They didn't have the authority, but were expected to do all the work.  A southern white woman had many responsibilities even before the war broke out.  These women lived on plantations with their husbands and families and the livelihood of these plantations revolved around the upkeep of the grounds and the way the household and household staff was run.

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Slavery brought in divisions that split America, but it was not slavery alone that caused war.  The civil war history questions the degree to which southern elite women supported the confederacy believing that it will bring changes in gender inequality.  As a result, southern women who were forced to new and not always comfortable roles became disillusioned and disappointed.  Their men did not support them to the extent that they hoped for. White southern women did not support the confederacy and demanded attention from their men. The war served as a source of change to white women who were forced to develop new skills, accept new responsibilities and at long last redefine their traditional gender roles.  As a result of the experience southern women acquired, these women, "sought to invent new foundations for self definition and self worth".  Northern women were not treated with much attention as southern women because the war brought in fewer challenges to them than to women in the south.  Many struggles were in the south, and white southern women suffered from trauma of defeat, emancipation and reconstruction.  

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There is an unexplored interior cultural conflict that emerged from the civil war within southern white women.  These conflicts affected women's views of themselves, their social identity and their world.  Issues of slavery like racial conflict, gender relations, religion and state formation were at the heart of civil war.  Blacks aimed at destroying slavery and they immensely participated in the civil war leading to the forthcoming of several consequences.

The war stimulated many women to question their traditional domestic, sexual and social roles.  The inborn characteristics of southern women in resisting change were based more on habit and lack of need to change than conviction that proceeded. These confederate women were slow to challenge the class and gender roles of their society, even though the civil war exposed them to hardships that required them to temporarily take on the roles of men.  Plantation women stood up and managed the plantation in the absence of men who went out to the war.  Confederate women suffered a lot as a result of the thieving and looting carried out by union soldiers; these caused women to desire their traditional and familiar lifestyles even if it meant going back to submissive status.

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Slavery was considered to be like sin and thus had to be attacked as sin and society had to break all the ties with slaveholders who required to be saved and be converted to avoid slavery. The people who struggled for control of society and were antislavery believed that slaves have to be convicted to do missionary work.  Christian slaveholders were required to be engaged to a great extend in these work in the south. An abolitionist view came to prevail in America as it reflected the one said statement from the northern view of a dangerous "Slave Power Conspiracy" that eventually lead to republican victory during the consequent elections. According to Rable, "The action of abolitionists in criticizing the northern church was less effective in purifying the moral outlook of the northern church than it was in strengthening the proslavery stance of the southern church." True Christians were expected to resolve the problem of slavery.  There are views on the ways in which warfare transformed the lives of southern white women who both supported slavery and at the end undermined southern nationalism and war effort against slavery.  While generally quoting southern women of all classes, Rable intensely dramatizes the heroism and heartache faced during the civil war by southern women.

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Though historians continue to disagree about how deeply the negative attitudes of northern whites toward blacks influenced politics during the civil war, studies have shown that powerful prejudices against blacks prevailed among white northerners of foreign and southern birth ancestry.  It is also evident that these feelings reinforced wartime support for black colonization in America and delayed President Lincoln's embrace of emancipation.  Relatives and friends would write diaries describing various parts of the south, especially eastern Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia.  They commented on the Negroes condition in the contraband camps, and officers and men of the Union army, and the attitudes of white southerners. They endured hardships of being determined teachers and missionaries.

The economic and ideological conflicts surrounding women army in the labor is all attributed to the impact of the civil war on gender structure in America.  This war was a testing ground in generating political and social differences between men and women.  The support that was given by southern women to patriotic soldiers during the struggles of civil war was immense.  It appears then that in America alone, women are raised to equality with the other sex and that both in theory and practice, their interests are regarded as of equal value. They are made subordinate in station, only where a regard to their best interests demands it, while they are being treated as superiors according to custom and courtesy.  During the civil war, the United States sanitary commission attempted to replace female charity networks and traditions of voluntarily with a centralized organization that would ensure women's effort against war was considered.  Soldier relief work enabled women to demonstrate their patriotism and rights.











The Southern relied on the union states for essential food stuffs as they lacked good storage for their agricultural products.  Pro-union guerillas in the south did not support the war but dissented into confederate government policy.  They had endured slavery by union troops and sought their freedom and the confederate ordeal therefore started before the war and ended after civil war.

The American Revolution affected the colonial women's life.  Through the industrial revolution in the north, the cotton economy in the south changed and the adoption of new lifestyles changed the lives of women.  A rise of the middle class helped in enforcing an ideology of segregation of the male and female sphere at home.  Women adopted several ways to exercise autonomy in religious revivals, female higher education, missionary work and home arts such as embroidery.  Women would form voluntary associations that aided the poor and reformed social status. 

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More slave women endured the hardship of family separations as they served as labourers in plantations while their men were engaged in confederate service.  Slave women and children from the south who escaped to union lines expecting freedom were relocated to the North and were assigned roles.  The northern women's political identities were affected by the conflicts that were brought in by the civil war.  On the other hand, the civil war created opportunities for change and a new civic identity for northern women.  Northern women were considered to be less patriotic than southern women.  Northern women faced hindrances from gendered division of labor that could enable them find economic strategies to survive the war and gain political skills.


Southern women were married earlier, bore many children, and were likely to die while young, especially during child birth.  Like southern women, northern women were assigned new wartime roles that emerged them to be leaders and managers of newly empowered heads of households.  The uniqueness of northern women was in their participations as business people, managers, organizers and leaders.  France describes union women as being caring to the confederate soldiers in local hospitals and also solving problems that divided their families. There is a critical accounting of the collision of loyalty and disloyalty, slavery and freedom, and all these make it difficult to examine the war along the border.  It is clearly shown that white women of the south did not receive adequate protection and food from the confederate government and as a result, some women withdrew their support and stood up for themselves in different ways depending on their class.  The effect of the civil war was to free black women and men who had been slaves, but the granting of suffrage to ex-slaves after the war did not include black women.

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