In 1848 two women, Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Stanton, host the first ever Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York. This convention would be the beginning of a long women’s suffrage movement to occur in the United States. At first they made slow but steady gains within the states. In 1849 the state of California extends property rights to women, Vermont would follow in 1852. But these were mere stepping stones towards the long term goal of attaining full rights to vote for women. Most states did not have the appetite to support such legislation during that time. And when in 1853 the women delegates were not allowed to even speak at the World’s Temperance Convention in New York City, it looked as though the movement was starting to dissipate from national attention. But eleven years later civil war would break out in America ultimately dividing the country and stop all momentum of the women’s movement. The roles women would play during the civil war would play an integral part of the resurgence of the women’s suffrage movement post war.
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To understand the role that the civil war played in the women’s suffrage movement you must go back to the beginning of the feminism era and understand how feminism sparked the women’s movement. Maggie MacLean summarizes feminism as the demand for equal political, economic, and social rights for all women regardless of their ethnic background (MacLean 2015). Established goals were to combat discrimination and to create more opportunities for women that were equal to men. They looked to do this by using a variety of strategies specifically they tried getting a national amendment for the right for women to vote. They did this taking on a multi-facet approach. By creating state legislation that would assert their rights under state legislatures, then by utilizing the court system to ascertain rights and by going directly after the 14th amendment. This strategy showed signs of working up until the civil war broke out.
The outbreak of the civil war left no room for the women’s movement, all attention was focused on the war and the battles that were being fought on the fields and on the home front. Men were being called into the war by the thousands, leaving women at home to tend to the care of the families and the farms. And as the war dragged on, women were being called into service to fill non traditional roles that had been previously primarily been filled by men.
Women from both the north and south would become actively involved in various aspects of the war effort. Some women, like Loreta Veldzquez, went so far as to disguise her identity to serve directly in battle. There are several documented cases of women fighting bravely side by side their male counterparts in battle. History would later label them as trailblazer for women looking to directly serve in the military in the future.
Although women soldiers are commended for their contributions to the war effort, most women found other means to contribute to the war. They nursed wounded soldiers, dictated and relayed conversations stowed and carried messages on their person, cared for the disabled men when they returned home and learned to operate and take charge of the home front responsibilities. Their examples of courage and self sacrifice challenged the traditional notions of feminine domesticity (American Battlefield Trust). Women began to believe that their contributions were having an impact on how they were perceived by their male counterparts. And in the short term, on a limited basis, this concept was true. At the beginning of the war women were protected no matter what side they were associated with but as the war progressed and women played more active roles mindsets changed. Women were viewed as reliable sources and relevant to the strategies of campaigns. Those found in occupied territories were required to take loyalty oaths, which was a shift in how they were viewed from passive observers of the war to active participants (Bahr 2009). This was illustrated by Mary Boykin Chestnut’s quote, “It is so delightful to be of enough consequence to be arrested” (Bahr 2009). This recognition that women may be actively involved in the war brought to light ethical issues of how women should be treated if captured in enemy territory. At the beginning of the war both sides treated women lightly for any transgressions, even if they were wives and daughters of the enemy. However, as the war progressed and their contributions increased and became more noticeable on both sides, punishment for women increased dramatically. Women were captured and spent time in prison camps. Confederate women found to be working in conjunction against the union would be charged and sentenced for treason. As women’s roles changed during the war so did the perception of women’s gender roles and responsibilities. These perceptions would play a contributing part in the resurgence of the women’s movement after the war.
As the war wound down, many women were forced to return to their traditional domestic roles. But many women felt empowered by the war and this brought new energy and urgency to the suffrage movement. The war had given them a sense of control over their own lives, they had made decisions for the family, earned and controlled personal finances and even entered paid employment for such industries as government services, public schools and trade industries. Many of these women embraced the new found independence and were no longer willing to complacently return to the roles they occupied prior to the war.
Although the war itself did not elevate a women’s status, the large void created by the deaths of approximately two percent of the male population, or around 620,000 men, did alter the landscape (Bahr 2009). Women began to attend college for the first time in record numbers, they sought employment outside the home and they did not look at marriage as the same means of stability as they once did.
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Before the war women were barred from attending the majority of higher education institutions but after the war many land grant universities sought to recruit women and give them educational opportunities normally only offered to men. These institutions provided a variety of opportunities but none as profound as in the medical profession. Women demanded and fought for coeducational curriculums not segregated by gender. As attendance rose it was met by resistance, critics who believed that women not only didn’t belong in institutions of higher learning but by attending they could do physical harm to themselves (Dubois & Dumenil, 2016). Harvard Medical School professor Dr. Edward Clarke asserted in his widely respected Sex and Education (1873) that intellectual work damaged a women’s reproductive organs (MacLean 2015). Faced with such harsh criticism women felt the need to prove college life would not do them physical harm and graduated in record numbers.
Capitalizing on their education women began to look around and understand better ways to rally for political inclusion and promote the ideals of suffrage, thus altering the pre-war notions about gender roles. One area of major focus was the right to vote. During the civil war women worked in conjunction with the abolition movement to gain rights for both African Americans and women but after the war the two groups would become divided over the wording of the 15th amendment. The 15th amendment, ratified on February 3, 1870, states, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude” (Shafer 2013). Because this amendment did not specifically specify rights for women many leaders of the movement, such as Elizabeth Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, would not support it and felt empowered enough to split from the abolitionists.
It would be this new found sense of independence earned from the struggles of the civil war that would breathe new life into the women’s suffrage movement.
- MacLean, Maggie. (2015). Women’s Rights After the Civil War. Civil War Women. Retrieved from https://www.civilwarwomenblog.com/womens-rights-after-the-civil-war/
- Dubois, E.C. & Dumenil, L. (2016) Through Women’s Eyes 4th Edition.
- American Battlefield Trust. (2018). Female Soldiers in the Civil War. As retrieved from http://www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/female-soldiers-civil-war
- Bahr, Sara. (2009). Union or Confederate, American Women Crucial Roles in the Civil War Effort. Hektoen International: A Journal of Medical Humanities. As retrieved from https://hekint.org/2017/01/22/union-or-confederate-american-women-played-cruicial-roles-in-the-civil-war-effort/
- Lowe, Kayla. (n.d.). The Civil War’s Impact on Women. Synonym. Retrieved from https://classroom.synonym.com/civil-war-impact-women-6401147.html
- Clarke, F.M. (2011). Forgetting the Women: Debates over Female Patriotism in the Aftermath of America’s Civil War. Journal of Women’s History 23(2), 64-86. John Hopkins University Press.
- Shafer, Leah. (May 24, 2013). After the Civil War: Women Suffrage. U.S. Capital Historical Society – A Blog of History. As retrieved https://uschs.wordpress.com/2013/05/24/after-the-civil-war-woman-suffrage/
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