Saturday, March 26, 2011

Book review - Army at Home: Women and the Civil War on the Northern Homefront, by Judith Giesberg

Available at Amazon:

I purchased this book a few weeks ago after stumbling upon an article by Judith Giesberg about women in arsenals (see older blog entry for link to article). It has proven to be a goldmine for me, especially about the Watertown Arsenal in Massachussetts, which i had only ever seen in passing in most sources. Not only does it cover women in arsenals in detail, but Giesberg offers a few more sort of case studies about little-known working women in the North; as she writes, working women in the South are covered elsewhere in detail.

Giesberg begins the book talking about a woman named Lydia Bixby, a woman who supposedly lost five sons to the war. President Lincoln wrote her what is probably the most famous condolence letter ever (it is read in "Saving Private Ryan"). Mrs. Bixby has been thought to be a fraud trying to get a pension, but it is more likely that she lost three sons and had been a working woman in Boston. Like most working women during the war, she receives the briefest of mentions before disappearing from history. Giesberg discusses how working women responded to the national crisis, to the extent of filling in some men's roles in order to keep farms and businesses going. By doing this, such women made society as a whole question what roles women should or would play in the future. During the mid-nineteenth century, separate men's and women's spheres were strictly defined. The Civil War raised questions about that.

The first chapter discusses through their letters how farm women in various Pennsylvania counties struggled to manage their farms while their husbands were away. Some women wrote to Governor Curtin asking to either bring their husbands home or for aid.
Another chapter describes how women - in this case, in Massachussetts - could be thrust into poverty and homelessness when their men were killed. Many officials believed, sometimes rightly, that women asking for aid were just working the system.

The chapter on women munitions workers focuses on women in the Allegheny and Watertown arsenals. After the Allegheny explosion, people tried to forget and move on. It is through the efforts of the survivors that these women were memorialized at all, often many years later. Meanwhile, at Watertown, women there petitioned authorities - over the heads of their superiors - about sexual harassment that occurred and safety violations that needed to be fixed. It was the opinion of most of the men in charge that women lost their need for "protection" from men once they entered a traditonally male workplace. Something that still goes on today...

Another chapter talks about how African American women worked to desegregate streetcars in San Francisco and Philadelphia. Streetcar travel was needed for these women to go to work or nurse the wounded. Desegregation on streetcars did occur during and shortly after the war all over the nation.

Again, I dont wish to give too much away. The main idea of this book is that working women were "bodies out of place" out of necessity during the war. Indeed, especially for lower-class families, women's work was needed for their survival. They also fought to gain some level of respect and recognition in order to best do their work, and to make sure their and their men's sacrifices were not in vain.
This book is a scholarly kind of read for anyone who wishes to know more about a tradionally marginalized group during the war. After all, a lot of accounts about women duing the Civil War are by and about the more well-to-do.
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