Pre-war understandings of gender roles were put under stress during the American Civil War through the contribution of female authors. Mary Chesnut, the wife of a Confederate General gave the impression of being a typical Southern lady. Nevertheless, her war-time diary noted the need for a change in the role of women. The novels of the Northern Louisa May Alcott also sought to further the cause of female emancipation.

1. Women’s lives in wartime

In the Union

Women in the Union were not directly affected by the war. The greatest impact of the war was the absence of their husbands and the need to organize their own lives. This called into question the validity of traditional gender roles.

2. White female writers in the Union

"Ambassadors of change"

Northern female writers added their moral support to the Union cause. Writing in a range of journals, they encouraged their female readership to carry on despite the burdens imposed by war.

The New York children’s author Mary Dodge (1831-1905) summarized her work:

"I thank God that instead of giving me a wash-tub, or a needle, or a broom to work with [...] he has given me a pen, and a whole country for my family."

Cox, Joseph T. The Written Wars: American War Prose through the Civil War. North Haven, Conn.: Archon Books, 1996, S. 83.

Female writers focused on the need for women to assume traditionally male roles as required by the war effort. After the war, these female voices called for social change.

he southern writer Mary Chesnut wrote of her northern counterparts ( November 1861):

"Yes - how I envy those saintly Yankee women in their clear, cool New England homes. Writing books to make their fortune and to shame us. And the money they earn goes to them. Here every cent goes to pay the factor who supplies the plantation (...),"

Chesnut, Mary and Comer V. Woodward, Ed. Mary Chesnut's Civil War. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1981, S. 248-249.

3. Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888)

"To witness the suffering of war"

Born to parents active in the progressive education and social movements, Louisa May Alcott grew up in Massachusetts. Raised with her sisters in a literary-artistic milieu, friends of her family included the philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) and the writer Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862). Remarkably for a young woman of her time, Louisa May worked to support her poor family as a housemaid, seamstress and nurse and sometimes as a writer. Writing books for little girls after the war, she achieved financial success and independence.

“I want to realize my dream of supporting my family and being perfectly independent. Heavenly hope!”

Louisa May Alcott - 1868

Alcott, Louisa M., Joel Myerson, Daniel Shealy and Madeleine B. Stern. The Journals of Louisa May Alcott. 1st ed. Boston: Little Brown, 1989, S. 162.


Hospital Sketches

Louisa May Alcott published a range of short stories and novels, including Hospital Sketches. Published as an army Nurse’s true account of her experiences during the Civil War (1863), it was based on letters which she wrote whilst working as a nurse in the American Civil War and focussed less on the course of the war than the suffering which it caused. True fame came with the publication of her collection of short stories Little Women in which she reflected on her childhood.

Excerpts from Hospital Sketches:

“I could have sat down on the spot and cried heartily, if I had not learned the wisdom of bottling up one’s tears for leisure moments. Such an end seemed very hard for such a man, when half a dozen worn out, worthless bodies round him, were gathering up the remnants of wasted lives, to linger on for year perhaps, burdens to others, daily reproaches to themselves.”

Alcott, Louisa M. Hospital Sketches. Auckland: The Floating Press,, 1863, S. 56.

Alcott did not gloss over the racial hierarchy existing amongst hospital personnel:

“The nurses were willing to be served by the colored people, but seldom thanked them, never praised, and scarcely recognized them in the street;”

ibid., p. 82.

4. Mary Boykin Chesnut (1823-1886)

Born the daughter of the prosperous plantation owner and governor (later senator) for South Carolina Stephen Decatur Miller (1787-1838), Mary Boykin Chesnut enjoyed a good and wide-ranging education and married the lawyer James Chesnut (1815-1885) at the age of 17. Her husband was a senator before serving as a Confederate General. As a member of the political and economic elite, Mary Boykin was one of the most reputable citizens of Charleston/South Carolina.

A Diary from Dixie

With a special perspective on the events of the Civil War owing to her social position, her diary makes for especially interesting reading. Her records from 15 February 1861 to 2 August 1865 record life in Southern society. The war provided the backdrop of everyday life with a range of interesting military characters, rumours and high-level meetings. Mary Chesnut was critical of the institution of slavery and the gender roles imposed upon women. Her diary was published posthumously as A Diary from Dixie in 1905.


Passages from A Diary from Dixie:

18 March 1861: “I wonder if it be a sin to think slavery a curse to any land. (…) Men & women are punished when their masters & mistresses are brutes & not when they do wrong - & then we live surrounded by prostitutes. (…) God forgive us, but ours is a monstrous system & wrong & iniquity. This only I see (…).”

Chesnut, Mary B. M., Comer V. Woodward und Elisabeth Muhlenfeld. The Private Mary Chesnut: The Unpublished Civil War Diaries. New York, Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1984, S. 42.

29. Juli 1861: “The Yankees confess their defeats - but are making preparations for us. What next oh my heart. Banks told of Arnold Harris having a dinner party. They say we cut up a Zouave into four parts - & that we have prisoners tied to a tree & throw bayonets at them. The liars. We are treating their men as well as we do ours.”

Ibid., p. 108.

30. September 1861: “Mrs. Reynolds & her daughters came down. Harriet calls them refined, &c,&c. I see nothing but shy, awkward, inoffensive, silent - but lady like girls.”

Ibid., p. 165.

5. The women’s movement in 19th century America

"an overview"

Women had performed “male tasks” before, whilst their husbands fought in the American War of Independence (1775-1783) something which earned them the soubriquet “daughters of freedom.” Although men and women returned to the separately gendered spheres after the conflict, an organized movement for women’s rights came into being.

The first organizations

Two key aspects of 19th century America were the fights for female emancipation and the freedom of black slaves. The two movements were often interwoven, as female activists often also fought against slavery.

Womens’ activists began work to establish a feminist network as early as the 1840s, seeking to translate organization – groups, networks and meetings - into inclusion in the political process. Elisabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902) and Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906) established the Women’s National League in 1863 (during the Civil War) to organize women and campaign for the abolition of slavery. The 400,000 signature petition they presented to congress a year later paid off, with the passing of the 13th amendment outlawing slavery on 18 December 1865.


The foundation of the National Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA)

With one success to its name, the League now turned its attention to female emancipation. Concentrating on the suffrage question, Stanton and Anthony led the newly-founded National Woman Suffrage Association (1869) in opposition to the two major political parties, with the declared aim of winning the vote for women. Local suffrage societies now sprang up across the USA, gathering under the aegis of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, which was formed in 1890.  

The History of Woman Suffrage was published in 1881, with contributions from Elisabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. They argued that the work performed by women during the war proved the fitness of women to hold the same rights as men. They also highlighted the contribution made by women disguised as men to military action:

„Hundreds of women marched steadily up to the mouth of a hundred cannon pouring out fire and smoke, shot and shell, moving down the advancing hosts like grass; men, horses, and colors going down in confusion, disappearing in clouds of smoke; the only sound, the screaming of shells, the crackling of musketry, the thunder of artillery … through all this women were sustained by the enthusiasm born of love of country and liberty.“

Stanton, Elizabeth C., Susan B. Anthony, Matilda J. Gage, Ida H. Harper. History of Woman Suffrage. New York: Fowler & Wells, 1881, S. 21.


The first extension of the franchise was to the women of Wyoming in 1890. Three further states in the West - Utah, Colorado and Idaho granted female suffrage by 1896.

Full female suffrage had to wait until 1920, with the passing of the 19th amendment.

Female writers and the women’s movement

The majority of female writers were aware of the women’s movement but preferred not to come out in support of their work. Instead, they hoped that their work would raise awareness of the issues involved and prepare the way to female emancipation.

The following journals discussed the question of female rights:

Well-known women’s journals:

  • Peterson´s Ladies Magazine (first published in 1842)
  • Arthur´s Home Magazine (first published in 1852)

National reform journals:

  • The Atlantic Monthly (first published in 1857)
  • The Continental Monthly (first published in 1862)
  • The Revolution (first published in 1868, co-editor Elizabeth Lady Stanton)

Other well-known journals:

  • Harper´s New Monthly Magazine (first published in 1850),
  • New York Ledger (first published in 1855).

Mary Chesnut discussing the women who worked for the end of slavery and the work of Harriet Beecher Stowe (November 1861):

 "These women are more troubled by their duty to negros, have less chance to live their own lives in peace than if they were African missionaries. They have a swarm of blacks about them as children under their care - not as Mrs. [Harriett Beecher] Stowe´s fancy paints them, but hard, unpleasant, unromantic, undeveloped savage Africans."

Chesnut, Mary and Comer V. Woodward, Ed. Mary Chesnut's Civil War. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1981, S. 245.

6. Schwarze Frauen

Protests at the institution of slavery from female African-American authors were made before the Civil War. During the conflict, they widened the focus of their work to provide support for the African-American soldiers fighting in the conflict. A range of letters, articles, songs, poetry and speeches were published in support of the African-American sons, brothers, cousins and husbands fighting in the conflict. One such author was Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825-1911), widely regarded as one of the first female African-American poets and authors. One of her more famous works was a poem dedicated to the death of 600 African-American soldiers from the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, who died at the battle of Fort Wagner in 1863. She also wrote a poem to commemorate the Proclamation of Emancipation from 1863.