Mothers Of Invention

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Mothers of Invention


Drew Gilpin Faust offers a complex and richly nuanced portrait of elite southern white women during the Civil War. The conflict that fundamentally altered race relations and challenged traditional hierarchy in the South also forced women to reevaluate their place in society. As a result of their wartime experience, women "sought to invent new foundations for self-definition and self-worth" (Drew Gilpin Faust, 2008).

Mothers of Invention: A Review

Disillusioned with their men who had proved unable to protect them and profoundly aware of their own limitations when independent, they emerged from the war with "a conflicted legacy" (Drew Gilpin Faust, 2008). At war's end, women were determined never to be helpless again, but they recognized the necessity of patriarchy to protect their status as white women. No gender solidarity here; elite white women set to work to shore up their men and reestablish a social hierarchy that assured them a privileged place. Faust provides an elegant analysis of how the Civil War both undermined and sustained traditional patriarchal attitudes among elite white women.

Drawing on the diaries, letters, and memoirs of five hundred southern women, in addition to a vast array of newspapers, novels, songs, government documents, and records of female organizations, Faust reconstructs the changing sense of self that Confederate women experienced as they confronted the perils of a war fought on their own soil. The turmoil caused by that war forced southern women to become "mothers of invention" on many fronts. At the commencement of the war, women moved from the private to the public sphere. Goaded by "feelings of uselessness" (Drew Gilpin Faust, 2008), women organized to promote the patriotic cause. Building on Jean E. Friedman's The Enclosed Garden: Women and Community in the Evangelical South, 1830-1900 (1985), Faust recognizes the limited participation of antebellum women in public affairs and sees the war as a stimulus to the growth of female voluntary associations. Whether it was knitting socks, rolling bandages, petitioning the government, presenting patriotic tableaux, or raising funds for the cause, these organizations brought large numbers of women into public life for the first time. More, they assumed a different attitude toward the fruits of their work. Not content simply to turn over to the government monies they had raised, women affected public policy when, for example, they were emboldened to insist that their contributions should be spent for the purchase and building of gunboats to protect their homes, towns, and cities. (Crimson News Staff, 2007)

While women were inventive in restructuring households and doing without or substituting for accustomed goods, the most significant change in their lives came with the assumption of slave management. The peculiar institution was based on mastery. When responsibility for managing slaves devolved to women, it challenged the concept of women as submissive, passive, and subordinate. Moreover, their inability to master their slaves (a problem that became greater as the war ground on) ultimately "did much to undermine women's active support for both slavery and the Confederate cause" (Crimson News Staff, 2007). Frustration at ...
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