As Cokie Roberts shows in this spirited book, a follow-up to her best-selling Founding Mothers and Ladies of Liberty, the assertive and adventurous women of pre-Civil War Washington were not going to retire to their boudoirs when the fighting began. Focusing on 27 formidable dames, whom she divides into political, literary and activist actors, Roberts presents the war as a covert crisis of gender, as well as a momentous confrontation over slavery and race, accelerating change in the roles of women and men. By the end of the conflict, Clara Barton wrote, “Woman was at least fifty years in advance of the normal position which continued peace … would have assigned her.”
At the start of the war, journalist Mary Clemmer Ames wrote, Washington was “a third-rate Southern city.” Political women exerted social power for their husbands and fathers in an exhausting round of strategic party-going and competitive party-giving. They worked across party lines to preserve and restore Mount Vernon and erect a monument to George Washington. And they went to the National Theatre for “everything from Shakespeare to Chinese acrobats.” Plus ça change. None of this activity, however, challenged women’s traditional roles.
However, after Secession Day — Jan. 21, 1861 — everything changed. Union women, led by Mary Lincoln, gamely tried to keep up their social activities, but there were much more urgent concerns. Union troops swarmed in to defend Washington and were barracked all over town, to the residents’ disgust. “You would not know this Godforsaken city,” one woman lamented to a departed secessionist friend, “our beautiful capital, with all its artistic wealth, desecrated, disgraced with Lincoln’s low soldiery.” An architect complained to his wife that the city was “one grand water closet — every hole and corner is defiled.”
Then came the waves of wounded soldiers and the need for nurses, medical supplies and hospitals. Dorothea Dix came to advise on sanitation and to organize a corps of female nurses; Louisa May Alcott went to a Georgetown military hospital as a nurse in 1862, until she contracted typhoid and then wrote the widely read Hospital Sketches, about her experience and her longing to be of use.
The women of Washington were employed at all levels. The number of professional sex workers, of course, increased; there were 4,000 prostitutes on the streets, and Mary Hall kept “the best house of prostitution in Washington four blocks from the Capitol.” By 1864, women were also visible in more respected political roles. The abolitionist and suffragist orator Anna Dickinson addressed an audience of 2,500 in the House of Representatives. Dickinson competed successfully with men in an era of strenuous rhetoric; Connecticut Republican officials said she had held 1,500 people “breathless with admiration and astonishment” in a dramatic two-hour speech. Sojourner Truth came to meet President Abraham Lincoln.
Roberts is a gifted narrator of Civil War history, weaving the experiences and perspectives of the women into a fresh and illuminating account of key battles and events, from John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry to the assassination of the president. She concludes that “the services and sacrifices, the abilities and accomplishments of women in the Civil War, had changed the face of Washington, just as Washington had changed the place of women.”
That many women after the war were unable to turn their experiences and expertise into new roles is not surprsing. Political careers, one obvious path, were closed to them; higher education was available to only a few. Their full story makes clear why women’s suffrage became a powerful movment after 1865. Given a taste of freedom, purpose and agency, many capital women could not go back to their domestic and secondary prewar lives. After the war, they would extend Julia Ward Howe’s stirring anthem by joining the fight to make women free. That struggle for equality would take much longer than any of them expected.
Elaine Showalter reviewed this book for The Washington Post.