What Hath Ladyhood Wrought

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A few quotes from Drew Gilpin Faust's book Mothers of Invention. Here is Sarah Morgan angered by the lack of Southern women nursing the Confederate wounded:

God will punish us for our hard-heartedness. Not a square off, in the new theatre, lie more than a hundred sick soldiers. What woman has stretched out her hand to save them, to give them a cup of cold water...If I was independent, if I could work my own will without causing others to suffer for my deeds, I would not be poring over this stupid page; I would not be idly reading or sewing. I would put aside woman's trash, take up woman's duty, and I would stand by some forsaken man and bid him Godspeed as he closes his dying eyes.

Slightly less melodramatic, here's hospital matron Kate Cumming voicing a similar complaint:

Are the women of the South going into the hospitals?  I am afraid candor will compel me to say they are not! It is not respectable, and requires too constant attention, and hospital has none of the comforts of home.

Cumming went on to argue that if the South lost the War, she'd lay the blame squarely at the feet of the Confederate ladies who refused to match Clara Barton's efforts in the North and join "the Florence Nightingale business." Well not quite. The South was a rigidly patriarchal society in the most literal sense. The leadership class was made of slave-holding white men. Ladies in the slave-holding class wore fancy clothes, delegated in the domestic sphere, and, in many cases, avoided manual labor. (That would be unladylike.) Delicacy with all its implicit meanings, was considered an essential virtue of Ladyhood. Faust's book is filled with citations from the diaries and letters of such white women obsessed with maintaining a position worthy of their "sex and station"

Those white men who were not slaveholders were encouraged to aspire to planter status, at which point their wives were expected to also uphold the standards of their "sex and station." This meant no "coarse language," and no infringing on the spheres of men--politics for instance. Black men, generally, could not aspire to gentleman status. And black women, of course, could never be considered ladies.

But the Civil War created a need for women to operate in spheres that were considered to be the exclusive province of slaves and men. The Civil War inaugurated a heightened level of resistance among slaves ranging from fleeing to Union lines to insubordination to murder."Ladies," whose status was subsidized by the slave labor of black people, suddenly found themselves, found themselves charged with managing slaves in the fields who sensed that their days of bondage were numbered, and deprived of pliant house-servants to protect them from the drudgery of manual labor. There was nothing ladylike about doubling as a slave-driver and a laundrywoman.


And there was nothing ladylike or delicate about working in a ward where you liable to see a pile of amputated limbs. Thus, even as Cumming is imploring white women "of virtue" to fill the depleted ranks of nursing, she's frustrated by the very notions of ladyhood that were implicit in the Confederacy's very existence. 

In some cases women like Cumming were confounded by their own illusions about the fairer sex. Phoebe Pember put a group of non-elite white women in charge of whiskey distribution, because the surgeons had taken to self-medicating. Pember believed that her fellow sisters won't make the same mistake, and given their like of status will be amenable to authority. As Faust writes, this was wrong on all levels:

Pember received neither deference nor sobriety from her new employees. One woman ook advantage of female control of the whiskey barrel to get drunk. Another appropriated hospital furniture and partitioned off ward space to set herself up in comfortable living quarters where, to Pember's horror, the new nurses sat around a pitton and dipped snuff.

The South attempted to build a country on rigid hierarchy. That was the point. Just as the North had racism, the North also had notions of the proper role for a lady. But whereas the North could evolve for the cause of victory, for the South to evolve would be to concede defeat. The whole business was self-immolating.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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