Since it's apparently Lincoln Day here on the blog, I thought I'd dive into the Civil War fray, but from a somewhat different perspective. There's no question that racism is the primary social issue at stake in the war and Reconstruction, but the abolitionism also laid the groundwork for the campaign to give women the right to vote, and the war was, like World War II, profoundly disruptive to women's social roles. It's no accident that two of the greatest portraits of women in modern literature come from Civil War novels. Gone With The Wind's Scarlett O'Hara and Little Women's Jo March live on opposite sides of the Mason-Dixon line, come from different backgrounds, and their personalities evolve in different directions. I'm not sure they would have liked each other very much. But I love them both, and re-reading both novels in recent weeks, I've been struck by how much they have in common.
At the beginning of the Civil War, Scarlett is a privileged planter's daughter whose main talents for are manipulating men and, in a nice bit of foreshadowing, for mathematics. Jo is the second-oldest of four daughters in a once-comfortable family left poor by their father's poor financial decisions, and without a reliable income when he decides to join the Union Army as a chaplain. Gone With the Wind is much more explicitly a novel of the Civil War than Little Women is, and as such, Scarlett has direct contact with combat and an enemy army, while Jo lives her life far from the front lines in Massachusetts. But in both novels, economic survival comes into direct conflict with both Northern and Southern expectations of femininity, and Jo and Scarlett both forge solutions that make them semi-kindred spirits.