"Sisters of the Capital": White Women in Richmond, Virginia, 1860-1880

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1997

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This dissertation examines the effects of the Civil War and Reconstruction on elite, middle-, and working-class white women in Richmond, Virginia. Anne Firer Scott has written that the Civil War was a historical watershed that enabled southern women's movement into broader social, economic, and political roles in southern society. Suzanne Lebsock and George Rable have observed that claims about white Southern women's gains must be measured against the conservatism of Southern society as the patriarchy reasserted itself in the postwar decades. This study addresses this historiographical debate by examining changes in white Richmond women's roles in the workforce, in organizational politics, and the churches. It also analyzes the war's impact on marriage and family relations. Civil War Richmond represented a two-edged sword to its white female population. As the Confederate capital, it provided them with employment opportunities that were impossible before the war began. By 1863, however, Richmond's population more than doubled as southerners emigrated to the city in search of work or to escape Union armies. This expanding population created extreme shortages in food and housing; it also triggered the largest bread riot in the confederacy. With Confederate defeat, many wartime occupations disappeared, although the need for work did not. Widespread postwar poverty led to the emergence of different occupations. Women had formed a number of charitable organizations before the war began. During the war, they developed new associations that stressed women's patriotism rather than their maternity. In the churches, women's wartime work led to the emergence of independent missionary associations that often were in conflict with male-dominated foreign mission boards. Although change occurred, this study concludes that white women's experiences of the Civil War and Reconstruction in Richmond, Virginia, were far more complex than Scott's notion of a historical watershed indicates. The wartime transformation in women's lives was often fraught with irony. Many changes were neither sought nor anticipated by Richmond women. Several came precisely as a direct result of Confederate defeat. Others tended to reinforce patriarchal notions about white women's subordinate status in Southern society.

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