A wonderfully researched chronicle of a largely unexamined social elite that enriches the fields of Civil War and women's...


MOTHERS OF INVENTION: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War

A wonderfully researched chronicle of a largely unexamined social elite that enriches the fields of Civil War and women's studies. Herself a descendant of generations of southern ""ladies,"" Civil War historian Faust (Univ. of Penn.) sought to write a book of scholarly rigor that also could have been read by her deceased mother and grandmothers. She succeeds by eschewing an overarching--and possibly limiting--political or psychological theory and relying on the voices of Confederate women themselves. Through diaries of more than 500 Lizzies, Nellies, and Lucys (along with a broad sampling of Confederate popular culture), Faust details how well-bred Confederate women aimed to maintain their antebellum social standing while redefining their place as public members of society and watching a war reshape the culture around them. They attempted to become useful Confederate patriots without leaving the ""feminine sphere,"" as one woman put it in a letter to the New Orleans Daily Picayune. They learned degrading physical tasks like weaving cloth and dyemaking, but only against their faraway husbands' will and their own misgivings. They entered the work force as hospital matrons, treasury clerks, and teachers, but they were advised to seek not ""equality"" but ""equivalence"" by an author taking on the question of nature vs. nurture in gender differences. Even their art, which blossomed during the war, radiated equivocation. A bestselling Confederate novel, Augusta Jane Evans's Macaria; or, the Altars of Sacrifice (1864) eventually upheld the tradition of ""Womanly Usefulness"" but did so through a heroine whose embrace of both the domestic and public spheres skirted dangerously close to androgyny. These women, Faust claims, confronted the home front while upholding an ""ambiguous tradition of seemingly contradictory strength and frailty."" Though repetitive at times in its inclusiveness, this is a fine, caring social history that also offers surprising insights into the development of the southern American woman's consciousness.

Pub Date: March 4, 1996


Page Count: 384

Publisher: Univ. of North Carolina

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1996