by Elizabeth D. Leonard ‧ RELEASE DATE: Sept. 1, 1994
Although at times unevenly woven, this account of three women's struggles to serve the Union adds new texture to the well-worn Civil War metaphor ""a house divided."" Drawing on their letters and journals as well as formal historical sources, Leonard (History/Colby College) chronicles the lives of three women who battled gender stereotypes in order to participate in the war effort: Sophronia Bucklin, a volunteer nurse; Annie Wittenmyer, a soldiers' aid activist; and Mary Edwards Walker, a licensed physician. Each of the three struggled daily against their male co-workers and superiors, who operated under a rigid set of assumptions about women's abilities (for self-sacrificing nurture, not compensated service) and proper place (maintaining home and hearth, not participating in war). Bucklin persevered even though she, like other nurses at the front, was denied pay and expected to perform menial jobs. Male stubbornness obstructed Wittenmyer in her efforts to institutionalize services; even her Special Diet kitchens, attached to army hospitals, met with stubborn opposition, probably because they offered paid, public work for women. Despite achieving the respect of army officials in the field, Walker was repeatedly rebuffed in her applications for a formal commission. Leonard describes how all three of her subjects helped create new possibilities for women after the war, but she especially appreciates Walker's radical assault on gender prescriptions -- her pursuit of a paid commission, heroism on the bloodiest battle fronts, and insistence on practical, ""un-womanly"" attire. While postbellum accounts of women and the war commended both Bucklin and Wittenmyer, Walker was denigrated as a ""freak"" or a ""crank."" This discrepancy, in Leonard's radical feminist view, attests to the singular strength of Walker's character and demands historical notice. Despite some narrative discord arising from the uneasy mix of broad cultural generalizations and minute historical details, a valuable contribution to our understanding of the durability and vulnerability of ideas about gender in the 19th century.
Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1994
Page Count: 352
Review Posted Online: N/A
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 1994
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