Biography of three important women from the Civil War era.
The author of multiple books about women in colonial America, Berkin (History/Baruch Coll.; Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America’s Independence, 2005, etc.) jumps ahead to the Civil War to investigate how these women’s marriages to prominent men shaped their lives. Angelina Grimké Weld, who married abolitionist agitator Theodore Weld, was an outspoken proponent of abolition, racial equality and women’s rights; Varina Howell Davis had a sharp mind and an independent streak that helped her fight for the freedom of her husband, Confederate President Jefferson Davis, after his postwar imprisonment; Julia Dent Grant found contentment in her domestic role as wife to Ulysses S. Grant and mother to four children. Any one of these women would make for an engaging biography, but Berkin uses their stories—reconstructed from their letters, diaries and speeches—to serve a larger theme: the female experience in the late 1800s. It often meant sublimation and compromise. Though Angelina Weld was an early star in the abolitionist movement, she submitted to quiet domesticity after her marriage. Varina Davis was often criticized by her husband for her lack of passivity, even though he said he treasured her “fine mind.” Julia Grant so fully embraced the ideal of domestic life that she only found her voice, as a memoirist, in the last few years of her life. Indeed, as Berkin emphasizes in this probing sociological portrait, all three women “had access to the seats of power but no power themselves.”
Berkin once again provides a fresh perspective on women in American history.