A scholarly study of women's participation in one of the great (and forgotten) American endeavors of the 19th century.
Historians have gradually been recovering the record of women's public activism in the US. But one of the greatest social service institutions in the nation's past, the Civil War–era United States Sanitary Commission (with its 7,000 affiliated soldiers’ aid societies in which women played a central role) has remained largely unknown. Giesberg not only reminds us of the Commission's part in the war effort of the 1860s but argues, on the whole successfully, that it is the missing link in the awakening of women's participation in American public life. Not surprisingly, men ran the Commission's national organization—and created the ideological template by which it has been recalled and interpreted ever since. But women commanded its local branches. And, as Giesberg argues, recovering the affiliates' history fills in a gap in the history of the Civil War itself. Struggling to provide food and clothing to soldiers and maintain their families while pushing against a culture of domesticity, benevolence, and conventional self-segregation, thousands of women gained new experience through the politics necessary to help their fighting men and thus took another step toward their emancipation and integration into the nation's larger life. It was not easy, and much divided them. Giesberg shows how such unsung women as Louisa Lee Schuyler, Abigail Williams May, and Mary Livermore helped lay the groundwork for the further broadening of women's activism in the Progressive era. This argument will be controversial among those to point to other sources of the women's rights movement, but it is plausible—and surely the details of the story are important in themselves.
A significant contribution to the history of gender in the US. (illustrations, not seen)