Drew Gilpin Faust’s Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War
(1996) takes a closer look at educated white women and the inner conflicts they faced as they struggled to reconcile their ownership of slaves, which was commonplace at the time, with their own position of privilege. Through her book, Gilpin seeks to examine the oft-disregarded white woman, as most studies of the time tend to focus on white male plantation owners and free black men and women. The social and military upheaval of wartime caused women to reconsider their traditional roles of wife and homemaker, which they had been trained to accept without thinking in their upbringing as elite southern daughters. As they did possess some modicum of power and privilege relative to others at the time, women began to wonder if it was their duty to wield their power in positions of leadership, taking on more responsibility outside of the home. The title of the book plays on the fact that Southern women often referred to themselves as ‘mothers of invention,’ but Faust senses a deeper meaning centered on the reinvention of a woman’s self-determined identity.
In order to produce this work, Faust scoured the literary remains of more than five hundred Confederate women, extracting the central meaning she found through various letters, diaries, memoirs, and creative writing, which demonstrated the fluctuation in their attitudes over time. Faust then took the evidence she had gathered and organized it into a chronological timeline, revealing how women’s interpretations of the changing world around them shifted over time.
During the Civil War, about a half million white women were part of the slaveholding families of the Confederacy. Before the war, they defined themselves in relation to the men in their lives, as wives, mothers, or sisters. Their social structures revolved around a male world; plantations were simply too far apart to allow women to socialize much with each other. They contributed to the plantation through indirect means; they rarely raised their own children, spun their own cloth, or involved themselves in the daily economic decisions. The war took their men, forcing women into a more public role. Three out of every four Southern men served in the Confederate Army; the war directly affected a large percentage of the plantation mistresses. These women lived in a world defined by the peculiar institution. They understood their position in society as directly related to being both slaveholders and the moral compass of the South.
Faust writes about Southern ladies’ discussion of the topics most important to them, such as marriage, courtship, parenting, fashion, and entertainment, but also their increasing worries over their financial situations, manufacturing and productivity, and political decisions. These findings are significant as these topics were previously considered firmly outside their realm of consideration. In her study, Faust distinguishes the Southern women from their northern sisters, whose democratization and reform activities would have made them appear unladylike in the eyes of the Southern upper class.
Faust demonstrates how these women’s patriotism and dedication to supporting the war disintegrated due to the lack of outlets to contribute to. This resulted in a shift in mindset, resulting in stressed, resentful, overburdened detractors who sought an end to hostilities and the return of soldiers to their communities. Faust reports findings of anger, self-loathing, and worthlessness among the feelings expressed in the women’s written works. She deduces that Southern women felt overwhelmed by the contrast of their own world view, constructed from within their secure, private sphere, and the public arena, filled with contradictory opinions on everything from the management of slaves, overseers, the propriety of manual labor, to how to adapt their clothing to their new functions. The author provides ample quotes from women who felt betrayed by their men and their leaders who broke the social contract that offered them protection and support in exchange for subordination and self-denial.
Faust examines letters several of the women wrote to their husbands that stated a reluctance to beat or discipline slaves. For unmarried women, there was a realization that the war might further decrease their opportunities to marry; several expressed concerns about becoming spinsters. Those who were determined to marry after the war were encouraged to look upon wounded or amputated veterans with more favor than a whole man who did not serve. These women also faced new demands upon their own labor. Without men, and increasingly without slaves, these women often engaged in physical labor for the first time in their lives. They were forced to work to provide for their families, though most wrote about it with a sense of shame rather than empowerment.
Throughout her book, Faust asserts that, for these women, the Civil War was a life-altering moment, one that few historians care to examine. She describes it as a time in history when many women invented new selves. As the author presents in her epilogue, some women appreciated the emerging opportunities and marginal independence the post-war era afforded them. Others welcomed the return of white male patriarchy with its advantages of protection and support with few pangs of sacrifice.