Divided Houses focuses on the effects of gender, race and class on the Civil War. During the Civil War, which happened at a time when patriarchy is prevalent throughout the United States (US), women stand as those belonging to a so-called “separate sphere,” yet such only includes white women. Black women, on the other hand, stand as perhaps the most disadvantaged beings during the Civil War, particularly because their subordination lies on the compounding of the doubly negative effects of their gender (female) and race (African-American). In exploring such a dynamic feature of women during the Civil War, Clinton and Silber undertook numerous topics pertaining to their activities and roles, such as spying and various changes in divorce. A plethora of various records standing as primary sources – court proceedings, memoirs from diaries and the like, were used by Clinton and Silber in the accomplishment of this book, although the lack of strong conclusions preclude the work from reaching its potential appeal. Nonetheless, Clinton and Silber exposed numerous degrees of injustices among black women during the Civil War, noting that emancipation has actually brought them a greater deal of misery from sexual violence. Uniquely, women during the Civil War also thrived in a sea of stereotypes, particularly in that notable instance when they claimed that men in the city of New Orleans, Louisiana have “acted like women” by leaving the city to ruins, meaning abandoning it cowardly. Such has henceforth led women to “act like men” in defense of New Orleans. The portrayal of John Brown in defending Virginia was also presented heroically, although needless to say, the praise aimed against him was one of gender stereotyping, having been called as one who have defended the state “like a real man” while other Virginians “fretted like a woman.” Seemingly enthused with open-endedness in writing, Clinton and Silber sought to justify their content and vowed that what they wrote will remove the notion that codified limitations in writing history do not exist.
Even a closer look at Divided Houses would reveal that it provides historical content on the plight of women during the Civil War, as Clinton and Silber described it as a “crisis in gender.” A predominant question asked by Clinton and Silber pertains to the question on why the Confederates lost in the Civil War, in relation to the role of women played back then. The contributions of women in society that time, that of household caretakers while their husbands fought and of spying to supplement essential information because of their non-dubious appearances, eventually had to stop due to escalating violence that time. “Self-sacrifice,” as termed by Clinton and Silber, went beyond the threshold of toleration of Confederate women during the Civil War, hence prompting them to demand that their husbands come home to them instead and focus on building their families instead. While it is interesting that such an aspect inextricably linked gender and the outcome of the Civil War, it nonetheless poses questions on the extent of the application of such a narrative. Such relates to the inherent limitation of primary sources to provide either a biographic – meaning personal, view of the events, or an assumptive tone in trying to represent the events that transpired through a general picture.
Another concern on Divided Houses that serves as a justifiable highlight of criticism pertains to the standing of black women during the Civil War. The paradox posed by Clinton and Silber – that of comparing slavery as somewhat a better prospect for black women than emancipation, stems from the inherent disadvantage attached inextricably to their image. The compounding effects of the subordinate status of black women, owing to the fact that they are women of African-American heritage, has since led to shaping the narrative that they are more disadvantaged compared to white women. In fact, white women actually played instrumental roles during the Civil War such as spying that formed part of their status as beings belonging to a “separate sphere” of privilege amidst gender discrepancies. Therefore, gender emerges as a concern during Civil War that is not at a level playing field, given the influence of race and class. It is safe to say that not all women during the Civil War are equally disadvantaged, since such has variations according to racial differences and positions afforded by class.
Lastly, it is plausible to point out the involvement of gender stereotypes in influencing the flow of what Clinton and Silber wrote in Divided Houses. What I saw as perhaps the main intriguing point is the fact that women “acted like men” in specific quarters of the Confederacy in order to defend what their male counterparts have abandoned. At the same time, it is also very interesting to note that some notable heroes during the Civil War, as in the case of John Brown, garnered praise for their feats in relation to their “manliness” in protecting the otherwise “womanly” submission of their subjects – Virginia, for this matter. In that case, patriarchy has proved to run deep within the US during the Civil War, which also happened to be a time when race and class served as divisive social matters. Therefore, the unequal plight of women during the Civil War stands as proof that the US mired itself in a social milieu lacking progressive ideas, with perhaps the victory of the Union serving as an impetus for such in the coming years – a perspective that may perhaps afford the emergence of further research efforts in history.
Clinton, Catherine, and Nina Silber. Divided Houses: Gender and the Civil War. New York City, NY: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Paludan, Philip. “Divided Houses: Gender and the Civil War (Book Review).” The Georgia Historical Quarterly 77, no. 3 (1993): 628-630.