REVIEW: Gender & the Sectional Conflict

And now for something... not so totally different! I began pursuing my Master's degree in Women's History at Sarah Lawrence College in September. I've been writing weekly papers, but recently, I was assigned a book review for my Visions & Revisions in U.S. Women's History class.

Gender & the Sectional Conflict
Nina Silber
The University of North Carolina Press

Gender & the Sectional Conflict is Nina Silber’s latest work on the Civil War, her sixth book to date and her fourth on gender and the war. Gender & the Sectional Conflict enters the arena of Civil War scholarship taking into account other contemporary historians and their analysis of gender construction during the War while Silber’s own unique insights guide the narrative. The book is a collection of three works, each a lecture that Silber presented in a Civil War series at Penn State in 2006. Beginning with gender and its role in the war, Silber continues to touch on the more specific topic of gender and patriotism during the war, and eventually Union & Confederate women’s post-bellum memorial practices. Silber’s strong points are that she analyzes not only the political and economic climates of the North and South and how these essentially created gender structures, but also how other factors, such as geography, political rhetoric, and class also influenced gender a great deal.

Nina Silber’s discussion on gender, patriotism, and the war is complementary to relevant contemporary Civil War scholarship. Chandra Manning’s study of soldiers’ interpretation of the War in What this Cruel War Was Over as well as Drew Gilpin Faust’s look at white slaveholding southern women in Mothers of Invention are two works in particular that aid Silber’s arguments. To this conversation, Silber adds the situation of white Union women (and to a very minimal extent, African American people). Silber cites both Manning and Faust throughout the book, among other contemporary Civil War historians as well as primary resources consisting of letters and newspapers from that era.

In Gender & the Sectional Conflict, Nina Silber leads with an easy-to-follow narrative. In section one, Silber illustrates southern and northern culture during the war, and draws out the implications of gender in these contexts. Citing Faust, (along with many others) Silber emphasizes the Confederate obsession with the notion of “home” and the Union’s creation of an “imagined community,” an “abstract nation” to fight for - which is a crucial key in understanding the fundamental difference between northern and southern women’s relations to the war. Arguing that the concept of an “abstract nation” removed Northern women from the notion of “home,” Silber proves that Unionist women were then better able to view themselves as autonomous political beings. (14-20) “While Confederate ideology encouraged women to personalize and domesticate the Confederate cause, Union women had to embrace the subordination of domestic ideals to national ones.” (36) Silber illustrates a severe division in culture that contextualizes her arguments on “The Problem of Women’s Patriotism, North and South,” in the second section.

Women’s patriotism was traditionally articulated merely through their men. Nina Silber presents the varying patriotic efforts of northern and southern women as challenging to this notion. (38-40) While considering the previous chapter, it is easy to understand why Union women were better able to begin defining themselves politically through this patriotism. (42, 54) As a relevant closer, Nina Silber extends her look at gender and patriotism in northern and southern culture to the way this plays out in post-war memorial practices.

The lecture approach factors in to Gender & the Sectional Conflict for both good and bad; the text is easier to read, and much clearer than a lot of academic writing, though Silber seems to lose some assertion in her voice within this context. Unfortunately, along with Manning and Faust, Silber is also guilty of a glaring omission: black women. In total, Nina Silber dedicates a mere seven or so pages in total about African Americans out of the book’s ninety-nine. By naming the text Gender & the Sectional Conflict, as well as introducing questions about African-Americans and the Civil War in the preface, Silber misleads the reader. As Silber introduces her ideas about African Americans in the context of gender and the Civil War, she immediately states, “What I offer here are only very initial and tentative starting points.” (xix) This seems like an unfortunate apology for a lack of integration in terms of all different concepts of gender that were present during the war.

Using relevant primary and secondary sources, Nina Silber illustrates the culture of the U.S. circa the Civil War, how this culture created and influenced gender structures, and eventually how women challenged these structures. She contributes unique insight to the situation of Union women, while providing a thoughtful analysis of gender, culture, and the war. Though Silber falls short on thorough race and class analysis, her fresh insight and logical narrative are valuable to contemporary Civil War scholarship.

-- Kate Wadkins

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