Thursday, September 24, 2015

Book review: Capital Dames: the Civil War and the Women of Washington, 1848-1868 by Cokie Roberts

I heard Cokie Roberts on NPR talk about the inspiration behind this book. She had heard a lot--I think we all have--about how women during WWII had to work and take over the men's jobs and how crucial that was, that women worked. And it occurred to her that this probably wasn't only true during WWII. It had probably been true in all wars. As a native Washingtonian, she wanted to look at the impact of war on that city, and the Civil War made the most sense to look at. It was far enough before WWII that most people didn't think about as a comparison, and it also took more American men than any other war before or since. And she was right.

We think o f the women involved in nursing, with Clara Barton and Dorothea Dix, and it's true, they grew that field enormously among women and were considered vital to the war effort. But women worked for the Postmaster General. Women worked in the Treasury Department, cutting out currency with scissors. Often the women workers were preferred because they could be paid so much less (!), sigh. Mostly women though did what they'd always done: backstage machinations, persuasion, entertainment, lobbying (lobbyist noted they could sometimes be more effective by convincing a wife about their cause, and then letting the wife convince her husband Congressman to vote for it, than if they approached the Congressman directly).

Through letters and diaries, Ms. Roberts recreates the lives of dozens of influential women, from the famous (Mary Todd Lincoln, Julia Grant) to the less-than-famous (Elizabeth Lee) and the once-famous (Kate Chase Sprague). Some were very manipulative, some were upstanding privileged women who worked themselves to the bone to help the less fortunate, some were catty and vindictive, some were known as angels, and some were spies. All wore corsets and lived through war, some nearly starving to death.

I love learning new trivia, and I learned some excellent trivia indeed. Including a few things I ought to have already known, such as that when the Southern states were seceding, it was Buchanan who was president, not Lincoln. And that war didn't start immediately after the secession, but a few months later. I also didn't realize how cool Varina Davis was, the wife of Jefferson Davis. And along the way in these books you inevitably run across some women, like Kate Chase Sprague, who had they lived now, would have been formidable politicians in their own right, I have no doubt.

This was a fascinating glimpse into a corner of feminist history I hadn't thought about before (it was during this period that "men" was first inserted into a Constitutional amendment, the first time women were excluded. It also was when the Women's Right to Vote movement really began in force and picked up strength.) There were powerful and hard-working women in every era, but we seem to have forgotten those before our own time, which isn't fair to these strong and resourceful women. Any lover of history, or student of feminism, ought to read this book.

I checked this book out of the library.

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