Effects of the Civil War and Reconstruction of the women of the South as portrayed in modern American novels
O'Connor, Alice Louise.
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Writers of modern American fiction live presented the heroines of stories of the Civil War and Reconstruction Era in the South, in a different light than authors dealing with belles of the ante-bellum period. The change in viewpoint has been due, not so much to the introspective qualities of the authors, as to the revolutionary transformation in women themselves, caused by their experiences in the tremendous upheaval. To fully appreciate the potency of the changes, an over-all survey of the section and its people in relation to their background, is necessary. The span of time between 1860 and 1877 shoves the most effective contrasts. The plan of this paper is to deal with the three prevailing classes of women, aristocrat, poor white, and negress. The subject is organized to present the three successive stages in the drama: first, the status of women under the Old Regime; second the terrible experiences they suffered during the Civil War, and finally, the readjustments demanded of women by a complete revolution in the social and economic life of the region. Each section closes with a summary of the particular period covered. The first part discusses the characteristics of each class of women, placing emphasis on the domestic, recreational, and educational facilities available to each. The second portion reveals the behavior of the three types in response to the stimuli of war. Their devotion, courage, and ingenuity under stress have been disclosed. The third part portrays the final destruction of the Old South with its consequent effect on women. The leveling of the upper class, the rise of the middle group, and the temporary elevation of the black race present an interesting panorama. By way of conclusion, a thumb-nail sketch of literary trends which have affected the portrayal of women of the designated period, is briefly presented. The institution of slavery colored everything it touched. The economic structure of the Old South was built on it. Wealthy planters acquired more and more slaves, and prospered accordingly. Poor farmers unable to maintain chattels, were compelled to compete with rich planters in a system that was grossly unjust and imbalanced. Such competition denied the middle group opportunities for equal rights and privileges. As the gap widened between the two white classes, there was built up, gradually, a distinct caste system with the aristocrat at the top and the slave at the bottom. The poor whites were higher in the social scale than the negroes, because of their color, but they were actually more neglected and destitute, in many cases. The negroes, while objects of pity to the North were by far, the most carefree of the three groups. They were burdens to their mistresses who were charged with the responsibility of their welfare. Yet, the patricians firmly believed that only in slavery could a Christian influence be exerted on them, while they in turn lessened the labor of their owners and brought them prosperity. The leisure gained by the aristocrats was devoted to acquiring a rich culture, and to the enjoyment of social functions. Women indulged in lavish self-adornment and abhorred self-support of any kind. The slaves, denied education, nevertheless acquired by imitation many of the refined mannerisms and elegant phrases of their betters. Realizing their many advantages over the poor whites, they slyly ridiculed them, and provoked ill-feeling. The former envied the slaves' material comforts, yet despised them for their smugness. Women performed men's work during the Civil War. The shock awakened them from their ladylike futility. They left their homes to work in field, factories, and hospitals. They inspired greater heroism and devotion to the Confederate Cause. The urge for survival drove them to unprecedented physical and mental exertions. Their whole-hearted support is alleged to have prolonged the conflict. They cheerfully accepted irksome tasks, and cleverly improvised substitutes for scarce commodities. Their Spartan conduct during the invasion of the federal Army, evoked the admiration of the Unionists. The poor whites aligned themselves with the rich planters and worked fervently for victory. They feared a defeat which would free the slaves and place negroes on their social level. Under the guise of patriotism they gladly entered the field of industry which women had scorned. The negroes, bewildered by the confusion, remained faithful to their ovmers, working blindly against the forces which fought to free them. Education for all classes was practically suspended, since the energies of the South were devoted to a struggle which dwarfed the importance of a subject that thrives best under the beneficent regime of peace. In 1865 multitudes of women in the South faced a future devoid of the comfort and household ease so dear to the hearts of all women. The outlook seemed hopeless; yet by persistence and valor they salvaged what remained of the old life and encouraged the building of a newer, more stable one. Undaunted by hardship, they married crippled, penniless veterans and made homes where happiness reigned. Disheartened men were aroused from their lethargy and spurred to renewed interest and activity in the rebuilding of the South. Corrupt governments, exorbitant taxes, and vindictive reprisals made life almost unbearable. The aristocrats maintained their morale holding Starvation Parties and making light of their hardships. Since poverty was the badge of aristocracy, it was worn proudly. The middle class, "nouveau-riche," flaunted their wealth in extravagant homes, clothing, and entertainments. Although they were the leaders in the new society, they lacked the prestige which fine old names, and family traditions gave to the patricians. A more democratic distribution of land, made possible by the breakup of plantations, raised the living standard of the industrious farming class. Negroes, catapulted to a freedom for which they were unprepared, were as giddy and restless as children. The preferred treatment given them by the North increased intolerance between the races. Lawless blacks terrified the whites, and caused the formation of the Ku Klux Klan. Unrestrained by anyone, many quickly sank to the depths of degradation. They were, however, free to determine what course their lives would take, whether for good or evil. Education revived slowly after the war. Negroes were amply cared for by Northern philanthropists. Raids of the Carpet-bag Governments depleted educational funds in the South, placing a serious obstacle in the way of training white children. Public schools were looked on as institutions of charity, but after 1870 this feeling gradually abated and educational facilities were open to all - girls as well as boys. The Southern woman of any class never resumed the position she occupied before the war. The old ways and customs were changed beyond recall. They were at last free of the fetters which slavery had inflicted upon their efforts. New interests in the social and economic world beckoned them. The old pseudo-chivalry gave way to a less protected but highly respected position. They learned contempt for gossip, frivolities, and idleness. The intellectual interests of these women were large, and they undertook to develop their capacities in a serious manner which laid the basis for the advancement of women in many fields of endeavor. The strengthening and development of latent qualities of sterling value in women's characters was an important outcome of their superb efforts. In short they ceased to strive for the title "Lady, " and were proud to have earned the greater one, "Woman."
Thesis (M.A.)--Boston University