Skip to main content

Conversation

A Conversation with Drew Gilpin Faust

A Certain Kind of Lady

HUMANITIES, September/October 1997 | Volume 18, Number 4

Endowment Chairman Sheldon Hackney talked recently with Drew Gilpin Faust about Southern white women in the Civil War and how their experiences altered postwar attitudes. Faust, Annenberg Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania, is the author of Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War, which won the Francis Parkman Prize of the Society of American Historians.

Sheldon Hackney: Let me begin by saying that Mothers of Invention is really such a good book. What is impressive is that it is a book about very large ideas and large implications, yet those ideas and implications don't intrude; it is the very interesting lives and words of real people that drive a reader along from chapter to chapter. That's craftsmanship in the historical profession at its highest. I want to talk a little bit about both the big ideas and the very interesting real lives that you record here. But, let's get the Scarlett O'Hara question out of the way first.

Drew Gilpin Faust: Oh dear.

Hackney: Is this Gone with the Wind with footnotes?

Faust: When I was interviewed on NPR last year, Linda Wertheimer asked me if there is anything I didn't want to have to answer.

Hackney: And that was it.

Faust: Don't ask me about Scarlett O'Hara. But after I wrote this book, I decided I needed to go back and reread Gone with the Wind. I actually spent a lot of last summer reading the book and reading Margaret Mitchell's papers and writing about Scarlett O'Hara because I felt that I needed to come to terms with Scarlett. What I found striking coming back to it after more than a decade is, first of all, a need to distinguish between Scarlett O'Hara of the novel and Scarlett O'Hara of the film. Probably the Scarlett O'Hara that lives and breathes in American culture right now is more that of the film than the book.

Hackney: Right.

Faust: Something could be written about those contrasts. The Scarlett O'Hara of the book embodies a lot of the conflicts in Margaret Mitchell's own life. She ends up punishing Scarlett for her acts of independence at the end when she takes Rhett away.

Hackney: Yes.

Faust: The reader keeps wanting to give Rhett back. That's why we have these sequels where people imagine that Rhett returns. But Scarlett is threatened by, first, rape and then finds her sexual fulfillment only in rape and then loses Rhett in the end. That's a really antifeminist message.

What I see as similar between Scarlett's experience and the women that I describe is some of the independence that's foisted upon them. But I find Scarlett more comfortable with self-assertion, more comfortable with power until she's ultimately rebuked for it. Scarlett is an outlier from the start. In Gone with the Wind, she rejects the tenets of femininity, even as a young girl. Most of the women I'm talking about in Mothers of Invention are those who embrace the cultural conventions of their time.

Hackney: Where does the title come from?

Faust: The title comes from encounters that I kept having as I was reading through documents and letters of women who kept talking about necessity being the mother of invention and emphasizing the importance of necessity in the transformations they felt were foisted upon them. The kind of change that came about was change that was not really sought. It was not women embracing the possibility of liberation. It was women being forced into taking up new roles and being forced into breaking boundaries. That's very different from the message of much of feminist scholarship about women in the American past. It's a reality we need to confront.

Hackney: The ambiguity of those new roles is one of the things that you lead to. If I had to describe the thesis or the theme of the book to an audience, I would say it is about how the antebellum gender roles that were prescribed for Southern women of the master class -- which is the subject of your book -- really disabled them from any useful wartime work. That's the first part of it. The second would be the experience of the war itself, the separation and deprivation, and how the roles into which they were thrust left them with a new but ambiguous notion of womanhood. Is that fair?

Faust: That's very fair. Ambiguity is at the heart of it and sometimes makes it complicated to explain because it's really two things that I'm saying about these women. I'm not meaning either to condemn or celebrate them but rather to show how difficult the circumstances they faced were and how the kinds of expectations they'd been led to have of themselves made their lives difficult. The limited nature of the change that they were able to undergo is a product of those very forceful realities.

Hackney: What are the two poles of the ambiguity with which they are left?

Faust: What I argue is that they both feared independence and autonomy, because they recognized how burdensome many of the wartime responsibilities were and how poorly they'd handled many of them. In the words of one of my characters, Lizzie Scott Neblett, trying to do a man's business was very overwhelming for many of them. They had real self- doubt about independence. At the same time, they were imbued with doubt about the capabilities of their men. These were men who started a war that had brought devastation upon the South. Women were torn between recognizing their need to defend their own interests -- and they were very aware of interests separate from those of their men because of the wartime experience -- yet at the same time they were filled with self-doubt about their ability to do so.

Hackney: One of the transitions that you trace is the transition from patriotism at the outset -- this optimistic "war is going to be glorious" feeling at the time of Sumter -- and the feeling toward the end of the war, in 1864, 1865, in which you describe the women as being almost pacifists.

Faust: Part of what was going on was the emergence of a sense of self-preservation. They began imbued with doctrines of self-sacrifice as being the center of woman's identity. They came to realize that self-sacrifice was debilitating to them and to their families as they'd sacrificed sons, brothers, husbands. There was a sense of an emerging selfhood that came, a need to protect what remained simply in order to survive. The necessity for survival became the foundation of a disillusionment with patriotism and its costs, especially after it became evident that the Confederacy was very unlikely to win.

Hackney: Yes.

Faust: Part of the impact of this was psychological. They simply couldn't take any more death. They were rendered almost numb, passive. They were trying to survive, and that didn't mean any more self-sacrifice. It couldn't.

Hackney: As you point out in one passage, this is almost a parallel of the transition in American society in general from -- in the terms that you use -- republicanism to liberalism, or from community to self-interest.

Faust: It was striking to me because in doing the research for this, I saw it rendered in these very personal terms by women who were excluded from the polity and therefore hadn't really thought of themselves as participants entirely in the public life of republicanism, liberalism. Yet, there it was on a psychological level. So I wondered if there might have been certain psychological foundations for this political shift and personal experience that paralleled political ideologies.

Hackney: Did the erosion of patriotism affect the outcome of the war?

Faust: I've been arguing that now for half a decade, beginning with an article that I published in the 1990s. I've been pretty roundly attacked by the military historians who argue that the Civil War was lost at Gettysburg, not by women. The first time I stated this, I overstated the issue of gender -- in part to get attention. I do believe gender had a significant impact. The desire of Civil War historians to explain why the South lost the war often renders answers more simplistic than they ought to be. People look for one cause. But if we're going to look at a variety of causes, certainly a couple of issues relating to women and gender are central. One is the place of women as slave managers when men left. The disintegration of slavery and the disintegration of morale and productivity that followed that are important factors. Even Civil War historians who want to emphasize public matters rather than these private matters have been increasingly attentive to the notion of the home front playing a significant role in the disintegration of Southern morale.

Hackney: That sounds reasonable to me, especially if one makes the observation that there were armies in the field still intact at the end of the war. It raises the question of why wasn't the struggle continued. Then you come back to the morale question on the home front. You have a strong argument.

Faust: Thank you. Actually, a student in my lecture class came up to me this week and said he'd heard an interview with James McPherson about Jim's new book, For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War. Some person called in and started harassing him about Drew Faust's ideas about why the war was lost. Jim was, it sounds like, fairly dismissive of this notion of women's impact. So, the question comes up.

Hackney: I suspect this argument will go on quite productively for a while.

Faust: Yes, yes.

Hackney: Why weren't Southern women of the slave-owning class better at managing slaves during the war? That's something you describe with exquisite detail. They had been living with slaves. Why couldn't they manage better than you think they did?

Faust: The master -- the very term itself and the masculinity of that term -- is significant. The master, the man on the plantation, was seen always as the last resort for slave discipline and as the source, particularly, of the violence that underlay the slave system. Women punished slaves, even hit slaves, but they knew that there was a man they could call upon to back them up. Even if they were widows, they would have a brother or an uncle or somebody in the neighborhood who would play that role. When men left in such large numbers, women didn't have that recourse. Also, many women were imbued with the notion that violence was not the prerogative of women. It did not fit the kind of conventions associated with womanhood -- those of passivity, docility, and so forth -- and they found themselves very conflicted about the kind of assertiveness and dominance that was required for slave management. In papers, letters, diaries describing white women's interactions with slaves, you can see them going through this process of self-doubt about how their identity as women fits with these new kinds of assertiveness and even risk taking that are sometimes involved with directing large numbers of slaves.

Hackney: You use the phrase "ten thousand acts of domination are required," metaphorically. Thousands of acts of domination every day, which is a striking way of looking at the requirement of what slavery did to the whole society. Was that sort of domination relationship not in the gender role as it was defined by Southern society?

Faust: White women were used to exercising some of those acts of domination, but they always did it within a context of having a backup, a person who would be able to threaten with the whip or threaten with other kind of force. Their dominance operated on a kind of minor level. When that overarching structure was removed, they were just not able to make their actions to control slaves effective.

Hackney: Do you detect any sense of guilt or doubt about the slave system?

Faust: Very, very little. What I've found is that the kind of doubt that emerged in the minds of white women was about how much of a pain in the neck it was to manage slaves. Since the slaves seemed to be unwilling to work and reluctant to carry out their duties, they were not providing much benefit to these white women and they were providing a lot of challenge and difficulty. Many white women said, "This system just isn't worth the trouble." They criticized the system as one of inconvenience rather than from humanitarian grounds.

There's really very little vision of slaves as human beings like themselves that emerges from the writings of these women. It's often very, very upsetting to see how inhumane the responses of these white women could be.

Hackney: Was that surprising to you?

Faust: I don't think it was surprising. I've worked on materials like this for twenty years. But sometimes there were individual statements that just jolted you with their particularity.

Hackney: It's unsettling, then.

Faust: That's just the word -- unsettling.

Hackney: It's very difficult to understand a culture or a time that is so different from our own, when the question did not even arise in the minds of the people living then.

Faust: One of the challenges for me writing this book was trying to get inside these women's heads. They often sounded very much the way people we know sound when they write about being separated from their husbands, when they write about their feelings of love and passion and fear for their husbands' lives. You find yourself identifying with them very strongly, and then suddenly they'll jolt you with a racist or elitist statement that sounds so unlike anything you'd want to identify with. I found myself in this kind of approach-avoidance relationship with these women as I tried to be fair to them yet not in any way apologize for them or excuse them.

Hackney: You were writing about a particular class of white women. You focus on them. But there are moments in the book when you take note of the fact that ordinary Southern women, women not of the master class, are behaving differently. I wonder whether gender or class was the stronger force at that time, since the reaction of women of different classes was so different in the South.

Faust: For the women I wrote about, which comprise about 25 percent of the white women of the South, the notions of gender and class were in many ways inseparable. That's evident in the term that they used about themselves, which is the term "lady," a term that bespeaks femininity but at the same time would only be applied to a woman of privilege. They saw their identities tied up in that configuration of what privileged womanhood meant. That was also tied up with race because ladies were not African American; ladies were white. All of those factors converge into an identity in which, if you remove any one of them, all the others are kind of in peril as well.

Hackney: You pay a lot of attention to Neblett. Was she one of your favorites?

Faust: Yes, probably because she was so open about everything that she did and said. She was so strung out, in twentieth-century terms, by the war that she wrote about her sex life, she wrote about beating her children, she wrote about beating her slaves. I found that portrait so vivid that it was hard not to use her constantly. I think I have certain of the biographer's tendencies. I like embedding historical questions in individual lives, and she enabled me to do that.

I got a letter from her grandson this fall.

Hackney: Oh my.

Faust: I was quite frightened, because the portrait of Lizzie is not one of heroism. It is a very complicated one, though I hope sympathetic in some ways. He couldn't have been more generous. He just wanted to share with me memories of her at the very end of her life, when he was a small boy at the turn of the century. It was wonderful, actually, to feel that connected to her somehow through this figure who had known her.

Hackney: Mary Chesnut also slips in and out of your story. Do you find her more typical of this class of women than you had thought before you started the research, Mary Chesnut being a person that we all know through her published journals.

Faust: I actually tried not to use Mary Chesnut constantly because so many people were familiar with her. But she is the most outspoken about her elitism of any woman I came in contact with. She said perfectly appalling things about lower-class white women and about black women. Sometimes I couldn't resist using those, probably because they weren't entirely representative but were such an extreme that they did have that startling effect that reminds you who these people were and that they are not you.

Hackney: One of the striking things in reading through the book is that the class hierarchy or the deferential society is simply assumed by these women, and there is no shame about it at all; whereas today, however class ridden we may really be, it is not nice to talk about. One of the interesting parts of your book, I think, is the ironic fact that the separations of husband and wife or sweethearts led to an increased emotional intimacy between them through their letter writing. Was that a surprise? Did that have an effect in transforming women's roles in the South?

Faust: Writings -- letter writing is part of that, and then the kind of journal and diary writing that these women did -- made them articulate selves that they had perhaps not examined before. It made them introspective; it made them focus on the notion of self, and that was transformative. Within the relationships with their husbands, it made them explore their relationships in ways they probably hadn't in their everyday life together before the war.

Hackney: Yes.

Faust: But when they were separated, then they started writing about, thinking about, and defining who they were and who they were to each other. That transformed relationships, and it also transformed the women themselves, because, when you write, that's an act of self-assertion in its very existence.

Hackney: It does call things up to consciousness so that they're more prominent in your life.

Faust: Mm-hmm.

Hackney: What's the significance of hoopskirts across the Civil War era?

Faust: I have a chapter in the book where I write about clothing because some of the clothing shortages and choices about clothing are symbolic in lots of ways. They also embody some of women's changing notions about the nature of gender.

Hoopskirts became a luxury. There were a number of places where I ran across women saying "hoops have all but disappeared," "I can't get the material I need to mend my hoops," "I've abandoned hoops," "it looks so foolish to wear hoops when you can't even find any shoes." So in terms of fashion in the Confederacy, hoops "diminish," as one woman put it, both in size and also in their very presence. They were abandoned altogether by a number of women.

So what you get here is a silhouette that is much less artificial, a silhouette where a woman's actual shape is not disguised, a silhouette in which this protected space that she wore around herself disappeared. Women saw this as transformative in itself. They also began to recognize that they could play with gender roles a little bit, that they weren't essentially biological in quite the way they had once seemed. I found a number of examples of women thinking about wearing men's clothes or, indeed, wearing versions of men's clothes as they had to take up new kinds of work that couldn't easily be done in elaborate skirts. Clothing became symbolic of change and flexibility, variability, mutability, in the very notion of gender itself.

Hackney: Yes. I think that chapter in particular demonstrates the use of evidence by historians in very imaginative ways, connecting it to larger themes.

Faust: Thanks.

Hackney: Very revealing.

But the lives of these women were changed by the war. Now, what happened to them and to women of their class in the late nineteenth century?

Faust: You have lots of widows. Their personal lives were transformed; their domestic lives were transformed; their households were transformed. That had economic consequences. Many of them were forced to move into the labor force. Teaching at last becomes feminized in the South. It had not been before the war although it had been in the Northern states since the early nineteenth century. These women moved into positions like postmistresses, if they could find that kind of work, or other kinds of genteel undertakings that they hoped would not impugn their status.

People who had been more on the margins of the class may have moved into work places such as the textile mills that began to open later in the nineteenth century. That was a source of employment for white women, many of whom were struggling in the aftermath of the war.

Among the elite, there were endless complaints about something that came to be called the "servant problem." Domestic life changed, and enormously greater amounts of household labor were expected of white women. They found themselves without slaves and often unable to find household labor even to hire.

Another thing that happened was the emergence of women's education as much more significant in the late-nineteenth-century South, as women began to recognize that they needed to provide for themselves.

Hackney: Then that lead into all sorts of voluntary associations, women's clubs, which were the road into politics and public life.

Faust: Yes, that was a very important part of it, too. A lot of these women became active in the temperance movement, in the emerging women's suffrage movement, in movements to celebrate the Confederacy, sort of Lost Cause organizations. This brought women in contact with each other in a way they hadn't been in the prewar South, and this made gender a more significant variable in women's lives. They saw themselves in groups of women as women and defined activities for women that were increasingly located in the public sphere and exerting influence on the life of the South in the public realm.

Hackney: So there was a dramatic transformation of the lives of women of the privileged class caused by the war. Yet there was also a significant effort to keep alive the romance of the antebellum life and of the Lost Cause.

Faust: Also, an effort on the part of these women to reinstate racial hierarchies in a manner as close to that of slavery as possible. They realized how privileged they had been and how much they had to lose, and a lot of their energies were devoted to retaining those privileges. The white women's suffrage movement in the South was very racist. It justified itself in its earliest days as a way of "outvoting." "Why shouldn't white women vote if black men have been given the vote? This is outrageous. We will use our votes to help counter the votes of black Southerners." Those very conservative and traditional positions, the embodiment of privilege, were very much a part of this activism.

Hackney: Race really did charge everything in the South, didn't it?

Faust: Yes. It's hard to say that though because that implies you can imagine the South without it.

Hackney: You can't. But it is interesting that the phenomena that were national -- the suffrage movement, for instance -- played out differently in the South. Everything you can think of plays out differently because of the requirements of white supremacy.

Faust: Certainly, as the women's movement began to emerge in the North in the nineteenth century, slavery and race relations were a significant force inhibiting the development of that movement in the South. The links between the retarded nature of feminism in the South in the nineteenth -- and I argue in the twentieth century as well -- and the issue of race are just undeniable.

Hackney: That's right. Did the experience of the war itself accelerate or retard the women's movement in the South? Or is that hard to disentangle that from the effects of race, of a biracial society?

Faust: Insofar as white Southern women felt this need to take care of themselves that we talked about earlier, they came out of the war feeling they really couldn't rely on men anymore, they needed to take care of themselves. Even though they had a sense that their own powers and abilities might be limited, they still felt this need to protect themselves and not to give up everything to the power and domination of men. They felt much more determined to defend their own interests. One thing that you see right after the war is the passage in a number of Southern states of women's property acts that enabled them to hold their property independent of their husbands, not to see it disappear into a kind of marital union where the husband really had control and ownership. That represents a definite effort to say they had interests apart from those of their men that they needed to protect. Legislative initiative is one acknowledgment of what we might call a movement for women's rights in the South. Then their participation in the suffrage movement, however racist it was, is also a gesture toward the notion that there were particular women's interests that needed to be protected in advance. In those ways, women in the South were pushed toward participation in the women's movement, but with this sense not of celebration and opportunity but rather of necessity. They would not have subscribed to the notion of Northern suffragist Susan B. Anthony that failure was impossible. They knew that failure was possible, so they had much more self-doubt about what they could accomplish.

Hackney: Here's a question that's connected but sort of out of left field. Can you compare the experience of Southern women in the Civil War to our notions of Rosie the Riveter in World War II? These are two different wars that brought women into the workforce in new ways yet seem to have led to some different results.

Faust: One contrast I want to make right at the start -- and it is also an important contrast with Northern women during the Civil War -- is that the Civil War took place in the backyards of these white Confederate women, sometimes quite literally in the case of a number of the women in the book who lived in Winchester, Virginia, or in Middleburg, Virginia, or in places in Tennessee where Union troops marched back and forth through their property; figuratively in the case of other women, whose lives were nevertheless profoundly affected by shortages, they were on the battlefront. There's been no other American war, unless we want to count Native American wars or perhaps the American Revolution, where women have had that kind of military presence right in their lives. That's a significant difference.

The death rate is also significantly different between North and South in the Civil War and compared to all American deaths in World War II. In terms of the proportion of population, the death rate in the Civil War for the South is six times that of World War II. So that, in terms of transforming women's lives, by removing their loved ones, it is very significant as well.

But, on the question you asked about Rosie herself and movement into the workforce, recent scholarship on World War II has pointed out that there was a conservative backlash, that women were pushed out of a lot of these jobs and forced back into their homes and that there was an effort to undo many of the advances that had been made by women in World War II. A lot of the explanations given now of the fifties are focusing on that tension as women are forced back into domestic spheres against their will.

Hackney: Right.

Faust: But there, in that very phrase, is one of the differences -- against their will. Most of the scholarship I've seen on women in World War II shows them embracing the changes with much more enthusiasm; they were much more positive about what they were able to accomplish than were white Southern women in the South.

Again, we might come back to the issue of race. Race underlies many of white Southern women's responses and particularly their desire to reinstate racial hierarchy in the postwar period and their alliance with white men. The women had minimalized many of the differences they had felt with their own white men because they recognized that it would take whites together, male and female, to retain racial control in the South. That, of course, is not the same sort of issue in the post-World War II period.

Hackney: That's right. In fact, it began to go the other way after the Civil Rights movement started. Feminism really erupted. One can look at the late forties and fifties, the conservative backlash against women in the workforce, as sort of an interruption or an aberration that occurred. In the sixties, feminism really took off, as if it had been bottled up for a while. Interesting.

Do you come out of your research with a feeling of respect for these women that you studied? Certainly an understanding.

Faust: I guess I've been studying unpleasant people or politically incorrect people for my whole academic career. My feeling is that it's very important to understand how individuals in the past rationalized lives that we might find unthinkable, because we have our own sets of rationalizations that make us blind to injustices in our own society. My daughter, a committed vegetarian, now tells me that in a hundred years none of us will ever believe that we were eating meat, that there are different standards of values that people are able to convince themselves of. By looking at how people did this in the past, we might be able better to understand the way our own rationalizations work and perhaps to even unpack and be critical of some of those rationalizations and maybe even see some foundations for change in our ability to think critically -- an ability we can be aided in developing by looking at the complexity of historical figures.

I also think that history should not simply be celebration of people in the past, even simply celebration of groups who've been neglected in the historical records. It is important to celebrate people but not to do so uncritically. By celebrating people in an uncritical way we only make them removed from ourselves. The fact that we make them so different from ourselves and the fact that we need to understand the complexities of human actors -- these may enable historians to be a little closer to novelists and writers, whose job is to show these complexities in a way that engages readers. Sometimes we lose readers when we don't tell a complicated story that people can identify with, because people are complicated. They're not heroes and heroines. They're combinations of heroism and villainy.

Hackney: That's a wonderful place to stop. In fact, that's just a wonderful statement. Thank you so much.