- Stepdaughters of History: Southern Women and the American Civil War by Catherine Clinton
Catherine Clinton has a talent for finding the complexities of a popular subject but conveying them in an elegant manner accessible to lay readers [End Page 331] and satisfying to academic audiences. With subjects ranging from the plantation mistress to Mary Lincoln, and from Fanny Kemble to Harriet Tubman, Clinton's works examine the multifaceted range of women's lives in the bizarre, perverse, yet entirely American South of the nineteenth century. Her latest volume, Stepdaughters of History: Southern Women and the American Civil War, is no different. The product of the Walter Lynwood Fleming Lectures in Southern History, this work might be taken only as a thoughtful synthesis and review of current scholarship on southern women in the Civil War. Yet Clinton always has more dimensions. Undergirding this survey lies a struggle between the past and the present.
The first two sections of Stepdaughters of History address Confederate women, white and of the yeoman or planter classes, who identified with their states in a moment of crisis. At their center lay the educated, elite "band of sisters" who, like their foremothers in the American Revolution, articulated an ideal of female citizenship. Unlike their northern counterparts, however, they had not found ways to expand "woman's sphere" into organizations that they could then mobilize in service to a nation at war either with vice and sin or with rebelling factions. Like the rest of the South in terms of mobilization, Confederate women had to advance through leaps rather than increments. Whereas northern women ended up on the winning side and could use their service to argue for recognition, Confederate women found themselves faithful to a failed state with no claim to any political identity. Even during the war, their ideal of dependent womanhood left them with few tools to understand the loss and destruction around them except as sacrifice. In the end, they seemed not so much to claim citizenship as to ensure that their own suffering had not been in vain by creating some of the most enduring, if romanticized, inaccurate, and harmful images of the antebellum South and the war it wrought.
Because sacrifice cut across class lines, the feminine citizenship of the Confederate ladies could encompass yeoman women so long as they resembled their alleged betters in maintaining a standard of femininity based on what northern publications called "true womanhood." Although they did vital work for the Confederacy, female spies, actresses, women who donned male garb to farm or fight, and, as in the case of Loreta Janeta Velazquez, women who defied racial categorization were regarded as "impermissible patriots." These women are the focus of the second section of Stepsisters of History. The nature of their gender transgressions transcended the boundaries of the war, pushing them to the margins as the war ended, and casting them out of the narrative constructed by the exclusive band of sisters discussed in the book's opening section. [End Page 332]
Throughout the two sections, Clinton evokes sympathy and admiration for the suffering and resilience of the Confederate women. Whatever modern audiences think of their choices in hindsight, they were flesh-and-blood women who made decisions within a context, and understanding them is a necessary part of comprehending the foundation of current American divisions. Still, up to this point, black women seem conspicuously absent given that the Confederate women's claim to a political identity rested ultimately on the exploitation of black bodies; but, of course, the motion of Clinton's argument pulls the reader from the center to the margin. If the Confederate "sisterhood" defined the center of womanhood, they pushed African American women to the very margins and then hid them behind a caricature. So much so, in fact, that Clinton begins the final section, "Mammy by Any Other Name," with an extended contemplation of the titular stereotype and its endurance.
Although Clinton's approach is initially perplexing, her method in this concluding section gradually...