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Civil War History 52.4 (2006) 435-437

Reviewed by
Jennifer Davis McDaid
The Library of Virginia
Women's Radical Reconstruction: The Freedmen's Aid Movement. By Carol Faulkner. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003. Pp. 208. Cloth, $39.95.)

This relatively brief book deftly illustrates the pivotal role of women in the Reconstruction South. Women were much more than school teachers and fundraisers—they worked as agents for the Freedmen's Bureau, bought land to sell and rent to freed people, lobbied the federal government, founded freedmen's relief societies, and started both traditional and industrial schools. Long before [End Page 435] they won the vote, women were activists in the public sphere, agitating for justice and equality for former slaves. Their role, however important, was not an easy one—organizations attempted to marginalize their participation (with varying success), and some Freedmen's Bureau officials viewed them as troublemakers. Carol Faulkner tells the stories of these reformers while making a compelling argument for gender solidarity across the racial divide.

The successes and failures of these women are largely absent from most histories of the freedmen's aid movement, where the Yankee schoolmarm represented Northern women's activism and the freedmen's aid movement was (seemingly) a male preserve led by abolitionists, missionaries, and military officers. Faulkner argues that a "great silent army" of women, both black and white, kept the movement from floundering (2). Their efforts are documented in the records of aid societies and the Freedmen's Bureau, in abolitionist and suffrage newspapers, in published pamphlets, and in personal accounts. In Women's Radical Reconstruction, Faulkner thoughtfully revises the history of the freedmen's aid movement and illuminates the intersection between Reconstruction and women's reform.

Women active in the freedmen's aid movement argued that the participation of women in the war effort had earned them the right to participate in the reconstruction of the nation, both as administrators and as voters. These abolitionist-feminists pressed for universal suffrage, land confiscation and redistribution, and an activist federal government. The private benevolence of Northerners and the public protection of the Freedmen's Bureau, they maintained, would help repay the debt the nation owed to former slaves. Such assistance would enable freed people to become self-supporting citizens, while sustaining those—such as widows and the elderly—who could not survive without some aid. Republican politicians and Freedmen's Bureau agents, however, embraced a very different view of Reconstruction in which economic independence could be gained only through the revival of the Southern economy and the creation of a free class of African American laborers. This free labor plan predominated, but did not go unchallenged.

Male and female reformers active in the freedmen's aid movement disagreed over organization and policies. While abolitionist women believed they had an important contribution to make to Reconstruction, they were excluded from the leadership of some organizations and singled out for criticism. Despite this, the movement proved an important stage in the dynamic development of women's postwar political culture. Their critics, Faulkner persuasively argues, were undoubtedly aware of (and threatened by) the powerful connections between freedmen's aid and women's rights. [End Page 436]

No matter how benevolent and sympathetic, these white middle-class Northerners were sometimes prejudiced and paternalistic. They frequently portrayed freed people as supplicants, criticized their housekeeping skills and dress, and emphasized the importance of wage labor when freedwomen desperately wanted autonomy from whites. Although race and class limited their definition of women's rights, white women remained tireless advocates for their newly-freed sisters, criticizing the inadequacies of Reconstruction and expressing compassion for the poverty and exploitation of former slaves, when few others did. After Reconstruction, these women continued their activism in charities, benevolent associations, women's clubs, temperance, suffrage, and educational reform.

The book includes six illustrations, including a striking 1862 photograph, used on the cover, of a group of freed people in Cumberland Landing, Virginia. Detailed endnotes reflect dedicated digging in letters, memoirs, newspapers, and the records...