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Feminism in Civil War South Power


Feminism in the Civil War South dates from anti-slavery movement which demanded abolition of slavery in the early 20th Century. As an organized force, feminism agitated the rights of each person of self ownership as a moral jurisdiction. There were remarkable women who played prominent roles towards this course in the American history. They were inspired to work religiously for oppressed slaves. One such remarkable woman was Elizabeth Van Lew, who provides a deep insight into the cultural motivation of the American Civil War. Unionists agitated for abolition of slavery and this blended well with Elizabeth Van Lew’s empathetic nature that made her side with the Unionists. This paper discusses feminism in the Civil War South filtered through the life of Elizabeth Van Lew.

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Elizabeth Van Lew was a remarkable feminist crusader in American history. She came from a traditional family that owned slaves, but her empathetic nature drove her confront slavery issue and cooperate with the Unionists. Her stand was controversial given her family background as slave owners. She vehemently crusaded against racism and worked efficiently as a Union agent in the Confederate South (Varon, p.9). Her family did not denounce slavery and the company of slave owners but rather played a tenuous middle ground position between abolitionism and proslavery creed. The family lamented the evils of slavery yet continued to hold blacks in bondage hoping that the vice would gradually erode from the South. The white South refused to reform this policy (Varon 63).

This fact was affirmed on august 30, 1861 when Confederate Congress intensified its campaign against the Unionists. They passed a Sequestration Act that allowed confiscation and sequestration of property belonging to alien enemies. The act applied to both women and men. The legislation acted as a form of intimidation. Elizabeth refused to pay attention to press warnings, instead, skillfully kept her detractors off-balance (Varon 63). This is portrayed when she visits Confederate soldiers in hospitals and ministers to them to fake solidarity. As she made such gestures she escalated her own efforts on behalf of the Union prisoners in 1861. Elizabeth’s played a significant role in halting slavery and secession posturing to redeem the South (Varon 63).

During the rising tension between the South and the North, Elizabeth sided with the North because of her humane policies of ending slavery and racism. When the Civil War commenced, she bravely assisted in advancing the cause of the Unionists in her own home. For instance, she assisted by hiding soldiers who escaped from confederate prisons, collaborated with Union sympathizers, and held clandestine meetings with spies from the Unionist army. Elizabeth sacrificed much of her family wealth on behalf of the federal soldiers and civilians. This was detrimental to the family reputation in the eyes of the Richmond town neighborhood. During the Civil War, this remarkable woman wished to deliver Virginia from repressions of slavery, secession, and unnecessary war. Her efforts and prayers were achieved, when Virginia was taken over by the Union army in 1865.

As a spymaster for the Unionists, Elizabeth had trusted insiders in confederate prisons who furnished her and the prisoners with strategic information. She also had a trusted unionist, a clerk in the Adjutant-General’s office at Richmond. This man was privy to returns indicating the strengths of rebelling confederate regiments, brigades, divisions, and corps, their mobility and where they were stationed (Varon 93). In essence, Elizabeth got briefings directly from the confederacy bureaucracy itself. The fugitives were not only a source of intelligence for the Union, but also served as a propaganda tool against the confederacy over barbarism against to captives. However, the confederate authorities were firm on acts of espionage. For instance, they took action and punished dissenting women in 1861. In the same year, they detained the first union woman, Mrs. Curtis suspected of espionage in Richmond. She was later incarcerated, released and sent home where she narrated her account to New York newspapers. She was described as “a strong minded female” and “advocate of woman’s rights” who did not qualify civil treatment (Varon 63).

After the Civil War, Elizabeth continued her political activism; she was appointed postmaster of Richmond in 1869 by President Ulysses Grant, where she embarked on a controversial and pioneering career as a female politician and representative of the Republican Party. This remarkable woman worked extra ordinarily for eight years, until 1877 when she was stripped the position of postmaster. She had converted her library in the mansion into an office to continue with her work of fighting for respective rights. In her private office, she had written letters to the Northern press the treatment of African Americans by whites in Richmond; she collaborated with Susan Anthony and Ana Dickinson, advocates for women rights. She also wrote about her horror at the political attacks directed at her by opponents from both fellow Republicans, envious of her coveted position, and the Democrats who were against her racial egalitarianism. When her political career came to an end, Elizabeth’s fellow.

Before the Civil War, Elizabeth had hoped that Virginia could find her own remedies to the problem of slavery without interference from radical operatives from the North or extremists from the South. She only sided with the Lincoln administration when she saw the moderate leaders in Virginia being marginalized by the quick ascendance of the secession movement in the spring of 1861. She adopted the cause of emancipation during the Civil War just like Ulysses and Lincoln (Varon, 18). She looked upon African Americans as vital partners in fight to restore the Union. She also worked well with the Union leaders. For instance: when Grant Ulysses was general in chief of the federal forces, he engaged her services as a spy during campaign in Virginia; when he became President, he appointed her to the coveted office of postmaster of Richmond (Varon 63).

Feminism in the Civil War South is also enticed prominently in Elizabeth’s participation in the politics of reconstruction that was divisive. At the end of the War, she joined Andrew and Sumner, Massachusetts politicians in the fight to advance the cause of black civil rights. Her political battles transformed her to a radical, a tendency that kindled her admiration of Sumner; an idealist with uncompromising principles with a vision of having a world without racial discrimination (Varon 5).


In sum, Elizabeth Van Lew and other women played a momentous part in the American history. The direct daring efforts in the struggle against oppression and injustices met against humanity help restore liberty that laid the foundation of Great American nation. Elizabeth Van Lew was a resilient woman who took controversial stands. She vehemently tried to free her family slaves and daringly got involved in Civil war activities. She also pioneered women participation in American politics at the end of Civil War.

Works Cited

Varon, E. Southern Lady, Yankee Spy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.


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