The Civil War was a horrible war that pitted North against South, brother against brother. It was very destructive to America, but it also brought about many important changes for women. It greatly affected different groups of women in society in numerous ways. There were three groups of women that the Civil War affected the most. They were the Southern African-American women, the Northern working women, and the suffragists. If it had not been for this war, many great achievements for women would not have occurred. Because of this war, women were able to break through yet a few more constraints that society had held against them.
For former slaves, the end of the war meant many things. First and foremost, it meant that they were no longer slaves bound to a master. Instead, they were human beings able to support their own families. Besides leaving the plantations, the first act of freedom that many former slaves did was to legalize their marriages. In slavery, black women and men had been married without the benefit of a prescribed civil or religious ritual. Throughout the last two years of the war and during the first year of Reconstruction, ex-slaves flocked to ministers and judges to legalize their marriages. Couples who had lived as husband and wife for thirty years were eager to make their marital and family ties legal and binding. Officials of the Freedmen's Bureau, a network of agencies established by the US government to monitor the former slaves' transition to freedom, urged the ex-slaves to do this. This was astounding for African-Americans. For the first time they could now become legally married and not have to worry about their families being split apart.
With freedom, black women enjoyed new roles as nurturers of their own families. During slavery, black women worked long hours for their owners and had little or no time to make good homes for their families. For the women who had been slaves, the true benefit of freedom was the opportunity to be homemakers for their own families. Throughout the South, freedwomen devoted all of their extra time to take classes in homemaking, where they learned new ways to sew and cook. This might not seem as revolutionary as winning the vote or being able to get an education, but to the African-American women it was a dream come true. They were finally going to be able to take care of their families like white women did, and this was a cause for joy.
Few freedwomen could afford to be full-time homemakers. Their families needed the money that they could earn. Most black women did the same work that they had done as slaves. This time however, they were paid for the work. One mother said she could die happy because her children would grow up in freedom.
The black women's new status as an emancipated person granted her the right to protect her family from harm as best she could. She extended the idea of family to not only her kin but also her community. "Out of the ashes of slavery and Civil War rose a generation of African-American women who would dedicate themselves to the improvement of their race."
Although the war affected the North much less than the South, Northern women had many problems returning to normal life. Many women had difficulties holding onto wartime jobs, whether with the government or elsewhere. Some women had to work for the first time to support their injured husbands. Others lost their jobs to male veterans. As reported by the New York Herald,
The ladies employed in the Treasury Department are feeling considerable alarm at the prospective introduction of a bill in Congress
to dispense with their services, that room may be made for the large
number of discharged soldiers now seeking place under government patronage. In the main, it would appear that the question will present
itself to Congress in the simple light of choice between the family of
a soldier who has fallen in the service, and the soldier whose life
has escaped the vicissitudes of battle and been spared to coin
his own domestic fortunes in a wider field than is vouchsafed to
the widow and orphans of his less fortunate comrades.
Those who