During the times of the American Civil War, there was a “Sphere of Domesticity” that most American women lived under. The Sphere represented the traditional way of domestic life for women, such as performing daily chores such as caring for children, cleaning, clothes making, and/or cooking. But in similar fashion to the new, revolutionary ideas of the mid-19th century, the idea of acting outside the Sphere became popular among most American women. The women that chose to act outside the Sphere of Domesticity sought to perform activities such as voting, paid work, public speaking, political involvement, and fighting in the war. However, the men that backed the old, traditional ways inhibited most women from acting outside the Sphere of Domesticity. These men included Union General Benjamin Butler, who created “The Woman Order”. The Order gave the Union soldiers occupying New Orleans the right to treat the local women anyway they wished. This was mainly because the Southern women protested and reacted violently to their Northern occupiers, so the Order stated that these women should not be treated with respect as ladies due to their actions.
However, women had a larger part in the Civil War than just simple protestors. Some women, such as Louisa May Alcott, worked as nurses on the battlefields and acted outside the Sphere of Domesticity. Alcott worked as a nurse at a hospital in D.C., making observations to the mismanagement of hospitals. She assisted many wounded soldiers and eventually became an author. Other women started soldier aid stations and sent supplies. Inventor Martha Coston finished her late husband’s design of communication flares for the United States navy, allowing ships to communicate across the sea with tricolored flares. Southern women Rose O’Neal Greenhow and Belle Boyd both became Confederate spies who gathered information on the Union Army. These women were considered heroines for their stolen information that led to several Confederate victories.
One of the most important women who acted outside the Sphere of Domesticity was Harriet Jacobs (above), an escaped slave that spread the public opinion on how terrible slavery was. She wrote a great deal about the inhumane treatment of slaves and she even wrote for the abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator. Jacobs recorded and documented the donations given to refugee slaves, all the while caring for these refugees and drawing more donations. Jacobs went on to create a school and a hospital, acting outside of her original occupation of a slave, and well outside the Sphere of Domesticity that attempted to prevent women from achieving the great accomplishments so many others have made. (Picture of Harriet Jacobs found at http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/65/Harriet_Ann_Jacobs1894.png)