Archive for September, 2012

The Forgotten Women of the Civil War

September 28th, 2012

By: Elizabeth Robertson

Los Altos High School Class of 2013

2nd Place Prize Winner, Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History 2012 National Civil War Essay Contest.

Elizabeth Robertson

It was an afternoon in November, 2011 and our Advanced Placement US History Class had just finished watching the final segment of Ken Burns’ amazing documentary The Civil War. I leaned back in my chair to think about what we had covered in class during these past couple of weeks: the events leading up to the war, the key battles, the start of post-war reconstruction.  We had seen examples of incredible bravery and sacrifice, and heard many stories about individuals – both leaders and common people.

However, the question that I had asked myself weeks ago had remained unanswered: what were women doing during the Civil War? Not the heroic, “larger than life” individuals like battlefield nurse Clara Barton and Union spy Sarah Emma Edmonds, or the few women who disguised themselves and fought alongside men.  I wanted to know about the millions of other women whose lives were turned upside down by the war.  When the men went off to fight, what did the wives and sisters and daughters left behind do? In our textbook, there was no mention of women’s activities at all.  Our class had briefly talked about women’s roles, but only in terms of those women who had learned nursing skills “on the job”  in army hospitals full of injured and sick soldiers.

In my search for answers, I began with those nurses and I discovered that their story was much larger: over twenty thousand women across Union and Confederate territory worked in hospitals – as nurses, cooks and cleaners!  Next, I went on to learn about the work of hundreds of thousands of other women, who came together in creative and effective ways to provide support to soldiers and their families during the war.   On the Union side, for example, women from ten thousand aid societies worked together collecting and distributing funds and supplies totaling more than $1 billion in today’s dollars for Union troops!  They worked for a branch of the United States Sanitary Commission; however, as the Commission leaders were men, it is less well known that this was a huge program organized and managed by women!  Many of these women, who had transformed themselves “overnight” into nurses and supply managers and business leaders, left emotional accounts of their challenges and experiences in the form of diaries and letters.  They fought rigid military hospital rules and male chauvinism. They knew that taking these new roles would change the way they viewed their world and their future.

My curiosity about this subject took me through many primary sources, including official records, personal accounts, photographs and periodicals of the day.  I went to the archives at Butler Library at Columbia University to read the actual letters of Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, known as the first female physician in the United States and a founder of the Union women’s organization described above.  I saw how the images of women in the magazines of the day like Harper’s Weekly and Godey’s Lady’s Book changed during  the war: antebellum drawings showing women sitting in their “home sphere” with children were replaced by pictures of active women organizing fund-raising fairs and tending to injured soldiers.

This past spring, I wrote about my research on Union women’s contributions for the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History’s annual Civil War Essay Contest. (The Institute provides educational resources for the study of American History, including seminars, traveling exhibits, fellowships, lectures and prizes for scholarship, and has an extensive collection of primary sources.) My essay, “The Union’s ‘Other Army’: The Women of the United States Sanitary Commission” won second place, and our high school is using the prize money to help establish our first History Week in January 2013.

I will soon be visiting American History classes at my high school and our local junior high to talk about women’s roles during the Civil War.  I would like to see schools’ curricula developed to better include and honor the important contributions of women during this period in our history.  As we study the past, it would be wonderful to get to the place where no one ever has to ask, “Where were all the women?” In the meantime, I hope that students – and young women in particular – will be inspired to investigate these types of “gaps” in the historical record.   Almost always, there are amazing facts about women and their accomplishments just waiting to be discovered!

For more information about the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History click here.

View NWHM’s Previous Lectures

September 20th, 2012

To view our previous lectures click the links below:

“MadCap May: Mistress of Myth, Men and Hope:” Dr. Richard Kurin interviewed by Eleanor Clift

“Grand Domestic Revolution”

“What Do Sex and Laundry Have to Do With It? Thinking About Daily Life as a Source of Historical Change”

“New Negro Women and Beyond: Posing Beauty in African American Culture”

“Photographer Dorothea Lange: Life, Politics, and Work”

“Doing Well by Doing Good: American Women’s Long Tradition of Reform”

“Language Makes History: Intersections of Language, Gender and Politics”

“African American Women Refugees in the Civil War”

“Why Latino/a History Matters to U.S. History”

“Women’s Rights, Family Values, and the Polarization of American Politics”

Purchase Tickets for the 2012 de Pizan Gala

September 19th, 2012

Click here to purchase your ticket to the National Women’s History Museum’s 2nd Annual De Pizan Honors Gala on November 14, 2012.

Sen. Collins, Reps. Maloney & Norton introduce bipartisan bill (S.3567) creating Commission to establish a National Women’s History Museum

September 14th, 2012


For immediate release (9-14-12)

Sen. Collins, Reps. Maloney & Norton introduce bipartisan bill creating

Commission to establish a National Women’s History Museum in Washington, DC

- Commission would not use taxpayer funds-

WASHINGTON, DC –Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) and Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) today introduced a bill to create a Federal commission to determine the feasibility of constructing a National Women’s History Museum in Washington, D.C.   Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) is introducing the companion bill in the Senate.

The other cosponsors of the bill in the Senate include the dean of the women senators Senator Barbara  Mikulski (D-MD), and Senators Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), Joe Lieberman (I/D-CT), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Patty Murray (D-WA), Mary Landrieu (D-LA), Daniel Akaka (D-HI), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK).

We are thrilled to have this legislation introduced by such distinguished national leaders as Senator Collins, Representatives Maloney and Norton and ten prominent senators as co-sponsors”  said Joan Wages, President and CEO of the National Women’s History Museum.  “The establishment of a Commission would be a giant step forward to help obtain an all-important site for the National Women’s History Museum on or close to the National Mall – the place where our nation shows what it honors.”

Although Congress authorized various other museums such as the National Museum for African American History and Culture, the National Law Enforcement Museum, and the National Museum of the American Indian, there is still no institution in the capital region dedicated to women’s role in our country’s history.

Over the years, both the Senate and House have passed different versions of a bill to create a National Women’s History Museum, but this is the first bill that would establish a commission.  Since the legislation prior to this time called for land or a building adjacent and not on the Mall, a Commission was not needed.  Wages said the NWHM Board and their advisers felt that this step was needed if they wanted to take the giant step forward to study a site on the Mall.

The National Museum for African American History and Culture, the Holocaust Museum and the National Museum of the American Latino each had commissions recommending their sites – and all but the Holocaust have been granted Mall sites. Unlike previous museum commissions, taxpayers will not fund this project.  The proposed legislation calls for the Commission to fund itself.

A museum dedicated to women’s history would help ensure that future generations understand what we owe to the many generations of American women who have helped build, sustain, and advance our society,” said Senator Collins. “They deserve a building to present the stories of pioneering women like abolitionist Harriet Tubman, founder of the Girl Scouts Juliette Gordon Low, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Maine Senator Margaret Chase Smith, and astronaut Sally Ride.  This can and should be done at no expense to American taxpayers.”

A Commission to establish the National Women’s History Museum would provide a blueprint to finally honor half of our nation’s population,” Rep. Maloney said. “Funded with private donations and not tax dollars, an institution like this would acknowledge and commemorate the deep and lasting impact women have made in American history. We already have museums for flight, postage stamps, law enforcement and many other important people and issues of interest; women are long overdue for this recognition of their contributions to the very fabric of our country.”

Women have never been content simply to be half our population.  They have made remarkable contributions from the dawning days of the nation to today’s space and technological age,” Rep. Norton said.  “Yet, the nation has no central showcase for this essential part of our history.  That showcase for women’s contributions to the nation’s history should be in the nation’s capital.”

Although founded in 1996, the first Museum legislation for a site was not introduced until 2003.  The Museum has reviewed over 40 possible locations and narrowed its search down to 3 sites which it has considered publicly and has lobbied for on Capitol Hill.

“The failure of previous legislation actually proved to be beneficial because each delay subsequently led to the development of a better option,” Wages said. NWHM has previously offered to pay fair market value for federal land and to fund the Museum construction with private monies.

The Board has always opted for a location that will draw the largest possible attendance of visitors.  For example, one museum that is five blocks off the National Mall gets less than 200,000 yearly visitors while museums on the Mall get from one to seven million visitors annually. NWHM wants its exhibits and information to reach the widest possible audience.

“This will be the first museum in any nation’s capital to show the full scope of the history of its women and serve as a guiding light to people everywhere.”  Wages said.

The full text of the House version of the bill is viewable here.

Founded in 1996, the National Women’s History Museum is a nonpartisan, nonprofit educational institution dedicated to preserving, interpreting, and celebrating the diverse historic contributions of women and integrating this rich heritage fully into our nation’s history. NWHM currently disseminates information on women’s history to thousands with close to 2 million hits annually through its Online Museum (   There are over 45,000 links and references to the website from educational institutions such as Harvard, Rutgers and Stanford.  In addition the Museum has over 50,000 Charter Members nationwide and a National Coalition of educational, service, and professional organizations with a reach of over 8.5 million members.  Together with a host of celebrity Ambassadors and supporters, such as Geena Davis, Catherine Hardwicke, Alfre Woodard, the late Nora Ephron and Meryl Streep, the Museum is working to build a world class women’s history museum at the National Mall in Washington, D.C.


Jan Du Plain at

TEL: 202-486-7004

Young, Inspiring College Student to be Featured Among Forbe’s Most Powerful Women in the World

September 13th, 2012

by Christine Baksi

August 28, 2012

English and music double major Noorjahan Akbar ’14 has been featured in Forbes’ annual “Most Powerful Women in the World” issue, which profiles 100 women nominated by leaders in ten categories, including business, entrepreneurship, technology, public policy, sports and media. Akbar was nominated in the science and math category by global social-action executive Holly Gordon of 10×10: Educate Girls, Change the World.  Other honorees in the category include Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer and Intel executive Rosalind Hudnell.

Since coming to Dickinson from Kabul in 2010 to pursue an American education with assistance from the Afghan Girls Financial Assistance Fund (AGFAF), Akbar has made it her mission to help women in her home country achieve gender equality. In April 2011, Akbar co-founded Young Women for Change (YWC), a nonprofit organization of volunteer advocates committed to improving the lives of Afghan women through social and economic participation, political empowerment, advocacy and increased access to education.

Since its founding, YWC has formed a male advocacy group, organized monthly lectures on gender and women’s studies, collected books to build libraries in Kabul and Helmand and held the very first anti-street-harassment march in Afghan history. It soon will be conducting the first large-scale study of sexual harassment in Afghanistan.

Earlier this year, Akbar joined Hillary Clinton, Meryl Streep, Gloria Steinem, Angelina Jolie and other influential women as a speaker at Newsweek’s and The Daily Beast’s third-annual Women in the World Summit in New York. Akbar also was featured in a USA Today article and a Fox News program about the efforts of the AGFAF, which was formed by Dickinson alumnus Leo Motiuk ’66.

To learn more about Akbar and her work with YWC, and to get a first-hand look at the challenges she faces working to improve the lives and rights of Afghan women, watch this ABC News special by foreign correspondent Trevor Bormann.


NWHM Launches Its Fall Lecture Series

September 12th, 2012

To view our previous lectures click the links below:

“Grand Domestic Revolution”

Woman-Made Women: American Designers, Taste and Mid-Century Culture”

“What Do Sex and Laundry Have to Do With It? Thinking About Daily Life as a Source of Historical Change”

“New Negro Women and Beyond: Posing Beauty in African American Culture”

“Photographer Dorothea Lange: Life, Politics, and Work”

“Doing Well by Doing Good: American Women’s Long Tradition of Reform”

“Language Makes History: Intersections of Language, Gender and Politics”

“African American Women Refugees in the Civil War”

“Why Latino/a History Matters to U.S. History”

“Women’s Rights, Family Values, and the Polarization of American Politics”

NWHM Launches its Fall Lecture Series with a talk from Smithsonian’s Dr. Richard Kurin

September 7th, 2012

The National Women’s History Museum continues its “Past, Present and Future of U.S. Women’s History” lecture series at the Woodrow Wilson Center this fall with a lecture on September 19 from Dr. Richard Kurin on his new book “MadCap May: Mistress of Myth, Men and Hope.” Dr. Kurin is the current Under Secretary for History, Art and Culture at the Smithsonian. His book, which will be released on September 4th, explores the life story of the outrageous May Yohe (1866-1938), a popular entertainer of humble American origins who charmed her way to international acclaim despite tragic losses.

Eleanor Clift, contributing editor at Newsweek and The DailyBeast, will interview Dr. Kurin on his book on Sept 19th at the Woodrow Wilson Center, 6th floor Flom Auditorium from 4-5:30pm. The talk will be followed by a reception from 5:30-6pm. The event is free and open to the public.

May Yohe was a popular entertainer from humble American origins who married and then abandoned a wealthy English Lord who owned the fabled Hope diamond–one of the most valuable objects in the world and now exhibited at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. May was a romantic who had numerous lovers and at least three husbands–though the tabloids rumored twelve.  One included the playboy son of the Mayor of New York. May separated from him–twice–and cared for her next husband, a South African war hero and invalid whom she later shot.Crossing paths with Ethel Barrymore, Boris Karloff, Oscar Hammerstein, Teddy Roosevelt, Consuelo Vanderbilt, and the Prince of Wales, May Yohe was a foul-mouthed, sweet-voiced showgirl who drew both the praise and rebuke of Nobel laureate George Bernard Shaw. Nicknamed “Madcap May,” she was a favorite of the press. In later years she faced several maternity claims and a law suit which she won.  She was hospitalized in an insane asylum and escaped. She ran a rubber plantation in Singapore, a hotel in New Hampshire, and a chicken farm in Los Angeles. When all else failed, she washed floors in a Seattle shipyard, and during the Depression held a job as a government clerk. Shortly before her death, she fought, successfully, to regain her lost U.S. citizenship.

Please join us for this fascinating lecture:

Wednesday, September 19, 2012 – Lecture, 4-5:30 p.m. – Flom Auditorium, 6th Floor

Reception, 5:30-6 p.m., Sixth Floor Dining Room

Woodrow Wilson Center, 1300 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, DC 20004

This event is free and open to the public, but RSVPs are requested.

Please respond with acceptances only to

Please allow time to go through building security.

Directions to the Wilson Center are available at:

Coverture — The Word You Probably Don’t Know But Should

September 4th, 2012

By:  Catherine Allgor, Ph.D.

My mother-in-law loves this story.  A few years ago, my husband, Andrew, and I went to apply for a mortgage.  As a candidate for a house mortgage–and this is the part my mother-in-law loves–I characterize myself as “greater” than my husband.  I am older, I have a longer work history, I am more senior in our common profession (we are both professors), I also make more money.  I’ve got a longer credit history than he and have owned more houses.  Finally (though this is a matter of dispute), I am even a teeny bit taller.

Abigail Adams

But the only qualification that mattered in this transaction was my status as “wife.”  When our broker filled out our application, she listed Andrew first, as the “borrower” and me second, as “co-borrower.” (Did I mention that my last name starts with “A” and his with “J”?).  When I pointed this out, our broker, a woman of a certain age with long experience in her profession, sympathized, but stated that if she had made me the primary borrower, the lawyers would “fuss” at her and just revert to the traditional categories.  “Honey,” she told me, a professor of women’s history, “it’s a man’s world.”

Point taken.  What I had just encountered was a vestige of the legal practice of coverture.  This is a term most Americans don’t know but it has been a goal of mine to ensure that all literate, well-educated Americans be as familiar with the idea of coverture as they are with other historical terms such as “liberty,” “democracy,” and “equal rights.”

Coverture is a long-standing legal practice that is part of our colonial heritage.  Though Spanish and French versions of coverture existed in the new world, United States coverture is based in English law.Coverture held that no female person had a legal identity. At birth, a female baby was covered by her father’s identity, and then, when she married, by her husband’s.  The husband and wife became one–and that one was the husband.  As a symbol of this subsuming of identity, women took the last names of their husbands.  They were “feme coverts,” covered women.  Because they did not legally exist, married women could not make contracts or be sued, so they could not own or work in businesses.  Married women owned nothing, not even the clothes on their backs.  They had no rights to their children, so that if a wife divorced or left a husband, she would not see her children again.

Married women had no rights to their bodies.  That meant that not only would a husband have a claim to any wages generated by his wife’s labor or to the fruits of her body (her children), but he also had an absolute right to sexual access.  Within marriage, a wife’s consent was implied, so under the law, all sex-related activity, including rape, was legitimate.  His total mastery of this fellow human being stopped short, but just short, of death.  Of course, a man wasn’t allowed to beat his wife to death, but he could beat her.

Now, the law doesn’t always reflect real life, and in truth, practice ensured that coverture on the ground was not as restrictive as the black-letter law indicated.  Though a woman could own nothing, men who wanted to pass on their wealth through their daughters to grandchildren, devised ways to keep money and property out of the hands of sons-in-law.  The demands of commerce also played their own parts.  Though a woman could not make a contract, plenty of women did business and trade, either on their own, in a legal exception called “feme sole,” or for absent husbands.  Wives often ran businesses alongside their mates, with the local community acting as monitors and enforcers.  Finally, we must assume that though husbands had the right to marital relations at will, that there was a great deal of negotiation around sex.

Coverture was what Abigail Adams was talking about in her famous “Remember the Ladies” letter to John, written in the spring of 1776 as he and the Continental Congress were contemplating what an independent America would look like.  Contrary to popular assumptions, she was not asking John for the vote or for what we would understand to be

Dr. Catherine Allgor

“equal rights.”  Rather, when she advised:  “Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could,” Abigail was talking about the absolute power husbands held in coverture.   Abigail even obliquely referred to the shame of physical abuse when she proposed: “Why then, not put it out of the power of the vicious and the Lawless to use us with cruelty and indignity with impunity (?)”

John’s reply dismissed her plea as a joke–he called it “saucy”–but in later correspondence with other lawmakers, he worried about the issue.  If the American colonists

had a right to rebel against their “virtual representation” in Parliament, why should women be virtually represented by men?  But the issue was too thorny for the men of the time and so, even as they created a shiny new machine of government, with a Constitution and modern systems of law on both the federal and state levels, they allowed the creaky, premodern device of coverture to remain on the books.

So what happened to coverture? The short answer is that it has been eroded bit by bit.  But it has never been fully abolished.  The ghost of coverture has always haunted women’s lives and continues to do so.  Coverture is why women weren’t regularly allowed on juries until the 1960s, and marital rape wasn’t a crime until the 1980s.  Today’s women encounter coverture during real estate transactions, as I did, in tax matters, and in a myriad of other situations around employment and housing.  Encounters with coverture can be serious, but often they are just puzzling annoyances, one more hoop to jump.  Still, the remnants of coverture are holding us back in unsuspected ways.

Only a few historians and attorneys have understood the impact. What to do? Well, it took a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery and may well take such to free women from this vestige of the past.  Educating the public about the meaning and impact of coverture will be a foundational role for the National Women’s History Museum.  And that’s just for starters.

For more information, a great book that gives the history of coverture and American women’s citizenship is: Linda K. Kerber, No Constitutional Right to Be Ladies: Women and the Obligations of Citizenship (New York:  Hill and Wang, 1999).

Dr. Allgor is a Professor of History at the University of California at Riverside and has the distinction of serving as UC Presidential Chair–2009-12