Hello H-CivWar Readers:
Today we continue our conversation with Lauren N. Haumesser to talk about her new book, The Democratic Collapse: How Gender Politics Broke a Party and a Nation, 1856-1861, published by University of North Carolina Press in November 2022.
If we turn to the South, we see a slightly different situation as southerners were concerned about defending white womanhood, what were the limits and realities of that defense?
LNH: White southern men trotted out white womanhood at various points throughout the late 1850s. After John Brown’s raid, they used it to make arguments about the dangers of slave rebellion to southern women and homes. Since John Brown’s raid took place close on the heels of Republican midterm victories, Democrats warned that Republicans, by proxy, also represented a threat to white womanhood. During the secession crisis, these men constructed a southern national identity with white southern womanhood as its symbol.
I think it’s equally important to note that white southern women were not merely symbols–they were aware of their symbolism and used it to their own advantage. They expressed some pretty bloodthirsty sentiments after John Brown’s raid, they discouraged compromise at the Democrats’ 1860 convention in Charleston, and they wrote letters and sewed flags to encourage secession. In this book, they feature more as supporting actors, but I’m really interested in doing a second book project where I draw them out and place them in a long history of conservative women’s activism in America.
To shift gears a little, it seems we are also looking here at a struggle between moving progressively forward and fearing a future where women and slaves have greater freedom. Sort of a struggle over stability or change. How much was this a realistic fear and not just one imagined because of masculine insecurities?
LNH: For the most part, but for the Civil War, none of these fears would have been realistic–at least not in these people’s lifetimes. Northern and southern society were both incredibly conservative. Even the Republican Party, which was more progressive than the Democratic Party, really wasn’t pushing for freedom. The party was antislavery, not abolitionist. And Republican literature idealized separate spheres, not women’s liberation. The fact that southerners came to believe that Republicans supported abolitionism and women’s rights speaks to how effective Democrats’ gendered political tactics were.
Related to this gender question, you also showcase that men viewed themselves as the defenders of white womanhood–how did that translate into their perception of government?
LNH: As I mentioned before, Democrats saw themselves as protectors, providers, and patriarchs. In the election of 1856, northern and southern Democrats united around that vision to defeat Republican John C. Frémont. But between 1856 and 1860, events exposed the profound conflict between how northern and southern Democrats wanted to use the government. Southern Democrats believed that men must defend the sexual purity of white women against the imagined threat of assault at the hands of enslaved men. To this end, they demanded ever more protections for slavery–and total support from northern Democrats in enacting them. Northern Democrats, meanwhile, worried more about protecting white women from women’s rights and free love–fringe movements that were nonetheless more popular in the North than the South.
When the war started, men went off to fight and women stayed at home and had to manage plantations and farms, some even worked. Does not that turn the entire gender argument from the Antebellum on its head?
LNH: It would seem to, wouldn’t it? But I think what the situation shows is how malleable gender can be as a political tactic. Southern Democrats had long welcomed women’s support. When southern delegates walked out of the 1860 Democratic National Convention in protest, having failed to secure a pro-slavery platform, white women supported them by placing roses on the empty seats. When white men were marching off to war, white women attended military drills, sewed uniforms, and fashioned patriotic flags. In every case, the partisan press reported approvingly on women’s support. I think this shows that it was never about women being out of public life per se– it was about men retaining control over how women participated.
You mentioned that you are working on a Law Degree, what are your future plans, especially with regard to the Civil War era.
LNH: Conservative women appear as actors throughout my book, but I’m really interested in writing something that centers them in the analysis. Three big questions seem to be important here: Why have conservative women supported the denial of women’s rights? How has their understanding of women’s roles undergirded their support for other conservative causes, especially those that disadvantage women of color? And what tactical means have conservative women used to defend–or even roll back–the status quo? I’m only in my first year of law school, but I’m already seeing some potential that this could be in part a legal history of conservative women’s activism. Stay tuned!