Although men are usually the sung heroes of wars, women have also played important parts throughout the wars of history. Although the number of well-known women for their deeds in war may be far fewer than that of men, each woman involved in shaping history has undoubtedly left her mark on the society we have today. As war disrupted people’s daily lives, women began to take on traditionally male professions, slowly gaining dominance over some fields, such as nursing.
During the American Civil War, the men were out in battle, leaving the women the only ones available to serve as nurses. Thousands of women stepped up to work in the hospitals, tending to countless sick and wounded soldiers. Particular nurses of note are Kate Cumming and Phoebe Pember, who treated hundreds of soldiers in the South, and Mary Livermore and Clara Barton, who successfully advocated for reforms based on their experiences serving as nurses during the Civil War. Their work produced a greatly positive impact on the quality of medical care in the United States, a change that can still be felt today.
The women also played a crucial role in politics during the American Revolution, particularly the strong friends Abigail Adams and Mercy Otis Warren, who were able to influence the political field and sway new policies being made. Abigail Adams was the wife of John Adams, while Mercy Otis Warren was married to James Warren. Adams was a strong believer in women’s rights. She is perhaps most well known for her letter to her husband and the Continental Congress, dated March 1776, which persuaded them to include women in the new statutes and laws or the women would eventually have no choice but to revolt. As a political writer, Warren was known for her poems and plays, repelling the royal authority. The two women were friends of four decades, and frequently communicated over letters, advocating for freedom and change, and discussing topics of politics and philosophy which would eventually see the light of day.
Towards the Civil War, women began to campaign for their own rights, inspired by the anti-slavery rallies. Abby Kelley and Sojourner Truth were the heroines of the women’s rights movement, while meanwhile also advocating for abolition and the Union. Throughout her life, Kelley was part of the Lynn Female Society and the American Anti-Slavery Society, among other groups. She gave her first public speech in 1838 to an audience of mixed genders, a rare act for a woman at the time. Despite protesters, Kelley made her speech about abolitionism – the first of many more public speeches to come.
As a black woman born into slavery, Sojourner Truth crossed boundaries to get to where she came to be, at the frontlines of the fight for abolition and women’s rights. She first escaped from slavery with her infant daughter in 1826, and became the first black woman to win a court case against a white man for the custody of her son. She is known for her famous speech, “Ain’t I a Woman”, delivered at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, which petitioned equality for both women and black people. Despite the challenges faced for advocating for both of these marginalized groups, Truth carried herself with such confidence that several members of the audience were even hesitant to believe she was a woman, sparking off the name of her speech.
In the South, Rose O’Neal Greenhow was one of many female spies who moved around important political circles and influenced many high-ranking military officers. Her companions included John C. Calhoun and James Buchanan. Using her connections, she passed along key military information to the Confederacy at the start of the American Civil War. She was given control of a pro-Southern spy network in Washington, D.C. in 1861, which she used to ensure the victory of the South at the First Battle of Bull Run in July 1861.
Another influential woman during the Civil War was Mary Chesnut, who penned numerous journals about the war, described as a “vivid picture of a society in the throes of its life-and-death struggle”. Her diaries contained her views of the war from the Southern upper-class circles she was in, but also detailed the perspectives of the war from other classes of people. The manuscripts were discovered in the 20th century and collated into a book. Although the book was only published posthumously, 19 years after her passing, her writing became known as the most important work by a Confederate author. Mary Chesnut’s Civil War, an annotated version of her diary published in 1981 by the historian C. Vann Woodward, won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1982. Even today, Chesnut’s work continues to be published and read worldwide, providing valuable insights into life during the Civil War.
Contrary to popular belief, not all women involved in wars were in the non-combat roles. In fact, many more women than we know of went out to fight in the frontlines, often disguising themselves as men so that they would be able to battle for the cause they believed in. One such woman was Harriet Tubman. Like Sojourner Truth, she was a black woman born as a slave, but managed to escape and made 13 missions to return and liberate 70 other slaves, including her family and friends. She was called “Moses”, after the Biblical character who liberated an entire nation of slaves, and Tubman was known to have “never lost a passenger”. Her work did not end after freeing the slaves. She guided them into British North America (Canada today), and helped the newly freed people find jobs. In the Civil War, Tubman served the Union Army first as a cook and a nurse, but eventually went on to become an armed scout and spy. She was the first woman to lead an armed expedition in the war, guiding a raid that liberated more than 700 slaves. Tubman is recognized today as an icon of courage and freedom.
Even during peacetime, women have continued to serve valiantly in the army despite longstanding sexism and harassment by men. The military roles of women were also heavily restricted up till 2013 – only two percent of any military branch could be comprised of women, those who became pregnant could be involuntarily discharged, and there was a limit on the number of women who could become officers. Moreover, women were unable to ever serve in combat or command men. Women training alongside men in the army were often ridiculed and said to have traded sexual favors for rising up in ranks, while other men were simply opposed to fighting alongside women. In 2013, women were granted full status in the military when they were finally allowed to serve in direct ground combat roles. One of the first women to join the United States Army’s infantry commented, “Why be behind when you could be in front?”
In summary, while most people may remember the past wars of America to be a conflict between men, the women knew it also fell to them to play their part. We could possibly say that the real unsung heroes of the wars of America were the women, who valiantly stood their ground regardless of their roles and aided in advocating equal rights for all.