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The Mother of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War, by Drew Gilpin Faust provides a comprehensive and rich picture of the role that elite women played during the time of the Civil War. Women were compelled to re-examine their position in the societal set-up during the onset of the conflict that changed the race relations and questioned conventional hierarchy in the South (Faust, 1996). Faust asserts that because of the experience that the white women gathered during the civil war, they aimed at formulating new foundations to enhance their self-worth and self-definition (p. 7). Women were disappointed by their men, who had ultimately failed to protect them and were extremely sensitive of their own confines associated with the independence women, the women came out of the Civil War with what Faust refers to as “a conflicted legacy”. By the end of the Civil War, the elite women had hopes of never being helpless for another time; however, they acknowledged the need of patriarchy to safeguard their social status and gender roles as women (Faust, 1996). There was no gender solidarity because the white women embarked on supporting their men and reestablishing a social hierarchy that guaranteed them a privileged position in the society. Mothers of Invention offers a neat analysis regarding how the Civil War undermined and maintained the conventional patriarchal attitudes of the white women.
Faust used diaries, letters and memoirs collected from five hundred women from the South. In addition, Faust made use of numerous newspapers, government papers, novels, songs and records obtained from female organizations to reconstruct the altering sense of the self that the white elite women faced in the wake of the Civil War that was being battled on their own soil. The mayhem imposed by the Civil War compelled the elite women from the South to turn into “Mothers of Invention” on numerous aspects. During the beginning of the Civil war, women shifted their sphere from being private to public; they were motivated by “feelings of usefulness”, as a result, women organized themselves to advocate for a patriotic cause. Faust acknowledges the limitations that antebellum women faced in their efforts to participate in the public sphere. Faust considers the Civil War as a contributing factor towards the increase in the number of female voluntary organizations. The voluntary organizations engaged in activities such as government petitioning, engaging in patriotic causes and raising funds; the female voluntary organizations resulted in an increased number of women involved in public affairs. Furthermore, the women had a different attitude regarding the fruits of their efforts. For instance, women influenced public policy through insisting that their contributions be used in the buying and reconstruction of gunboats for protection of homes, cities and towns.
Whereas women were extremely creative in the reforming households without accustomed goods, the most noteworthy change in the lives of women was due to the predisposition of slave management, which functioned basing on the concept of mastery. The delegation of the responsibility of slave management to women played an integral role in questioning the concept of women being perceived as subservient, inactive and subordinates. Furthermore, lack of the ability to master their slaves due to the ongoing war helped in undermining the women’s support for slavery and the cause of the Confederate (Faust, 1996). Faust asserts that the women were frustrated with their failure to manage the slaves effectively, which led to their conclusion that the slave system caused more inconveniences than payback (p. 73). Faust demonstrates the tension that existed between maintaining the conventional gender roles and the increase in women’s self-awareness using the incident of Lizzie Neblett, who was more than willing to relent the slave system altogether.
Faust analyzes Benjamin Butler’s General Order No. 28 in New Orleans to portray the women in the South, which states that it drove into the hearts of ambiguities in identities of the women of the South. In order to prevent women offensive behavior directed at union soldiers and ensure that there is order in the city; Butler stated publicly his intention to administer the same treatment to insulting women and prostitutes. Butler acknowledged the public influence of women and ensured that he had control over them by referring to them as “ladies”. Women were submissive to this reference, and Faust Concludes that the elite women shifted their roles from that of empowerment towards the conventional protective shelter. The struggles by the elite women in order to survive the ongoing Civil War in the South compelled them to undertake different roles, new habits and altered attitudes. The women created the perception of self, which Faust says that drew upon individual rights and identity, and self-interest (p. 241). The women insisted in their men giving up the war and returning home, on grounds that they too had rights and interests and not mere duties and obligations. At the end of the Civil War, women accepted patriarchy, although they had little confidence in their men, the society and the state.
In conclusion, Mothers of Invention is a vital book that can be used to understand the meanings of the Civil War to the women in the South. The Civil War was an opportunity that women used to question the issue of patriarchy and their position in the society. The book needed further investigations to ascertain whether the Civil War imposed significant and enduring changes for Southern women. The book is a vital reading for those interested in studying Civil War history and lives of elite women in the South.