On Women in Civil War Pop Culture

Before shifting away from historical fiction for a few weeks, I want to make a few observations about women in Civil War pop culture. After reviewing Point of Honor and Cold Mountain (heck, even after The Beverly Hillbillies), it occurred to me that stories about the Civil War much more prominently feature female characters than fiction about other American wars. Sure, the Civil War has more than its share of guys-only stories (I don’t think there’s a single woman in Gettysburg, for instance) but it seems to me women are central to the way the Civil War is popularly represented and perceived. Indeed, the most popular and significant fictional treatment of the war, Gone With the Wind, has a strong female protagonist.

Is there a single World War 2, Vietnam, or other American war film with an equally prominent female lead? I’m guessing there is, but I can’t come up with one right now (Zero Dark Thirty is the most recent such film, but only if you consider a “War On Terror” film a war film). I can’t even think of a World War 2 film that passes the Bechdel Test, let alone focuses as directly on female characters as Gone With the Wind, Raintree County, Cold Mountain, or even The Littlest Rebel. Point of Honor is nothing if not a collection of Civil War fiction cliches, and it’s remarkable that making women one of its main focal points is considered a cliche at all, given Hollywood’s longstanding tradition of marginalizing female characters, especially in historical pieces.

I don’t have a ready explanation for this but it does raise some interesting questions. Could the prominence of women in Civil War fiction be a result of the Lost Cause? After its inception, The United Daughters of the Confederacy went to great lengths to promote an image of the loyal and fierce women of the Confederate home-front. Did that image work its way into fiction about the period in the twentieth century? It surely informed Margaret Mitchell’s depiction of Confederate women in Gone With the Wind. Did that film merely cement the already-present image of Confederate women in Civil War fiction or was it ground zero itself, and everyone has just been working from Mitchell’s template. The suffering but fierce woman on the Confederate home-front appears in the works already mentioned as well as Ride with the Devil, Pharaoh’s Army, and elsewhere. This could suggest the UDC or Gone With the Wind‘s influence but it could also reflect the nature of a civil war as opposed to a foreign war. American World War 2 films perhaps necessarily focus on men because those men are overseas and the US home-front doesn’t play a prominent role. As most Civil War films are set near or on the front-lines, they are necessarily located in the South, where the home-front and battle-front collided.

All of these are possibilities and I’m really not swayed by one more than the other. It’s also worth noting that this is a purely white phenomenon. Black women remain minor figures in most Civil War fiction and, over 75 years later, Hattie McDaniel’s Mammy remains the most prominent fictional Civil War female black character. Northern women also remain under-represented, but they do at least have several versions of Little Women to hang their hats on. As I move forward, I’ll keep an eye on how popular culture depicts Civil War women and maybe determine why (or if) they have a much larger role in this particular storytelling tradition.

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7 comments

  1. satchel29 · February 13, 2015

    Nice post. I think the prevalence of female characters in Civil War films may be no more complicated than the fact that the war in question had such a deep impact on the regular citizenry. World War 2, Vietnam and other American wars were all essentially “foreign” wars. The battles occurred overseas. The Civil War is, in some respects, unique because it took place on home soil (I know the Revolutionary War and War of 1812 were also domestic, but their scope was far more limited than the Civil War). There was a much greater and widespread degree of suffering leveled at the American populace. World War 2 movies involving European and/or Asian countries, where the majority of the actual fighting and suffering took place, have a larger female presence. The Sound of Music, Enemy at the Gate and The Flowers of War are a few examples of WW2 movies with strong female leads/characters that take place in the Old World.

    • Christian McWhirter · February 13, 2015

      It may be that there are actually two questions here. The first is the one I asked in the post, are women more prevalent in Civil War historical fiction? Based on the comments, the answer might be no or at least not as much as I thought. A second question might be, are those women portrayed differently than in other fiction? I think the answer here is yes and that may be where the influence of the UDC and Gone With the Wind comes through.

  2. Sonya Letkeman · February 3, 2015

    Christian,

    I enjoyed checking out your blog, and thought (as a History teacher and ardent feminist) that I’d offer my ideas regarding the prevalence of women in civil war films that you’ve noted to be unique. It seems to me that, since the theme of wealth/luxury is ever-present in civil war films (southern mansions, the exceeding wealth free labour provides, and finely dressed men in their white suits), that women must be included in that. Women are the quintessential accessory and representation of wealth, and the expensively, extensively dressed southern belles simply complete that image. No mansion would be complete without its lady of the house. Women in high fashion, at leisure, strolling around a plantation mansion are simply the personification of the lifestyle and wealth of the era that was valued so dearly by its profiteers. Women are often decoration in media (expensive cars get beautiful women on them, and wealthy cultures get represented with women at leisure). Aside from that, I think you’re also bang-on when you acknowledge that women are more often included because in the case of the civil war, the home front and the battle front are one and the same.

    • Christian McWhirter · February 3, 2015

      Hi Sonya,
      Thanks for the comment. You make some great points here but I’d argue that there’s more going on in some of these cases than using women as mere “decoration.” The women in some of these movies aren’t just there for aesthetic reasons (although that’s surely a factor), they’re the actual protagonists and the action centers around their narratives. If the focus was just on the southern aristocracy and women were just another accessory, then Gone With the Wind would be about Ashley or Rhett, not Scarlett. The focus on wealth and luxury surely plays a role, as Hollywood has long been fascinated by plantation life, but there’s an effort to explore these women’s lives that goes beyond treating them as just another possession.

  3. Glenn B · January 31, 2015

    Yes, it is less of a requirement, especially in movies made after the WWII era, so your point does still remain.

  4. Glenn B · January 31, 2015

    Christian, there are many WWII movies that feature strong lead female characters (and some in which they are the central protagonist), but mainly those made during the war itself when it was important to make the homefront understand the sacrifices that all must make for the effort. Greer Garson’s Mrs. Miniver’s is the best example (and is perhaps one of the best WWII movies of all time), but there are many others, including Lana Turner’s Keep Your Powder Dry, Somewhere I’ll Find You, and Homecoming, Claudette Colbert’s Since You Went Away (also starring a teenaged Shirley Temple) and even Colbert’s very entertaining comedy The More the Merrier (a film that she took the lead on getting written specifically for her). I would even argue that 1946’s The Best Years of Our Lives (which I would put on my top ten list of best movies of all time list), which focuses on returning vets, is a film driven by female protagonists almost as equally as men (oh that Myrna Loy!) though it may not pass the Bechdel Test. But it isn’t just a product of the propaganda needs of the homefront; Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s was much more willing to give women very strong lead roles in feature films than seems to be true today (now, the best roles for women seem to be on TV), and there were several women like Davis, Colbert, and Hepburn that wielded considerable power behind the scenes in Hollywood. Outside of the war years, however, there are a handful of movies about women on the homefront, Goldie Hawn’s Swing Shift comes to mind, as does the present Canadian tv series Bomb Girls.

    None of this detracts from your point about Civil War films though, and I do think it is a product of the Lost Cause, in that, as you point out, so many producers have used Gone With the Wind as a template.

    (By the way, there is a female speaking part in Gettysburg at the very beginning of the movie. A young girl watches Union troops march into Pennsylvania and flirtily to says to them “I thought the war is in Virginia!”)

    • Christian McWhirter · January 31, 2015

      Glenn, I figured you’d fill some of the gaps in my Old Hollywood film knowledge. Thanks.

      That’s a great point about contemporary WW2 home-front films requiring female protagonists. I think you’re right about female leads being more acceptable then too. I’d still argue, though, that it seems less of a requirement to feature strong women in WW2 movies than it is in most Civil War films. I may find I’m wrong about at least the Civil War half of that equation as this blog moves along, but we’ll see.

      And good call on the snarky girl in Gettysburg. Forgot all about her.

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