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.