Elizabeth Leonard’s description of the pioneering efforts of three northern women to break into the world of public service during the Civil War grew out of her doctoral thesis, a fact attested to by some 81 pages of endnotes. This history, so potentially intriguing, suffers from a dissertation quality of promoting a theory and then repeating it and exemplifying it to the point of tedium. This is truly too bad, because the thesis itself—that women’s public service, enforced by the exigencies of national crisis, placed unbearable stress upon the gender structure prevailing in antebellum America, that the structure partially collapsed under such stress, but that it was restored in postwar America by the concerted efforts of historians and the male-dominated professions—is crucially important to a fuller understanding of how gender roles are formed and maintained.
The three subjects of this work are Sophronia Bucklin, a nurse; Annie Wittenmyer, a charitable provisioner; and Mary Walker, a doctor. All three are shown to have been rebuffed by the male establishment in their attempts to operate outside of the domestic framework, then thought appropriate to “feminine nature.” Yet Leonard shows them overcoming these barriers, at least partially. Bucklin’s success is attributed to her insistence on professionalism, including wages for work. Wittenmyer’s is the story of her increasing savvy in the political arena; only by adopting the “male” strategy of using power could she triumph. Walker, however, is presented as a defeated heroine, never receiving the respect (or commission) her talents, courage, and devotion merited because of her flouting of too many gender conventions (she adopted male attire, worked in a male profession) too quickly, too robustly.
The stories of these women are gripping; less impressive is a final chapter which purports to show how history conspired to ignore or mutate their achievements in order to return woman to her “proper” sphere. Leonard shows only two postwar books enlisted in this conspiracy, however, and two hardly makes a convincing pattern. One does not doubt the truth of Leonard’s conjectures on this score, but one does not see it in this book either.
YANKEE WOMEN attempts to discover the intersection of history with women’s self-realization— surely a worthy topic. As “her-story” the book has undoubted merit; unfortunately where contemporary gender politics (ours, not the nineteenth century’s) intersects with that story, genuine drama yields to rhetorical prolixity.