Our Women in the War

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Our Women in the War
Winslow Homer
published by Harper's Weekly September 6, 1864
Wood engraving on paper
13 5/8 x 20 3/4 in. (image); 15 5/16 x 21 5/8 in. (sheet)
The Art Institute of Chicago
Gift of Arthur and Hilda Wenig

How are the women in this image contributing to the war effort? Women played important roles in the Civil War, and Winslow Homer made sure that women’s efforts to support the troops were recognized. In this image, which was published in Harper’s Weekly with the title “The Influence of Women,” he depicts a variety of ways in which female involvement made a difference both in battles and on the home front. He creates a complex composition with several different scenes next to one another. On the left a nun provides spiritual support to a wounded man, and to the right a woman helps a soldier write a letter, presumably to his family. Women worked in encampments by cooking or washing clothes, as is seen on the top right of the page. As shown at center, women at home knitted and sewed warm clothes for the troops.

Although women carried out difficult work during the Civil War, Homer chose not to depict the grittiness of those jobs in this particular image. At this time in history, it was important to show women in polite ways that still made them look feminine. Nevertheless, in many of Homer’s other images and in other documents of the time, we are reminded that despite the emontional challenges of their roles, women were not afraid to face the truth about war's brutality. For instance, the nurse Cornelia Hancock was in charge of eight tents full of men with amputated limbs after the Battle of Gettysburg. In a letter, she explained that she was amazed at her own abilities: “What I do here one would think would kill at home, but I am well and comfortable.”

1. What kind of details do you see? How has Homer portrayed the feminine context of the various scenes in this image?

2. How would you show the role of women in today’s wars? How would it be different from Homer’s scenes (and other scenes of women on this website)? How would it be the same?

3. Compare this image and the accompanying text from Harper’s Weekly (http://www.portlandmuseum.org/exhibitions-collections/detail.php?coll=10&item=1991.25.67) to Homer’s Our Watering Places—the Empty Sleeve at Newport as well as the text that accompanied it in Harper’s (http://www.portlandmuseum.org/exhibitions-collections/detail.php?coll=10&item=1991.25.66). What do these primary source documents tell us about the traditional and changing ideas about women at the time of the Civil War?

Further reading:

Jaquette, Henrietta Stratton. Letters of a Civil War Nurse: Cornelia Hancock, 1863-1865. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998.

Massey, Mary Elizabeth. Women in the Civil War.Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994.

Newberry Library. "Out of the Home." Home Front: Daily Life in the Civil War North. http://publications.newberry.org/digitalexhibitions/exhibits/show/homefront/women/womenhome.

Portland Museum of Art.“Winslow Homer Illustrations.” Accessed February 29, 2012. http:/www.portlandmuseum.org/exhibitions-collections/illustrations.shtml.
(For the text of the article “Our Women in the War,” click on “See 10 Illustrations with Magazine Pages.”)

Simpson, Marc. Winslow Homer: Paintings of the Civil War. San Francisco: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco: Bedford Arts, 1988.

Tatham, David. Winslow Homer and the Pictorial Press. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2003.

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