(HOST) This week, VPR again observes Women’s History Month with a series of stories about remarkable Vermont women. According to historian Marilyn Blackwell, the Civil War was the first conflict in which the federal government involved women directly. One of them was Clarina Howard Nichols, best known in Vermont for her promotion of married women’s property rights. She was also outspoken about slavery, and that led her to become active in the war effort.
(BLACKWELL) During the Civil War, women were not allowed in combat or even deemed suitable for participating in politics. Many, however, served as nurses, organized sewing work and raised funds for the Sanitary Commission; others cooked and washed at troop encampments. Some became Yankee or Rebel spies, and even fought as soldiers in concealing uniforms. And still others served the Union cause by going to work in Washington, D.C.
Among the latter was Clarina Howard Nichols, a journalist and reformer, who was well-known as Brattleboro’s "Lady Editress" and the first woman to address the Vermont Legislature seeking women’s rights. Her support for antislavery had led her to leave Vermont for "Bleeding Kansas" in 1854, to work for the Free State Party, and to even engage in politics by helping the Republican Party ensure free soil in the West.
In 1863, during the depths of the war, she supported the Woman’s Loyal National League in petitioning Congress to abolish slavery forever. The league presented the lawmakers with 100,000 names, clinching passage of the 13th Amendment ending slavery.
But Nichols was anxious to show her patriotism through more active duty. So she traveled to Washington, D.C. and joined her daughter in the civil service – as part of the federal government’s first experiment in the hiring of women for jobs that were normally filled by men. Nearly 450 women clerked in various federal agencies at a wage about half that of the men. While Nichols secured an appointment in the Quartermaster General’s office, her daughter Birsha worked for the Internal Revenue Service. Most of these "government girls" as they were called, were young and single, and as they took their places beside male clerks for the first time, their capability and virtue were under public scrutiny. Would they distract the men? Clarina Nichols was a widow in her mid-fifties, with a son in the Union army, and she had little difficulty maintaining her respectability. When the women mounted a protest against their low wages, they showed the seriousness of their effort and secured a modest raise.
Washington was also swarming with more than 20,000 freed slaves who sought asylum behind Union lines. Many were destitute, and wandered the streets looking for food and shelter. Providing for them became a daunting task for local officials.
Clarina Nichols resigned her post with the army and became the matron of a Home for Destitute Colored Women and Children. She was responsible for the feeding, clothing, nursing, and schooling of about 40 orphans and freed women. As matron, Nichols was praised for her efficient management and kindly discipline.
She remained in Washington while the city celebrated the fall of Richmond and then mourned Lincoln’s assassination. After the war, Clarina Nichols returned to Kansas and resumed her work for universal suffrage, having done her part for the Union cause.