Can Women Talk About Civil War Military History?

Update: Producer/director Chris Wheeler responds to this post.

The good folks at Great Divide Pictures were kind enough to send me a complimentary copy of their forthcoming series, Civil War: The Untold Story, which tells the story of the war in the West. I’ve watched the first two episodes on Shiloh and skimmed the rest. Overall, it’s a solid production. The digital maps are well done and the reenacted battle scenes are entertaining. The narrative effectively weaves together a big picture of the cause of the war and its various stages with focused coverage of both the strategic and tactical decisions in the field. Stories about individual soldiers, civilians, and slaves drive home the human experience. So, overall the series is well worth watching.

All of the historians utilized as talking heads are well known to seasoned readers of Civil War history and they do a fabulous job, but what I find interesting is the lack of balance between men and women. Of the twelve historical advisers that I came across only two are women.

  • Stacy Allen
  • Steven Woodworth
  • Roger Davidson
  • Peter Carmichael
  • Allen Guelzo
  • John Marszalek
  • Eric Jacobsen
  • Deirdre Cooper Owens
  • Terry Winschel
  • James Ogden
  • Willie Johnson
  • Amy Murrell Taylor

Let me be clear that I am not impugning anyone for what I perceive as a lack of gender balance. I have no idea what went into the decisions to tap the talents of this particular list of historians beyond the obvious point that they are all well-respected scholars. I do, however, think it is worth considering the picture of the historical profession that is implied or reinforced.

Even more interesting to me is that both Taylor and Owens are utilized only for subjects that connect the battlefields to the broader home front and slavery. Both do an excellent job and their contributions add to the richness of the final product. However, with this sharp division of labor, it is hard not to draw the conclusion that when it comes down to it the subject of Civil War battles and leaders is still the domain of men.

Are there really no female historians that can talk about military strategy and the battlefield itself?

29 comments… add one
  • Pat Young Apr 25, 2014 @ 5:41

    A lot of this discussion seems odd to me. If we are putting on a panel, we always assess the panel for inclusion. If everyone is white or male, we don’t assume that there are not enough women or people of color to do the heavy lifting, we just assume that we have not done a good enough job of identifying folks who are not white guys and we reach out to find folks from traditionally excluded groups.

    Let’s remember that at the time of the Centennial very few women held academoic or museum positions that would have put them in the spotlight because of persistent gender biases.

  • Meg Thompson Mar 11, 2014 @ 8:44

    I have been following this discussion with great interest. I just saw the posting for the ECW conference at Spotsylvania this August. I am the only woman speaking. Things sure hit home at that point. ECW has other women writers, but apparently I am the only one willing to pay my way to VA to talk about Lincoln and soldier voting.

    Personally, I am thrilled by the prospect. It is a beginning for me, and worth every cent to be able to participate. But reading about the gender gap here has certainly raised my awareness of things.

    • Kaci Nash Mar 11, 2014 @ 9:49

      Meg: If I can find a way financially to make it to the ECW Symposium, I look forward to hearing about your research.

      While I do not focus specifically on traditional military concerns, I have always felt a sense of isolation as a female scholar of the Civil War, and often feel as if people have trouble taking me seriously as a war scholar.

  • Brooks D. Simpson Mar 9, 2014 @ 17:54

    Given Chris Wheeler’s comment, it’s a fair question to ask who would you have dropped from his list to make room for other people?

    Mind you, I’m not objecting to your premise in the abstract, and we’ve seen shows (such as one on Grant and Lee) where women played prominent roles as talking heads. But one thing one realizes in many of these sorts of events is that there is a surplus of good talent, and people are always being left out. As it is, Mr. Wheeler did not simply rely on the usual names: there’s a broader reach here, even if it does not satisfy those who would like to see more women chosen for such opportunities.

    After all, I didn’t hear anything said about diversity several years ago when the Civil War Institute featured three white male bloggers, all of whom received at least one educational degree from an institution of higher education based in the Commonwealth of Virginia (if anything, I heard grumbling from other white male bloggers, but that’s a story for another day). Rather than single out Mr. Wheeler’s production for attention, one might go at this in a different way and look at the contributions of women historians to the scholarship about the military history of the war and what that says about the field and the profession.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 10, 2014 @ 3:26

      Hi Brooks,

      Think I will take a pass on the question of who I would have dropped. I don’t think it really impacts one way or the other on my larger point. I do agree that you can measure “reach” any number of ways. Re: CWI, you may not have heard anything about our panel, but we have heard rumblings about the need to reach out in other directions. These are difficult issues and I am the first to admit that there are no easy solutions.

  • Nathan Towne Mar 9, 2014 @ 16:06

    I am not sure I fully understand the distinction. The literature ultimately defines historical study. As for representation in forums and the like, what would fit the definition of fair representation as compared to unfair representation?

    Nathan Towne

    • Kevin Levin Mar 9, 2014 @ 16:13

      As for representation in forums and the like, what would fit the definition of fair representation as compared to unfair representation?

      That is the question that this documentary raises. I simply raised what I perceive to be a problem.

      • Nathan Towne Mar 11, 2014 @ 13:01

        I don’t necessarily disagree. I would just emphasize the importance of not conflating equalities of opportunity with equalities of identity.

        Nathan Towne

        • Meg Thompson Mar 11, 2014 @ 14:39

          I had lunch with colleagues in the Math Department at my middle school. I brought up this subject, and folks immediately drew several parallels to the issues of women in STEM/STEAM occupations. When will women realize they can do the heavy lifting? Maybe this problem is wider and deeper than first believed.

          • Kevin Levin Mar 11, 2014 @ 14:51

            My wife sees a good deal of this as well in the scientific community.

          • Nathan Towne Apr 24, 2014 @ 13:06


            The point is that equalities of opportunity enable, some semblance of equality of identity. It is very easy to attack perceived structural and societal impediments and convenient to impugn motives but the real issue is whether the opportunity is available. Individuals and their arguments will be judged upon their merits as presented. The more people know, the harder they study, the more balanced they are, the degree of focus they exhibit on the subject matter e.t.c., the more seriously their work will be taken by other individuals well versed in the subject matter.

            Nathan Towne

  • Nathan Towne Mar 9, 2014 @ 15:41


    You may or may not know of it, but there is a biography of T.C. Hindman by a woman named Diane Neal which I found quite helpful and well researched which covers his political and military career in considerable depth. I have some disagreements in places with the author and I think she could have fleshed out aspects of his career differently or in more detail at times, but as a whole it is quite useful. She even cites several sources that I was not aware of before I read the book and she utilizes other sources that I am very familiar with well. As a whole, I would say that is probably my favorite military biography written by a woman. There are others that have value as well of course, but taken as a whole, that is one of the best titles that comes to mind.

    Contrary to what some commenters have stated above, I have noticed for whatever reason, a substantial amount of military history written by women, as it pertains to the American Civil War at least, is actually, for whatever reason, very poor. In all honesty, I don’t really understand why but several titles stand out as some of the worst books I have ever seen. These two immediately come to mind, the second of the two mind-bogglingly so.

    I think it is important to keep in my mind though, that it is probably not appropriate to compare the historiography of males vs. females. On one hand, no woman should have to stand for the past poor research of another woman. That seems somewhat futile and unfair to me. On the other hand it is somewhat silly to think in terms of certain authors carrying the inclusion of their sex in terms of a field of history. All work should be judged on its merits and individuals deserve to be judged as individuals rather than as representatives of a larger group.

    Nathan Towne

    • Kevin Levin Mar 9, 2014 @ 15:52

      The issue isn’t whether the military history is or isn’t being written by women. They clearly are writing it. Rather, the question is whether they deserve to be fairly represented in capacities such as talking heads/historical commentators.

  • Boyd Harris Mar 9, 2014 @ 10:38

    In my experience, female scholars tend to bring a larger lens to military history. By which I mean they look beyond the strict focus on military maneuvers in traditional military history by placing it within a larger context. Isabel Hull’s and Carol Elkin’s work in European military history in particular are worthy of emulation in Civil War military history. To that I would also add Susan Grayzel’s work on WWI and the Home Front. As much as I enjoyed traditional military history in my youth, it must be supported with social and cultural history if it is to remain relevant. You can only talk about Longstreet’s flanking maneuver on the second day so many times before it ceases to advance our knowledge of the war.

  • Patrick Young Mar 9, 2014 @ 10:13

    It was interesting to see this go up on International Women’s Day.

    Over at The Immigrants’ Civil War facebook page, four out of ten of our nearly 5,000 members are women. So it would seem that there is a large (if not precisely proportional) audience of women who love Civil War history. We know that there are a large number of excellent women authorities who have written and lectured on the Civil War. I am surprised that a series that is looking for new audiences for the Civil War story would not use a more diverse set of messengers.

  • Meg Thompson Mar 9, 2014 @ 8:50

    I read all of this with special interest–I am a Masters candidate at APUS–Military History, with a Civil War emphasis. I want to be a military historian before I die. I am usually “the only girl in class,” although I am far from girlhood. One place that has opened its doors willingly to women is the internet. I write for Emerging Civil War, have corresponded with many other web writers, and generally feel welcomed on the web. Is the same true for speaking at seminars or round tables? Not so much. Maybe it is because few want to hear what someone who looks like their mother (or grandmother) thinks about Chancellorsville.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 9, 2014 @ 9:10

      Hi Meg,

      Thanks for adding your voice to this thread. I’ve read a few of your posts at the Emerging Civil War blog. The only way change is going to come about is if young historians such as you, Beth Parnicza and Ashley Whitehead Luskey lead the way.

  • Chris Wheeler Mar 9, 2014 @ 7:36

    I am producer/director of Civil War: The Untold Story. Regarding your question about the inclusion of more female historians, I think you make some valid points. However, what is not often understood is how costly television production can be. Each on camera interview requires an expense of thousands of dollars (camera rental, crew, lighting, travel expenses, honorarium, etc). Great Divide Pictures fully funded the series, which left us with limited options. I wish we could have had the budget to interview more, but in the end, we did the best we could with the resources available. Ultimately, our on camera choices were made on who could help us tell this complicated story in a compelling and enlightening way. No consideration of gender was given, although we did make a conscious decision to have a female narrator (Elizabeth McGovern). Our film is intended for a general audience, not historians (although we hope historians like yourself enjoy). Thus, it has to be good television. If not, no one will stay tuned to learn of the Civil War.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 9, 2014 @ 7:41

      Hi Chris,

      Thanks again for adding your voice to this thread and congratulations on shedding light on an often overlooked aspect of the war.

  • Jane Johansson Mar 8, 2014 @ 16:44

    Like Beth, I have never had a professional colleague state outright or even imply that I am incapable of doing military history because I am a woman. Occasionally, in my many years of teaching, I have had male students that seemed skeptical at first about the depth of my knowledge. More frequently there have been men from the general public that have lectured me about Civil War military history. I have been rather bemused by this as it doesn’t seem to dawn on them that I AM an expert in the field. I agree with Beth that the solution is to have the general public hear more frequently about military history from a variety of people.

  • Michael Lynch Mar 8, 2014 @ 15:59

    My graduate advisor once remarked that attendees at conferences on military history tend to be more diverse in terms of occupation (not just academic historians, but also public historians, military personnel, and so on) but that there aren’t as many women.

  • History Enthusiast Mar 8, 2014 @ 11:57

    I wonder, too, if this might not relate in some way to the “controversy” at the SHA this year about some CW courses that don’t include “enough” military history. If that premise is true (and I’m not arguing it is, btw), how might a failure to accept women’s voices in other academic forums affect the volume of military history being taught? In a subconscious effort to avoid needless confrontation or problems with gender dynamics, do some professors avoid those topics when possible? Would female professors teach more military history if they weren’t bound to get some flak? These are all just hypotheticals; I don’t know where I stand on this yet. Just food for thought.

  • History Enthusiast Mar 8, 2014 @ 11:46

    This is my major frustration with teaching the CW course; and, I have had a situation related to this develop just this past couple of weeks, unfortunately. I do not identify as a military historian (I’m a historian of race, sectionalism, and Bleeding Kansas) but I invariably see scoffing/disrespect/snickering in the classroom when I talk with any authority on military matters, including this most recent incident. I do wish documentaries would work to achieve gender balance when possible, for the same reasons Beth listed above.

    My knowledge of military history is purely academic, having never served in uniform, but that never seems to be the issue–my gender is the issue (and perhaps my age too, since I appear to be their age even when I’m usually at least 10 years their senior). I don’t see this as a major concern, however, among my generation of scholars, as I feel those of us in our 30s and 40s are pretty used to hearing female voices on a variety of subjects.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 8, 2014 @ 13:15

      Thank you very much for sharing your classroom experience.

  • Beth Parnicza Mar 8, 2014 @ 7:06

    From my experience, I can proudly say that I’ve never been told by anyone in the field that I cannot do military history–which is what I primarily do, among other things. My colleagues are fantastically understanding that we all will do whatever kind of history we want to do, as long as it’s good. It’s a different matter entirely, when it comes to the general public, though, many of whom (happily not a majority) don’t seem to recognize that I can be female and talk battle tactics with the best of them.

    I’m all in favor of utilizing the best knowledge source for documentaries, writing projects, etc. I’d never reject citing the best source because it was written by a man or a woman, and I would never want to deny anyone the opportunity to hear the brilliant insights of my male colleagues simply because they are male. But in media projects like this one, I do advocate using women where there is clearly the opportunity to tap female subject matter experts. To change the public’s perceptions (and those of some in the field), people need to become more accustomed to hearing about the war and its battles from different kinds of people–age, gender, race–so they will not walk past me to a male colleague or volunteer to ask their military question. They usually don’t mean to be discriminatory; they’re just not used to the idea.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 8, 2014 @ 7:30

      Hi Beth,

      So glad you decided to chime in on this one. Your voice is particularly important given your role at FNMP and interaction with the general public.

      • Beth Parnicza Mar 8, 2014 @ 7:50

        My pleasure, Kevin. Thanks for taking on the subject! It’s a question we often face–though usually indirectly–at the park, and it’s an issue I think we’d all like to work toward eliminating altogether.

  • Mike Rogers Mar 8, 2014 @ 6:24

    I think that Carol Reardon would have been an excellent choice

  • Barbara Gannon Mar 8, 2014 @ 5:56

    No, women in Civil War are welcome to do “womanly” subjects, not military history. People might say they do not want to do military subjects, but the message is LOUD and Clear that they are not welcome. It is reinforced in the classroom where women sometimes get a hard time teaching anything military. As a veteran and a former defense analyst I am furious about this.

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