The idea of the “Cult of True Womanhood,” which was that a woman should make her home a haven for her husband and family, plagued the minds of the people living during the pre-civil war era. Women began to break through the cracks of the social expectation during the Civil War, using the war to break this social order and create a new one for themselves. This included becoming aids for the soldiers, such as nurses, as well as preparing and shipping food, or making clothing. However, there were some women that went completely past the social barrier and went into the warzone as spies, an example being Isabella “Belle” Marie Boyd, who became a young, enthusiastic spy for the Confederacy.
Boyd began her short stint in a career of espionage when Union soldiers discovered Confederate flag in her room in Virginia. The soldiers responded to their finding by hanging a Union flag in the family’s front yard. When her mother reacted, a particular soldier cursed at her, and Boyd, infuriated, shot him. Following this action, the cracks began to form in the social norms, a result of this conflict between the North and South. After this confrontation, Boyd was sentenced to constant supervision by Union soldiers, which she used to her advantage. She became romantically involved with one of her guards and convinced him to divulge battle tactics to her. She quickly sought out the Confederate army leaders, running through the night to reach their camps and sometimes finding herself with bullet holes in the hem of her dress. On another occasion, she listened through a closet for hours to the conversation regarding the battle tactics of Union soldiers at a local hotel. Boyd later exposed the information to a Confederate commander, which in turn aided them in battle. Boyd was officially taking on the social role of a fighter in the Civil War, something completely different from the norms of female behavior at that time. Despite women’s increased participation in supporting the war effort, few ran through the battlefields in order to deliver secret information in a hollow watchcase, making Boyd’s actions completely void of most normal behavior for young women during that time period.
Belle Boyd took on an extremely non-traditional social role during the Civil War, far from what her fellow Confederate women were doing to aid in battle, and even further from what most men did. Boyd’s social role as a fighter in the Civil War provides evidence that in times of conflict, social order and norms are broken in order to adjust to new situations. This paves the way for new types of social norms, particularly for women.
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