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How Ladies' Aid Societies Worked


Ladies' Aid Societies During the Civil War
Elizabeth Blackwell, who was the first female physician in the United States, helped establish the organization that would pave the way for ladies' aid societies.
Elizabeth Blackwell, who was the first female physician in the United States, helped establish the organization that would pave the way for ladies' aid societies.
AP Photo

Elizabeth Blackwell, who was the first female physician in the United States, helped establish the Women's Central Association of Relief (WCAR), which trained nurses to serve the wounded during the Civil War. The WCAR also put pressure on the government to form the U.S. Sanitary Commission (USSC). One of the USSC's responsibilities was to inspect Army facilities, and the government tasked men to perform these inspections. However, officials did grant women roles in other USSC functions, such as serving as nurses and collecting supplies from the home front.

The USSC enlisted the support of thousands of women's groups across the Northern United States to collect supplies. Many of these groups, from informal sewing circles to formal women's organizations, were already sending supplies to soldiers, but the USSC aided in and unified their missions. One of these groups was Ladies' Aid Society of Philadelphia. The USSC stepped in to help organize their collection of clothing, food and medical supplies.

In addition, the ladies' aid societies worked to collect cash donations. This was especially important because the USSC was funded entirely through voluntary donations. To collect donations, the aid societies would often hold social functions such as picnics, pageants and fairs. What's more, they performed all these duties despite having more work at home than usual due to the absence of many male hands. These societies proved helpful not only for the soldiers, but also their own members. When news of the latest casualties was released (usually distributed by the aid societies themselves) the women were there to offer each other emotional support in their mourning [source: Blair].

A few leaders of the era, including Blackwell, immediately recognized the aid societies as a way to gather support for women's rights. And even if it wasn't the societies' explicit mission goal, they gave women invaluable administrative experience. A few decades after the war, Mary Livermore wrote that the ladies' aid societies helped women develop business skills and gave them experience keeping accounts and running meetings. Thus, women were able to begin elbowing their way into politics and advance their own causes.


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