The Civil War affected the lives of Pennsylvania women in many ways. Whether they worked to promote or oppose the Union cause, most women met expanded responsibilities in and outside of the home, found new opportunities — like those who disguised themselves as men to serve in the ranks — discovered their political voices and confronted hardship and loss.
Women's involvement began in the earliest days of the war, with the fall of Fort Sumter. Women were on the front lines, helping equip and feed the first volunteers. In Philadelphia, women met at the Girard House to sew uniforms, turning the fashionable hotel into a “vast workshop.” Across the commonwealth, Union soldiers went to war wearing uniforms and carrying flags sewn by the women of their communities. The popular media praised those who encouraged their men to enlist.
Throughout the war, women from all social classes worked to ensure soldiers' welfare, and many set to the task of fundraising. Local aid societies kept hospitals supplied. Eventually, many of these societies were centralized under the leadership of the United States Sanitary Commission, which imparted businesslike efficiency to the projects but tended to take leadership power away from the women organizers.
As it became apparent that the number of casualties would overwhelm the existing infrastructure, women began volunteering as nurses — a controversial move at the time because the rigor, strain and intimacy of the job was thought to be incompatible with the female character.
When men left for war, women had to manage farms or take jobs in addition to their domestic duties. Unmarried women replaced men as teachers. Others found jobs as government clerks assembled rifle cartridges, sewed uniforms and made shoes. Some women protested the low wages and long hours, attempting to unionize or appealing directly to President Lincoln for relief. Local charities developed to help meet the needs of soldiers' families, but people continued to suffer. In desperation, some women turned to crimes such as prostitution or theft, and the numbers of women incarcerated in jails such as Philadelphia's House of Correction rose markedly.
Many women became politically active, whether they demanded an end to slavery or opposed emancipation. Commanding officers began complaining of wives of Pennsylvania miners, farmers and lumbermen helping their husbands evade the draft or urging them to desert the military. The war ultimately strengthened many women's convictions that they ought to play a more active part in governing the nation. It also accelerated trends towards greater employment opportunities for middle class women.
However, as the nation turned to reconstructing the South after the war, many Pennsylvania households remained impoverished by the loss or disabling of breadwinners, and women mourned the deaths of kin and friends.