Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
Volume 115 / Number 3
"With a Weight of Circumstances Like Millstones About their Necks": Freedwomen, Federal Relief, and the Benevolent Guardianship of the Freedmen's Bureau
- By Mary Farmer-Kaiser, pp. 412–42
"With a Weight of Circumstances Like Millstones About their Necks" examines the relief policies adopted by the Freedmen's Bureau in Virginia in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. By demonstrating the role that both bureau agents' gendered assumptions and freedwomen themselves played in shaping the actions of the federal agency's "war on dependency," it reveals that black women remained on ever-dwindling federal relief rolls despite increasingly restrictive policies demanding otherwise. All the while working to remove freedwomen from bureau relief rolls as ordered—by eliminating black women's need for aid through the enforcement of black men's responsibilities as husbands and fathers, through employment and relocation efforts, and through the apprenticeship of young children—local agents clearly recognized them as women and acknowledged an appropriate dependency for them based on their gender. These agents, as long as bureau relief was available, thus resolved a contradiction between policy and practice by accepting an expanded definition of the deserving poor that was more likely to include freedwomen, especially those who were mothers, than freedmen. In coming to the bureau as deserving women worthy of assistance, freedwomen secured benefits, as meager and short lived as they may have been, granted to them because of their gender. No longer the dependents of a master and not yet dependents of black husbands, they became dependents of the federal government. Always viewed as a temporary need, however, federal material aid ended quickly for these women. Yet, in the interim, bureau benevolence eased the momentous weight of circumstances they faced.