Google+ Georgia On My Mind: November 2013

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Confederate Rosie the Riveter

One of the iconic images of World War II happens to be Rosie the Riveter representing thousands of women who entered the work force at a time when the majority of Americans felt a woman's place was at home. Conditions were often harsh, pay was not equal, and most had to deal with unfavorable treatment by men working beside them.

It took a strong woman to become "Rosie the Riveter".

It took a fighter.

One Georgia native - Helen Dortch Longstreet - was a fighter. In fact, over and over during her life she had earned the nickname "fighting lady".

In 1894, she was appointed assistant state librarian - the very first woman in Georgia to hold that position. In 1896, the Dortch Bill passed the state legislature. It was named for Helen Dortch Longstreet and paved the way for any woman to be able to hold state office.

In 1897, Helen met General James Longstreet through her college roommate. He was 76. She was 34. The same year the General was busy with Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, Helen was born!

Though they were only together for six years before General Longstreet died, it must have been a very special relationship. Found among Helen's papers stored at the Atlanta History Center you can find an unpublished essay written by Helen that details their courtship titled Wooed to the Warrior's Tent.

Wooed?  Why General Longstreet!  I do declare!

I really need to get to the Atlanta History Center and look through Helen's papers.

After the marriage, Helen took on the job as postmistress in Gainesville, a post she held though 1913. She also championed her husband's reputation as the controversial general who failed to follow orders at Gettysburg. She fought until the end of the General's life and then her own to portray his life correctly in history. In 1905, Helen published Lee and Longstreet at High Tide to that end.

In 1911, Helen fought unsuccessfully with Georgia Power over their wish to build hydroelectric dams along the Tallulah River citing that no one knew for sure what the impact the dams would have on the river or to Tallulah Gorge. Her fight is considered to be one of the first efforts at conservation in Georgia.

During World War II at the age of 80, Helen Dortch Longstreet packed a lunch, picked up her tools, and stood alongside other Georgia women at Bell Bomber (Lockheed) building B-29s. Life magazine featured Helen in their issue dated December 27, 1943 as the "Confederate General's Widow".  The picture below appeared in Life.

During the 1950s, Helen Dortch Longstreet led an unsuccessful write-in campaign against Herman Talmadge for governor.

Think of that!  A woman running for governor in the 1950s, even if it was a write-in campaign.  Helen was most certainly a woman before her time.

Another first for Helen involved her portrait hanging at the state capitol building in Atlanta. Yes, hers was the first portrait to hang alongside important men throughout Georgia's history.

Several resources state Helen Dortch Longstreet was, at the time of her death, the last surviving widow of a Confederate General. It's hard to know for sure since records weren't kept very well on the Confederate side. One thing can't be disputed - Georgia did have a Confederate Rosie the Riveter, and she knew how to fight for issues she believed in.
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