Mary Elizabeth Massey (1915–1974)

Mary Elizabeth Massey was a history professor noted for her early studies of women in the Civil War, years before women’s history courses became common in university history departments. Her books have continued to be important decades after their publication.

Mary Elizabeth Massey (she used her full name throughout her life) was born on December 25, 1915, in Morrilton (Conway County) to Mary McClung Massey and Charles Leonidas Massey. After graduation from Morrilton High School, she attended Hendrix College in Conway (Faulkner County). For multiple years, Massey was president of her sorority (in an era when Hendrix had fraternities and sororities), and she served on the Interfraternity Council, the dormitory council, and the Student Senate, in addition to serving one-year terms as student body treasurer and senior class president. She was chosen as an outstanding student by the Hendrix faculty in 1937, her senior year.

Massey taught at Morrilton High from 1937 to 1939. In 1940, she received an MA in history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) and returned to Hendrix to direct its “practice school” for two years. Practice schools, sometimes called training schools, were forerunners of today’s student-teaching programs. College students taught the subjects to local high school students who elected to attend the practice school at the college rather than attend the town’s regular high school. She taught at Flora MacDonald College, a women’s college in North Carolina, from 1942 to 1944; she was also chair of the history department. She returned to UNC in 1944 to begin work on her PhD.

Massey was a pioneer in women’s graduate education in history, a male-dominated field at the time. On meeting Fletcher Green, chair of the history department at UNC, Massey reportedly said, “I understand you don’t welcome women,” to which Green replied, “It’s not that we don’t welcome them. It’s just that we don’t do anything for them,” reflecting the common belief at the time that graduate education and financial assistance would be wasted on women who would marry and then become mothers and housewives rather than history professors.

While her male classmates were hired at major universities, Massey knew her career as a female professor would be at lesser schools. She obtained UNC financial assistance in 1944, however, in the form of a teaching fellowship when World War II reduced the number of available male graduate students. She received her PhD in 1947 from UNC and joined the faculty of Washington College in Maryland, where she taught from 1947 to 1950. In 1950, she moved to Winthrop College in South Carolina, a teachers’ college at the time, where she spent the remainder of her career teaching popular courses, particularly in Civil War history.

Massey’s career was characterized by a heavy teaching load and extensive research, which she financed from her own resources. This research resulted in three meaningful monographs. Ersatz in the Confederacy: Shortages and Substitutes on the Southern Homefront (1952) maintained that collapse of morale on the southern home front affected Confederate troops’ willingness to continue fighting. In Refugee Life in the Confederacy (1964), Massey amplified the themes of her earlier book, contending that the pressures felt by displaced southern white women fleeing the war contributed to the Confederacy’s defeat. Bonnet Brigades: American Women in the Civil War (1966) was Massey’s final book. It told how women, both in the South and the North, were changed by the war.

To Massey, the history of the Civil War was not just an account of battles and generals; instead, it was a story of suffering on the southern homefront and in the Confederate soldiers’ ranks. Her books were forerunners of the later specialties of social history and women’s history, historical approaches that would come in later years to the profession.

Massey’s extensive research for her books featured significant use of diaries and letters, often bringing previously undiscovered sources to the printed page. Diaries and letters were largely unavailable from black women, however, thus slanting the focus of her narratives. While Massey looked at ordinary people impacted by the war, her southern women included only white women even though African American women were a significant percentage of southern women. She also was mistaken in writing that the southern people were united behind the Confederate cause. Significant Union sentiments were present in many southern states, including Arkansas.

In addition to teaching, researching, and writing, Massey performed community service and received honors and recognition for her work. She served on the National Civil War Centennial Commission from 1961 to 1965 and on the South Carolina Civil War Centennial Commission during the same years. In 1963, she received a Guggenheim Research Fellowship, and in 1965, she was named a Distinguished Professor at Winthrop. In 1967, she was named Distinguished Alumnus at Hendrix, becoming the first woman so honored by the college. From 1968 to 1971, she served on South Carolina’s Tri-Centennial Commission, and in 1972, she was the faculty representative to the Winthrop Board of Trustees. The capstone of her career was assuming the post of president of the Southern Historical Association (SHA) for 1971–72, only the third woman elected to that position and the first since 1946. Her presidential address at the SHA’s 1972 annual conference dealt with the author of one of the diaries Massey had used in research. “The Making of a Feminist,” the title of her address, marked the first time the word “feminist” appeared in an SHA conference program.

Massey died on December 24, 1974, at Duke University Hospital, one day before her fifty-ninth birthday, from ill health and diabetic complications. She never married. She is buried in Morrilton’s Elmwood Cemetery.

For additional information:
Cashin, Joan E. “Some thoughts on Mary Elizabeth Massey.” Civil War History 61 (December 2015): 409–412.

Clinton, Catherine. “Meditations on Mary Elizabeth Massey.” Civil War History 61 (December 2015): 421–425.

Giesberg, Judith. “Mary Elizabeth Massey and the Civil War Centennial.” Civil War History 61 (December 2015): 400–406.

Glymph, Thavolia. “Mary Elizabeth Massey: Standing with the Master Class.” Civil War History 61 (December 2015): 412–415.

Mary Elizabeth Massey Papers. Louise Pettus Archives and Special Collections, Winthrop University, Rock Hill, South Carolina.

Taylor, Amy Murrell. “Mary Elizabeth Massey Then, Wikipedia Now.” Civil War History 61 (December 2015): 418–421.

Bob Razer
Butler Center for Arkansas Studies

Last Updated: 02/10/2020