See also Erdrich, Louise.
Barbara Welter's 1966 essay “The Cult of True Womanhood” explained the way womanhood had been defined in America during the nineteenth century. Proper women, according to Welter, were pure, pious, focused on domestic life, active outside of the home only when the work related to the church, and submissive to their men; women were, according this model, men's subordinates, and they were not permitted to desire equal status. This social position was supported and justified by Christianity, which described even the origin of woman as dependent on man. The true womanhood ideal also furthered the emphasis on women's sexual purity at the time of marriage; unchaste women were considered tainted or fallen. The ideal woman, supposedly unconscious of her own erotic capabilities, was expected to maintain her innocence and simultaneously help men to become less sexual, since men's focus on sexual activity was seen as “natural.”
Women writers during this time period often created characters who fulfilled the ideals of true womanhood; many slave narratives catered to this definition of womanhood in order to try and establish a common humanity. Harriet Jacobs, while willing to discuss directly the injustices dealt her, also emphasizes her own true womanhood. In keeping with the emphasis on piety, she explains that “[m]y mistress had taught me the precepts of God's Word” (1841). She also describes her love for her child by writing, “As I held her in my arms, I thought how well it would be for her if she never waked up; and I uttered my thought aloud” in order to point out to white women that she, too, possessed the qualities of a loving (human) mother (1850). Similarly, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, although born to free parents, wrote a poem entitled “The Slave Mother, ” which exemplifies this tendency. When in the poem a slave mother's child is taken away to be sold, she responds as any mother would, with her heart “breaking in despair.” Harper does not in her text emphasize the rights of the mother; rather, she draws attention to the universality of maternal grief.
Gradually, as rights-based campaigns, such as abolition and suffrage, gained momentum, though, the concept of the ideal woman leaned more toward the