Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

Changing Ideals of Womanhood during the Nineteenth-Century Woman Movement

Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

Changing Ideals of Womanhood during the Nineteenth-Century Woman Movement

Article excerpt

"Feminism," as we know the term today, was nonexistent in nineteenth-century America. The phrase did not become popular until the 1910s as efforts began to focus around women's suffrage, yet pre-feminist activity began long before 1910 (Cott 13). During the mid-nineteenth century, the "Woman Movement" developed as a result of "women's strivings to improve their status in and usefulness to society." The objectives of the movement were "to initiate measures of charitable benevolence, temperance, and social welfare and to initiate struggles for civic rights, social freedoms, higher education, remunerative occupations, and the ballot" (Cott 3). The setting of these goals resulted from women's rising awareness of the precariousness of their situation in the patriarchal society of the 1800s.

At this time, women were the continual victims of social and economic discrimination. Upper- and middle-class women's choices were limited to marriage and motherhood, or spinsterhood. Both choices resulted in domestic dependency. While they could find jobs as shop girls or factory workers, women were discouraged from being wage earners by the belief that women who earned wages were "unnatural." In addition, "[l]ow wages, the absence of upward mobility, depressing and unhealthy working conditions, all made marriage an attractive survival strategy for working-class women" (Smith-Rosenberg 13). Women were forced, for a variety of reasons, to be dependent upon their husbands for financial support.

Evolving throughout the nineteenth century, the Woman Movement developed in response to women's dependent situation. It promoted a series of new images for women: True Womanhood, Real Womanhood, Public Womanhood, and New Womanhood. While these phases have been individually identified and defined by previous scholarship, I will examine them not in isolation but instead as overlapping parts of a long-term change in cultural attitudes towards gender, a gradual shifting of power away from its patriarchal basis, and a steady movement for women toward twentieth-century feminism.

During the 1820s, 1830s, and 1840s, the nonproductive matron became a symbol of "bourgeois class hegemony" through an ideal now known as the "Cult of True Womanhood." This ideal "prescribed a female role bound by kitchen and nursery, overlaid with piety and purity, and crowned with subservience" (Smith-Rosenberg 13). First described by Barbara Welter in Dimity Convictions: The American Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1976), a "True Woman" was designated as the symbolic keeper of morality and decency within the home, being regarded as innately superior to men when it came to virtue. "[P]iety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity" were thought to be natural to women (Welter 21). Welter suggests that being a True Woman was an awesome charge:

   In a society where values changed frequently, where
   fortunes rose and fell with frightening rapidity,
   where social and economic mobility provided instability
   as well as hope, one thing at least remained the same--a
   true woman was a true woman, wherever she was found.
   If anyone, male or female, dared to tamper with the complex
   of virtues which made up True Womanhood, he was damned
   immediately as an enemy of God, of civilization and of
   the Republic. It was a fearful obligation, a solemn
   responsibility, the nineteenth-century American woman
   had--to uphold the pillars of the temple with her frail
   white hand. (21)

In a rapidly changing world where men were charged with the task of creating and expanding an industrialized civilization from a wilderness, a True Woman was expected to serve as the protectress of religion and civilized society.

Because being a True Woman was such an important responsibility, the ideal of True Womanhood was early imprinted upon young girls, who were trained to be obedient and exhibit great self-control (Welter 4). Each was also taught to value her virginity "as the 'pearl of great price' which was her greatest asset" (5). …

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