Tuesday, December 29, 2015

A Seminal Work about 19th-Century U.S. Women

Welter, Barbara. "The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860." American Quarterly 18, no. 2, pt. 1 (Summer 1966): 151-74.

In 1963, Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, a book often credited for its role in sparking 1960s and 70s "second-wave" feminism. Three years later, Barbara Welter, then a history professor at Hunter College in New York, published her still-influential article, "The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860."

Writing in the same key as Friedan, Welter begins by asserting that the expression "True Womanhood" turned up constantly in popular books, magazines, and journals of the antebellum period. Significantly, writers almost never defined what they meant by that phrase. They could assume that readers already knew (151). In her survey of the literature, Welter identifies "four cardinal attributes" of True Womanhood: piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity. These qualities meant everything. If a woman possessed them, even if she had nothing else, she was complete, admirable, and respectable. On the other hand, if she was deficient in these attributes, then even if well-educated, wealthy, and fashionably dressed, she could rightly be considered pitiful, even a danger to the common good. According to the literature, women were needed and expected to personify a unique sort of soft power that holds together an otherwise chaotic world (152).

Regarding the attribute of piety, Welter reports one journalist of the time who wrote that religion is "exactly what a woman needs, for it gives her that dignity that best suits her dependence."  The spirit of true religion, it was said, went hand in hand with the practical things that society needed women to do in behalf of their husbands and children (153). Conversely, wrote a journalist in 1840, "female irreligion is the most revealing feature in human character." It would be better for a woman to be physically dead than morally loose (154).

On the capacities of women, one writer suggested that though female heads were just too small for intellect, they were just big enough for love. Consequently, the true spirit of femininity is "ever timid, doubtful, and clingingly dependent; a perpetual childhood" (160). Women should therefore accept submission as their lot (162). They should not attempt to save the outside world directly. Rather, they should initiate reform indirectly by educating the minds and shaping the hearts of their children (163).

Though advice literature of the time insisted that marriage was best and proper, it also sought to remove the stigma of singleness. For example, some writers mentioned that it was preferable for a woman not marry than to marry for selfish reasons. It was perfectly respectable for some women to be "teachers of the young." Women could forgo or postpone marriage because of "fidelity to some high mission" (169). Nonetheless, marriage was preferable, especially for high-spirited young women. For them, marriage held the power to tame, "cure," and provide them with direction for their otherwise misguided lives (170). Marriage was also the source of women's highest authority. In marriage, a woman both influenced a man and became a mother, rising to "a higher place of being in the scale of being" (171).

The same popular press that consistently advanced True Womanhood also vilified women's rights advocates like Mary Wollstonecraft, Frances Wright, and Harriet Martineau. In reaction to the call for increased rights for women, advocates doubled down on their message that the ideal right and patriotic duty was for women to be keepers at home, to care for their husbands and their children, the coming generation of American citizens (173).

If women were kept at home and held back in this way, what changed? How, for example, did American women manage to gain the right to vote in the early twentieth century? Welter identifies several movements and events of the nineteenth century that combined to make the difference: "social reform, westward migration, missionary activity, utopian communities, industrialism, the Civil War." Precipitated by those factors, she writes, the transformation from True Womanhood to the New Woman of the late nineteenth century was "as startling in its way as the abolition of slavery or the coming of the machine age." Still, as Friedan's book revealed, the old standards and stereotypes managed to survive and make a comeback in American society (173-74).


swayfun said...

Good info and nice find sir. JC

Frank Bellizzi said...

Thanks, JC. Just a bit of follow-up regarding Welter's classic article. At least two criticisms have been leveled against it. First, at least some historians have called into question just how representative the advice literature surveyed by Welter actually was. That is to say, did married women really accept and try to live up to the prescriptive literature of the time? There seems to be a good bit of evidence that the answer to that question is "No."

The other objection is to Welter's designation THE CULT of True Womanhood. There can be no doubt that lots of writers in the antebellum period used the term "True Womanhood." The part about THE CULT of True Womanhood is language we've gotten from Welter herself. Likewise, no one talked about the Market Revolution during what is now called the Market Revolution.

Nowadays, "The Cult of True Womanhood" is a commonplace expression among women's historians, even Americanists at large. Especially in light of the first criticism, we might ask if this way of naming the phenomenon generates a false impression. I think that my qualified response to that question is, "Yes, it does skew our interpretation of the past." See, for example, a new book by Kim Tolley, HEADING SOUTH TO TEACH. Tolley relates the biography of one Susan Nye, who from 1815 to 1845 managed to all sorts of things with her life, without being a feminist per se.