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Herstory And The Cult Of True Womanhood

Herstory: a vivid documentation of the breadth and
diversity of American women’s achievements throughout U.S. history.
There have been women trailblazers throughout American history; Women have had a profound impact on the intellectual, social, and political development of our society. Buf many of their

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confribufions have aone unnoticed. Most people have heard of Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Tub-man, Margaret Sanger, and Eleanor Roosevelt. But did you know that a woman microbiologist
discovered the bacterium responsible for undulant fever, which then led to the pasteurization of all milk? Or that a woman patented the paper-bag folding machine to make square-bottom bags (the grocery bag)? Or that a female mathematician’s work laid the foundation for ab-
stract algebra?
Most history passes over women. Our names and faces are missing, our stories omitted or distort-ed, and covered over by an endless masculine litany of kings, warlords, priests (with an occa-
sional queen or concubine — often a woman blamed for ruining everything).
But women have exercised power and determined the course of events and the forms of hu-man culture. Women founded, governed, invented and created. We have been leaders, prophets, scribes and authors, warriors and rebels against oppression, fighting for our rights and
for our peoples.
Girls and women suffer from a lack of knowledge about societies that accord power to women in public life: in religion, medicine. the arts, diplomacy, land management and inheritance. The-se crucial silences and omissions create the demoralizing impression that women have always been beneath men, Which is false.
In classic Eurocentric history, women end up as footnotes to the “main” story. Sandra Cisneros said of the search for Latina heroines, “We are the footnotes of the footnotes.” And yet the herit-ages of women of color, especially indigenous women, supply the most dramatic recent exam-
ples of societies that embraced open female power.
Even the tendency to focus on famous women or rulers is a distortion. We understand more if we expand our vision to include entire groups of creative and honored women, the inventors and clan elders, the healers, shamans, and priestesses. There is a clear interplay between these spir-itual offices and political power inmany indigenous societies.
Power itself has been conceived of very narrowly, as domination, force, and supremacy—top-down command, grasping and seizing goods and grinding down people. despoiling nature. These systems are more than patriarchal; they are colonial and imperial.
Looking past these blinders will give us a broader view of reality, one that takes in female spheres of power: Cultural. Foundational. Political. Social. Economic. Technological. Religious. Artistic. Medical. Scholarly. Physical. Agents of change and transformation.
To compound this absence of women in history, we live in a society where media is the most persuasive force shaping cultural norms and the collective message that our young women and men overwhelmingly receive is that a woman’s value and power lie in her youth, beauty, and
sexuality—not in her capacity as a leader. These messages limit children’s ideas of what is possi-ble in the world and can have damaging effects on their self-esteem, health, and the way they
treat others.
While women have made great strides in leadership over the past few decades, the United States is still 90th in the world for women in national legislatures, women hold only 3% of positions of Clout jn mainstream media, and 65% of women and girls have disordered eating behaviors.
How do you believe the exclusion of women from history and the images of women in main-stream media contribute to the under-representation of women in positions of power and influ-ence in America?
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The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860 Author(s): Barbara Welter Source: American Quarterly, Vol. 18, No. 2, Part 1 (Summer, 1966), pp. 151-174 Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press Stable URL: Accessed: 04-03-2019 15:30 UTC
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Hunter College
The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820 – 1860
and railroads, at work long hours in a materialistic society. The religious values of his forebears were neglected in practice if not in intent, and he occasionally felt some guilt that he had turned this new land, this temple of the chosen people, into one vast countinghouse. But he could salve his conscience by reflecting that he had left behind a hostage, not only to
fortune, but to all the values which he held so dear and treated so lightly. Woman, in the cult of True Womanhood’ presented by the women’s magazines, gift annuals and religious literature of the nineteenth century, was the hostage in the home.2 In a society where values changed fre-
1 Authors who addressed themselves to the subject of women in tne mid-nineteenth century used this phrase as frequently as writers on religion mentioned God. Neither group felt it necessary to define their favorite terms; they simply assumed-with some justification-that readers would intuitively understand exactly what they meant. Frequently what people of one era take for granted is most striking and revealing to the student from another. In a sense this analysis of the ideal woman of the mid- nineteenth century is an examination of what writers of that period actually meant when they used so confidently the vague phrase True Womanhood.
2 The conclusions reached in this article are based on a survey of almost all of the women’s magazines published for more than three years during the period 1820-60 and a sampling of those published for less than three years; all the gift books cited in Ralph Thompson, American Literary Annuals and Gift Books, 1825-1865 (New York, 1936) deposited in the Library of Congress, the New York Public Library, the New-York Historical Society, Columbia University Special Collections, Library of the City College of the University of New York, Pennsylvania Historical Society, Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston Public Library, Fruitlands Museum Library, the Smithsonian Institu- tion and the Wisconsin Historical Society; hundreds of religious tracts and sermons in the American Unitarian Society and the Galatea Collection of the Boston Public Library; and the large collection of nineteenth-century cookbooks in the New York Public Library and the Academy of Medicine of New York. Corroborative evidence not cited in this article was found in women’s diaries, memoirs, autobiographies and per- sonal papers, as well as in all the novels by women which sold over 75,000 copies dur- ing this period, as cited in Frank Luther Mott, Golden Multitudes: The Story of Best Sellers in the United States (New York, 1947) and H. R. Brown, The Sentimental Novel in America, 1789-1860 (Durham, N. C., 1940). This latter information also indicated the effect of the cult of True Womanhood on those most directly concerned.
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152 American Quarterly
quently, 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, which the nineteenth- century American woman had-to uphold the pillars of the temple with
her frail white hand.
The attributes of True Womanhood, by which a woman judged her- self and was judged by her husband, her neighbors and society could be
divided into four cardinal virtues-piety, purity, submissiveness and do- mesticity. Put them all together and they spelled mother, daughter, sister, wife-woman. Without them, no matter whether there was fame, achieve-
ment or wealth, all was ashes. With them she was promised happiness and power.
Religion or piety was the core of woman’s virtue, the source of her
strength. Young men looking for a mate were cautioned to search first for piety, for if that were there, all else would follow.3 Religion belonged
to woman by divine right, a gift of God and nature. This “peculiar sus-
ceptibility” to religion was given her for a reason: “the vestal flame of piety, lighted up by Heaven in the breast of woman” would throw its beams into the naughty world of men.4 So far would its candle power reach that the “Universe might be Enlightened, Improved, and Harmo-
nized by WOMANI! ” 5 She would be another, better Eve, working in coop- eration with the Redeemer, bringing the world back “from its revolt and sin.” The world would be reclaimed for God through her suffering, for “God increased the cares and sorrows of woman, that she might be sooner
constrained to accept the terms of salvation.”7 A popular poem by Mrs. Frances Osgood, “The Triumph of the Spiritual Over the Sensual” ex-
3 As in “The Bachelor’s Dream,” in The Lady’s Gift: Souvenir for All Seasons (Nashua, N. H., 1849), p. 37.
4 The Young Ladies’ Class Book: A Selection of Lessons for Reading in Prose and Verse, ed. Ebenezer Bailey, Principal of Young Ladies’ High School, Boston (Boston, 1831), p. 168.
5 A Lady of Philadelphia, The World Enlightened, Improved, and Harmonized by WOMAN! I I A lecture, delivered in the City of New York, before the Young Ladies’ Society for Mutual Improvement, on the following question, proposed by the society, with the offer of $100 for the best lecture that should be read before them on the sub- ject proposed;-What is the power and influence of woman in moulding the manners, morals and habits of civil society? (Philadelphia, 1840), p. 1.
6 The Young Lady’s Book: A Manual of Elegant Recreations, Exercises, and Pursuits (Boston, 1830), p. 29.
7 Woman As She Was, Is, and Should Be (New York, 1849), p. 206.
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The Cult of True Womanhood 153
pressed just this sentiment, woman’s purifying passionless love bringing
an erring man back to Christ.8
Dr. Charles Meigs, explaining to a graduating class of medical students
why women were naturally religious, said that “hers is a pious mind. Her
confiding nature leads her more readily than men to accept the proffered
grace of the Gospel.” 9 Caleb Atwater, Esq., writing in The Ladies’ Reposi-
tory, saw the hand of the Lord in female piety: “Religion is exactly what
a woman needs, for it gives her that dignity that best suits her depend-
ence.”10 And Mrs. John Sandford, who had no very high opinion of her
sex, agreed thoroughly: “Religion is just what woman needs. Without it
she is ever restless or unhappy….”11 Mrs. Sandford and the others did
not speak only of that restlessness of the human heart, which St. Augus-
tine notes, that can only find its peace in God. They spoke rather of re-
ligion as a kind of tranquilizer for the many undefined longings which
swept even the most pious young girl, and about which it was better to pray than to think.
One reason religion was valued was that it did not take a woman away
from her “proper sphere,” her home. Unlike participation in other so-
cieties or movements, church work would not make her less domestic or
submissive, less a True Woman. In religious vineyards, said the Young Ladies’ Literary and Missionary Report, “you may labor without the ap- prehension of detracting from the charms of feminine delicacy.” Mrs.
S. L. Dagg, writing from her chapter of the Society in Tuscaloosa, Ala- bama, was equally reassuring: “As no sensible woman will suffer her in-
tellectual pursuits to clash with her domestic duties” she should concen- trate on religious work “which promotes these very duties.”’12
The women’s seminaries aimed at aiding women to be religious, as well as accomplished. Mt. Holyoke’s catalogue promised to make female edu- cation “a handmaid to the Gospel and an efficient auxiliary in the great task of renovating the world.”13 The Young Ladies’ Seminary at Borden-
town, New Jersey, declared its most important function to be “the form-
8 “The Triumph of the Spiritual Over the Sensual: An Allegory,” in Ladies’ Com-
panion: A Monthly Magazine Embracing Every Department of Literature, Embellished With Original Engravings and Music, XVII (New York) (1842), 67.
9 Lecture on Some of the Distinctive Characteristics of the Female, delivered before the class of the Jefferson Medical College, Jan. 1847 (Philadelphia, 1847), p. 13.
10 “Female Education,” Ladies’ Repository and Gatherings of the West: A Monthly
Periodical Devoted to Literature and Religion, I (Cincinnati), 12. 11 Woman, in Her Social and Domestic Character (Boston, 1842), pp. 41-42. 12 Second Annual Report of the Young Ladies’ Literary and Missionary Association of
the Philadelphia Collegiate Institution (Philadelphia, 1840), pp. 20, 26. 13 Mt. Holyoke Female Seminary: Female Education. Tendencies of the Principles
Embraced, and the System Adopted in the Mt. Holyoke Female Seminary (Boston, 1839), p. 3.
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154 American Quarterly
ing of a sound and virtuous character.”14 In Keene, New Hampshire, the Seminary tried to instill a “consistent and useful character” in its stu- dents, to enable them in this life to be “a good friend, wife and mother”
but more important, to qualify them for “the enjoyment of Celestial
Happiness in the life to come.”15 And Joseph M’ D. Mathews, Principal of Oakland Female Seminary in Hillsborough, Ohio, believed that “fe- male education should be preeminently religious.”’16
If religion was so vital to a woman, irreligion was almost too awful to contemplate. Women were warned not to let their literary or intellectual
pursuits take them away from God. Sarah Josepha Hale spoke darkly of those who, like Margaret Fuller, threw away the “One True Book” for others, open to error. Mrs. Hale used the unfortunate Miss Fuller as fate-
ful proof that “the greater the intellectual force, the greater and more fatal the errors into which women fall who wander from the Rock of Sal- vation, Christ the Saviour….”17
One gentleman, writing on “Female Irreligion” reminded his readers that “Man may make himself a brute, and does so very often, but can woman brutify herself to his level-the lowest level of human nature- without exerting special wonder?” Fanny Wright, because she was god- less, “was no woman, mother though she be.” A few years ago, he recalls, such women would have been whipped. In any case, “woman never looks lovelier than in her reverence for religion” and, conversely, “female irreligion is the most revolting feature in human character.”18
Purity was as essential as piety to a young woman, its absence as un- natural and unfeminine. Without it she was, in fact, no woman at all, but a member of some lower order. A “fallen woman” was a “fallen angel,” unworthy of the celestial company of her sex. To contemplate the loss of purity brought tears; to be guilty of such a crime, in the women’s maga- zines at least, brought madness or death. Even the language of the flowers
had bitter words for it: a dried white rose symbolized “Death Preferable to Loss of Innocence.”19 The marriage night was the single great event of a woman’s life, when she bestowed her greatest treasure upon her hus-
14 Prospectus of the Young Ladies’ Seminary at Bordentown, New Jersey (Borden- town, 1836), p. 7.
15 Catalogue of the Young Ladies’ Seminary in Keene, New Hampshire (n.p., 1832), p. 20.
16 “Report to the College of Teachers, Cincinnati, October, 1840” in Ladies’ Reposi- tory, I (1841), 50.
17 Woman’s Record: or Sketches of All Distinguished Women from ‘The Beginning’ Till A. D. 1850 (New York, 1853), pp. 665, 669.
18 “Female Irreligion,” Ladies’ Companion, XIII (May-Oct. 1840), 111.
19 The Lady’s Book of Flowers and Poetry, ed. Lucy Hooper (New York, 1842), has a “Floral Dictionary” giving the symbolic meaning of floral tributes.
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The Cult of True Womanhood 155
band, and from that time on was completely dependent upon him, an empty vessel,20 without legal or emotional existence of her own.21
Therefore all True Women were urged, in the strongest possible terms, to maintain their virtue, although men, being by nature more sensual
than they, would try to assault it. Thomas Branagan admitted in The Excellency of the Female Character Vindicated that his sex would sin
and sin again, they could not help it, but woman, stronger and purer, must not give in and let man “take liberties incompatible with her deli- cacy.” “If you do,” Branagan addressed his gentle reader, “You will be left in silent sadness to bewail your credulity, imbecility, duplicity, and premature prostitution.”22
Mrs. Eliza Farrar, in The Young Lady’s Friend, gave practical logistics to avoid trouble: “Sit not with another in a place that is too narrow; read not out of the same book; let not your eagerness to see anything induce
you to place your head close to another person’s.”23 If such good advice was ignored the consequences were terrible and in-
exorable. In Girlhood and Womanhood: Or Sketches of My Schoolmates,
by Mrs. A. J. Graves (a kind of mid-nineteenth-century The Group), the bad ends of a boarding school class of girls are scrupulously recorded. The worst end of all is reserved for “Amelia Dorrington: The Lost One.”
Amelia died in the almshouse “the wretched victim of depravity and in- temperance” and all because her mother had let her be “high-spirited not prudent.” These girlish high spirits had been misinterpreted by a young man, with disastrous results. Amelia’s “thoughtless levity” was “followed by a total loss of virtuous principle” and Mrs. Graves editorializes that “the coldest reserve is more admirable in a woman a man wishes to make
his wife, than the least approach to undue familiarity.”24 A popular and often-reprinted story by Fanny Forester told the sad tale
of “Lucy Dutton.” Lucy “with the seal of innocence upon her heart, and a rose-leaf on her cheek” came out of her vine-covered cottage and ran
20 See, for example, Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Blithedale Romance (Boston, 1852),
p. 71, in which Zenobia says: “How can she be happy, after discovering that fate has assigned her but one single event, which she must contrive to make the substance of her whole life? A man has his choice of innumerable events.”
21 Mary R. Beard, Woman As Force in History (New York, 1946) makes this point
at some length. According to common law, a woman had no legal existence once she was married and therefore could not manage property, sue in court, etc. In the 1840s and 1850s laws were passed in several states to remedy this condition.
22Excellency of the Female Character Vindicated: Being an Investigation Relative
to the Cause and Effects on the Encroachments of Men Upon the Rights of Women, and the Too Frequent Degradation and Consequent Misfortunes of The Fair Sex (New York, 1807), pp. 277, 278. 23 By a Lady (Eliza Ware Rotch Farrar), The Young Lady’s Friend (Boston, 1837),
p. 293. 24 Girlhood and Womanhood: or, Sketches of My Schoolmates (Boston, 1844), p. 140.
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156 American Quarterly
into a city slicker. “And Lucy was beautiful and trusting, and thoughtless: and he was gay, selfish and profligate. Needs the story to be told? … Nay, censor, Lucy was a child-consider how young, how very untaught-oh! her innocence was no match for the sophistry of a gay, city youthl Spring came and shame was stamped upon the cottage at the foot of the hill.” The baby died; Lucy went mad at the funeral and finally died herself. “Poor, poor Lucy Duttonl The grave is a blessed couch and pillow to the wretched. Rest thee there, poor Lucy!”25 The frequency with which de- rangement follows loss of virtue suggests the exquisite sensibility of woman, and the possibility that, in the women’s magazines at least, her intellect was geared to her hymen, not her brain.
If, however, a woman managed to withstand man’s assaults on her virtue, she demonstrated her superiority and her power over him. Eliza Farnham, trying to prove this female superiority, concluded smugly that “the purity of women is the everlasting barrier against which the tides of man’s sensual nature surge.”26
A story in The Lady’s Amaranth illustrates this dominance. It is set, improbably, in Sicily, where two lovers, Bianca and Tebaldo, have been separated because her family insisted she marry a rich old man. By some strange circumstance the two are in a shipwreck and cast on a desert is- land, the only survivors. Even here, however, the rigid standards of True Womanhood prevail. Tebaldo unfortunately forgets himself slightly, so that Bianca must warn him: “We may not indeed gratify our fondness by caresses, but it is still something to bestow our kindest language, and looks and prayers, and all lawful and honest attentions on each other.” Something, perhaps, but not enough, and Bianca must further remon- strate: “It is true that another man is my husband, but you are my guard- ian angel.” When even that does not work she says in a voice of sweet reason, passive and proper to the end, that she wishes he wouldn’t but “still, if you insist, I will become what you wish; but I beseech you to consider, ere that decision, that debasement which I must suffer in your esteem.” This appeal to his own double standards holds the beast in him at bay. They are rescued, discover that the old husband is dead, and after “mourning a decent season” Bianca finally gives in, legally.27
Men could be counted on to be grateful when women thus saved them from themselves. William Alcott, guiding young men in their relations with the opposite sex, told them that “Nothing is better calculated to
25 Emily Chubbuck, Alderbrook (Boston, 1847), 2nd. ed., II, 121, 127. 26 Woman and Her Era (New York, 1864), p. 95. 27 “The Two Lovers of Sicily,” The Lady’s Amaranth: A Journal of Tales, Essays, Ex-
cerpts-Historical and Biographical Sketches, Poetry and Literature in General (Phila- delphia), II (Jan. 1839), 17.
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The Cult of True Womanhood 157
preserve a young man from contamination of low pleasures and pursuits
than frequent intercourse with the more refined and virtuous of the other sex.” And he added, one assumes in equal innocence, that youths should “observe and learn to admire, that purity and ignorance of evil which is the characteristic of well-educated young ladies, and which, when we are near them, raises us above those sordid and sensual considerations which hold such sway over men in their intercourse with each other.”28
The Rev. Jonathan F. Stearns was also impressed by female chastity in the face of male passion, and warned woman never to compromise the source of her power: “Let her lay aside delicacy, and her influence over our sex is gone.”29
Women themselves accepted, with pride but suitable modesty, this priceless virtue. The Ladies’ Wreath, in “Woman the Creature of God and the Manufacturer of Society” saw purity as her greatest gift and chief means of discharging her duty to save the world: “Purity is the highest beauty-the true pole-star which is to guide humanity aright in its long, varied, and perilous voyage.”30
Sometimes, however, a woman did not see the dangers to her treasure.
In that case, they must be pointed out to her, usually by a male. In the nineteenth century any form of social change was tantamount to an attack on woman’s virtue, if only it was correctly understood. For example, dress reform seemed innocuous enough and the bloomers worn by the lady of that name and her followers were certainly modest attire. Such was the reasoning only of the ignorant. In another issue of The Ladies’ Wreath
a young lady is represented in dialogue with her “Professor.” The girl expresses admiration for the bloomer costume-it gives freedom of mo- tion, is healthful and attractive. The “Professor” sets her straight. Trou- sers, he explains, are “only one of the many manifestations of that wild spirit of socialism and agrarian radicalism which is at present so rife in our land.” The young lady recants immediately: “If this dress has any connexion with Fourierism or Socialism, or fanaticism in any shape what- ever, I have no disposition to wear it at all … no true woman would so far compromise her delicacy as to espouse, however unwittingly, such a cause.”3′
America could boast that her daughters were particularly innocent. In a poem on “The American Girl” the author wrote proudly:
28 The Young Man’s Guide (Boston, 1833), pp. 229, 231. 29 Female Influence: and the True Christian Mode of Its Exercise; a Discourse De-
livered in the First Presbyterian Church in Newburyport, July 30, 1837 (Newburyport, 1837), p. 18.
30 W. Tolles, “Woman The Creature of God and the Manufacturer of Society,” Ladies’ Wreath (New York), III (1852), 205.
31 Prof. William M. Heim, “The Bloomer Dress,” Ladies’ Wreath, III (1852), 247.
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158 American Quarterly
Her eye of light is the diamond bright, Her innocence the pearl, And these are ever the bridal gems That are worn by the American girl.32
Lydia Maria Child, giving advice to mothers, aimed at preserving that
spirit of innocence. She regretted that “want of confidence between mothers and daughters on delicate subjects” and suggested a woman tell her daughter a few facts when she reached the age of twelve to “set her
mind at rest.” Then Mrs. Child confidently hoped that a young lady’s “instinctive modesty” would “prevent her from dwelling on the informa-
tion until she was called upon to use it.”33 In the same vein, a book of advice to the newly-married was titled Whisper to a Bride.34 As far as intimate information was concerned, there was no need to whisper, since the book contained none at all.
A masculine summary of this virtue was expressed in a poem “Female Charms”:
I would have her as pure as the snow on the mount- As true as the smile that to infamy’s given-
As pure as the wave of the crystalline fount, Yet as warm in the heart as the sunlight of heaven.
With a mind cultivated, not boastingly wise, I could gaze on such beauty, with exquisite bliss;
With her heart on her lips and her soul in her eyes- What more could I wish in dear woman than this.35
Man might, in fact, ask no more than this in woman, but she was be- ginning to ask more of herself, and in the asking was threatening the
third powerful and necessary virtue, submission. Purity, considered as a
moral imperative, set up a dilemma which was hard to resolve. Woman
must preserve her virtue until marriage and marriage was necessary for
her happiness. Yet marriage was, literally, an end to innocence. She was told not to question this dilemma, but simply to accept it.
Submission was perhaps the most feminine virtue expected of women. Men were supposed to be religious, although they rarely had time for it,
32 The Young Lady’s Offering: or Gems of Prose and Poetry (Boston, 1853), p. 283. The American girl, whose innocence was often connected with ignorance, was the spirit- ual ancestress of the Henry James heroine. Daisy Miller, like Lucy Dutton, saw inno- cence lead to tragedy.
33 The Mother’s Book (Boston, 1831), pp. 151, 152. 34 Mrs. L. H. Sigourney, Whisper to a Bride (Hartford, 1851), in which Mrs. Sigour-
ney’s approach is summed up in this quotation: “Home! Blessed bride, thou art about to enter this sanctuary, and to become a priestess at its altar!,” p. 44.
35 S. R. R., “Female Charms,” Godey’s Magazine and Lady’s Book (Philadelphia), XXXIII (1846), 52.
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The Cult of True Womanhood 159
and supposed to be pure, although it came awfully hard to them, but men were the movers, the doers, the actors. Women were the passive, sub- missive responders. The order of dialogue was, of course, fixed in Heaven.
Man was “woman’s superior by God’s appointment, if not in intellectual dowry, at least by official decree.” Therefore, as Charles Elliott argued in The Ladies’ Repository, she should submit to him “for the sake of good order at least.”36 In The Ladies Companion a young wife was quoted ap- provingly as saying that she did not think woman should “feel and act for herself” because “When, next to God, her husband is not the tribunal to which her heart and intellect appeals-the golden bowl of affection is broken.”37 Women were warned that if they tampered with this quality they tampered with the order of the Universe.
The Young Lady’s Book summarized the necessity of the passive virtues in its readers’ lives: “It is, however, certain, that in whatever situation of life a woman is placed from her cradle to her grave, a spirit of obedience and submission, pliability of temper, and humility of mind, are required from her.”,38
Woman understood her position if she was the right kind of woman, a true woman. “She feels herself weak and timid. She needs a protector,” declared George Burnap, in his lectures on The Sphere and Duties of Woman. “She is in a measure dependent. She asks for wisdom, constancy, firmness, perseverance, and she is willing to repay it all by the surrender of the full treasure of her affections. Woman despises in man every thing like herself except a tender heart. It is enough that she is effeminate and weak; she does not want another like herself.”39 Or put even more strongly by Mrs. Sandford: “A really sensible woman feels her depend- ence. She does what she can, but she is conscious of inferiority, and there- fore grateful for support.”40
Mrs. Sigourney, however, assured young ladies that although they were separate, they were equal. This difference of the sexes did not imply in- feriority, for it was part of that same order of Nature established by Him “who bids the oak brave the fury of the tempest, and the alpine flower lean its cheek on the bosom of eternal snows.”41 Dr. Meigs had a different analogy to make the same point, contrasting the anatomy of the Apollo of the Belvedere (illustrating the male principle) with the Venus de Medici (illustrating the female principle). “Woman,” said the physician,
36 Charles Elliott, “Arguing With Females,” Ladies’ Repository, I (1841), 25. 37 Ladies’ Companion, VIII Jan. 1838), 147. 38 The Young Lady’s Book (New York, 1830), American edition, p. 28. (This is a
different book than the one of the same title and date of publication cited in note 6.) 39 Sphere and Duties of Woman (5th ed., Baltimore, 1854), p. 47. 40 Woman, p. 15.
41 Letters to Young Ladies (Hartford, 1835), p. 179.
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160 American Quarterly
with a kind of clinical gallantry, “has a head almost too small for intellect but just big enough for love.”42
This love itself was to be passive and responsive. “Love, in the heart of a woman,” wrote Mrs. Farrar, “should partake largely of the nature of
gratitude. She should love, because she is already loved by one deserving her regard.”43
Woman was to work in silence, unseen, like Wordsworth’s Lucy. Yet, “working like nature, in secret” her love goes forth to the world “to regu- late its pulsation, and send forth from its heart, in pure and temperate
flow, the life-giving current.”44 She was to work only for pure affection, without thought of money or ambition. A poem, “Woman and Fame,” by Felicia Hemans, widely quoted in many of the gift books, concludes with a spirited renunciation of the gift of fame:
Awayl to me, a woman, bring
Sweet flowers from affection’s spring.45
“True feminine genius,” said Grace Greenwood (Sara Jane Clarke) “is ever timid, doubtful, and clingingly dependent; a perpetual childhood.”
And she advised literary ladies in an essay on “The Intellectual Woman” -“Don’t trample on the flowers while longing for the stars.”46 A wife
who submerged her own talents to work for her husband was extolled as an example of a true woman. In Women of Worth: A Book for Girls, Mrs.
Ann Flaxman, an artist of promise herself, was praised because she “de- voted herself to sustain her husband’s genius and aid him in his arduous career.”47
Caroline Gilman’s advice to the bride aimed at establishing this proper order from the beginning of a marriage: “Oh, young and lovely bride, watch well the first moments when your will conflicts with his to whom God and society have given the control. Reverence his wishes even when you do not his opinions.”48
Mrs. Gilman’s perfect wife in Recollections of a Southern Matron real- izes that “the three golden threads with which domestic happiness is
42 Lecture, p. 17.
43 The Young Lady’s Friend, p. 313.
44 Maria J. McIntosh, Woman in America: Her Work and Her Reward (New York, 1850), p. 25.
45 Poems and a Memoir of the Life of Mrs. Felicia Hemans (London, 1860), p. 16. 46Letter “To an Unrecognized Poetess, June, 1846” (Sara Jane Clarke), Greenwood
Leaves (2nd ed.; Boston, 1850), p. 311.
47 “The Sculptor’s Assistant: Ann Flaxman,” in Women of Worth: A Book for Girls (New York, 1860), p. 263.
48 Mrs. Clarissa Packard (Mrs. Caroline Howard Gilman), Recollections of a House- keeper (New York, 1834), p. 122.
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The Cult of True Womanhood 161
woven” are “to repress a harsh answer, to confess a fault, and to stop (right or wrong) in the midst of self-defense, in gentle submission.”
Woman could do this, hard though it was, because in her heart she knew
she was right and so could afford to be forgiving, even a trifle condescend- ing. “Men are not unreasonable,” averred Mrs. Gilman. “Their difficul- ties lie in not understanding the moral and physical nature of our sex.
They often wound through ignorance, and are surprised at having
offended.” Wives were advised to do their best to reform men, but if they
couldn’t, to give up gracefully. “If any habit of his annoyed me, I spoke
of it once or twice, calmly, then bore it quietly.”49
A wife should occupy herself “only with domestic affairs-wait till
your husband confides to you those of a high importance-and do not
give your advice until he asks for it,” advised the Lady’s Token. At all
times she should behave in a manner becoming a woman, who had “no
arms other than gentleness.” Thus “if he is abusive, never retort.” 50 A
Young Lady’s Guide to the Harmonious Development of a Christian
Character suggested that females should “become as little children” and
“avoid a controversial spirit.” 51 The Mother’s Assistant and Young
Lady’s Friend listed “Always Conciliate” as its first commandment in
“Rules for Conjugal and Domestic Happiness.” Small wonder that these
same rules ended with the succinct maxim: “Do not expect too much.” 52
As mother, as well as wife, woman was required to submit to fortune.
In Letters to Mothers Mrs. Sigourney sighed: “To bear the evils and
sorrows which may be appointed us, with a patient mind, should be the
continual effort of our sex. . . . It seems, indeed, to be expected of us;
since the passive and enduring virtues are more immediately within our province.” Of these trials “the hardest was to bear the loss of children with submission” but the indomitable Mrs. Sigourney found strength to murmur to the bereaved mother: “The Lord loveth a cheerful giver.” 53 The Ladies’ Parlor Companion agreed thoroughly in “A Submissive Mother,” in which a mother who had already buried two children and was nursing a dying baby saw her sole remaining child “probably scalded to death. Handing over the infant to die in the arms of a friend,
49 Recollections of a Southern Matron (New York, 1838), pp. 256, 257. 50 The Lady’s Token: or Gift of Friendship, ed. Colesworth Pinckney (Nashua, N. H.,
1848), p. 119. 51 Harvey Newcomb, Young Lady’s Guide to the Harmonious Development of Chris-
tian Character (Boston, 1846), p. 10. 52 “Rules for Conjugal and Domestic Happiness,” Mother’s Assistant and Young
Lady’s Friend, III (Boston), (April 1843), 115. 53 Letters to Mothers (Hartford, 1838), p. 199. In the diaries and letters of women
who lived during this period the death of a child seemed consistently to be the hardest thing for them to bear and to occasion more anguish and rebellion, as well as eventual submission, than any other event in their lives.
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162 American Quarterly
she bowed in sweet submission to the double stroke.” But the child
“through the goodness of God survived, and the mother learned to say
‘Thy will be done.’ “54
Woman then, in all her roles, accepted submission as her lot. It was
a lot she had not chosen or deserved. As Godey’s said, “the lesson of sub-
mission is forced upon woman.” Without comment or criticism the writer
affirms that “To suffer and to be silent under suffering seems the great
command she has to obey.” 55 George Burnap referred to a woman’s
life as “a series of suppressed emotions.” 56 She was, as Emerson said,
“more vulnerable, more infirm, more mortal than man.” 5 The death of
a beautiful woman, cherished in fiction, represented woman as the inno-
cent victim, suffering without sin, too pure and good for this world but
too weak and passive to resist its evil forces.58 The best refuge for such
a delicate creature was the warmth and safety of her home.
The true woman’s place was unquestionably by her own fireside-as
daughter, sister, but most of all as wife and mother. Therefore domes- ticity was among the virtues most prized by the women’s magazines. “As society is constituted,” wrote Mrs. S. E. Farley, on the “Domestic and Social Claims on Woman,” “the true dignity and beauty of the
female character seem to consist in a right understanding and faithful
and cheerful performance of social and family duties.” 59 Sacred Scripture re-enforced social pressure: “St. Paul knew what was best for women when he advised them to be domestic,” said Mrs. Sandford. “There is composure at home; there is something sedative in the duties which home involves. It affords security not only from the world, but from delusions
and errors of every kind.” 60
From her home woman performed her great task of bringing men back to God. The Young Ladies’ Class Book was sure that “the domestic fire- side is the great guardian of society against the excesses of human pas-
sions.” 61 The Lady at Home expressed its convictions in its very title and concluded that “even if we cannot reform the world in a moment,
54 “A Submissive Mother,” The Ladies’ Parlor Companion: A Collection of Scattered Fragments and Literary Gems (New York, 1852), p. 358.
55 “Woman,” Godey’s Lady’s Book, II (Aug. 1831), 110. 56 Sphere and Duties of Woman, p. 172.
57 Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Woman,” Complete Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson (New York, 1875), p. 1180.
58 As in Donald Fraser, The Mental Flower Garden (New York, 1857). Perhaps the
most famous exponent of this theory is Edgar Allan Poe who affirms in “The Philosophy of Composition” that “the death of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world….”
59 “Domestic and Social Claims on Woman,” Mother’s Magazine, VI (1846), 21. 60 Woman, p. 173.
61 The Young Ladies’ Class Book, p. 166.
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The Cult of True Womanhood 163
we can begin the work by reforming ourselves and our households-It
is woman’s mission. Let her not look away from her own little family
circle for the means of producing moral and social reforms, but begin at
home.” 62
Home was supposed to be a cheerful place, so that brothers, husbands
and sons would not go elsewhere in search of a good time. Woman was
expected to dispense comfort and cheer. In writing the biography of
Margaret Mercer (every inch a true woman) her biographer (male)
notes: “She never forgot that it is the peculiar province of woman to
minister to the comfort, and promote the happiness, first, of those most
nearly allied to her, and then of those, who by the Providence of God
are placed in a state of dependence upon her.” 63 Many other essays in
the women’s journals showed woman as comforter: “Woman, Man’s Best
Friend,” “Woman, the Greatest Social Benefit,” “Woman, A Being to Come Home To,” “The Wife: Source of Comfort and the Spring of Joy.” 64
One of the most important functions of woman as comforter was her
role as nurse. Her own health was probably, although regrettably, deli-
cate.65 Many homes had “little sufferers,” those pale children who wasted away to saintly deaths. And there were enough other illnesses of youth
and age, major and minor, to give the nineteenth-century American woman nursing experience. The sickroom called for the exercise of her higher qualities of patience, mercy and gentleness as well as for her housewifely arts. She could thus fulfill her dual feminine function- beauty and usefulness.
The cookbooks of the period offer formulas for gout cordials, ointment for sore nipples, hiccough and cough remedies, opening pills and re-
62 T. S. Arthur, The Lady at Home: or, Leaves from the Every-Day Book of an Ameri-
can Woman (Philadelphia, 1847), pp. 177, 178. 63 Caspar Morris, Margaret Mercer (Boston, 1840), quoted in Woman’s Record, p. 425.
64 These particular titles come from: The Young Ladies’ Oasis: or Gems of Prose and
Poetry, ed. N. L. Ferguson (Lowell, 1851), pp. 14, 16; The Genteel School Reader (Philadelphia, 1849), p. 271; and Magnolia, I (1842), 4. A popular poem in book form, published in England, expressed very fully this concept of woman as comforter: Cov- entry Patmore, The Angel in the Home (Boston, 1856 and 1857). Patmore expressed his devotion to True Womanhood in such lines as:
The gentle wife, who decks his board
And makes his day to have no night, Whose wishes wait upon her Lord,
Who finds her own in his delight. (p. 94) 35 The women’s magazines carried on a crusade against tight lacing and regretted,
rather than encouraged, the prevalent ill health of the American woman. See, for example, An American Mother, Hints and Sketches (New York, 1839), pp. 28 ff. for an essay on the need for a healthy mind in a healthy body in order to better be a good example for children.
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164 American Quarterly
freshing drinks for fever, along with recipes for pound cake, jumbles, stewed calves head and currant wine.66 The Ladies’ New Book of Cook- ery believed that “food prepared by the kind hand of a wife, mother, sister, friend” tasted better and had a “restorative power which money cannot purchase.” 67
A chapter of The Young Lady’s Friend was devoted to woman’s privi- lege as “ministering spirit at the couch of the sick.” Mrs. Farrar advised a soft voice, gentle and clean hands, and a cheerful smile. She also cau- tioned against an excess of female delicacy. That was all right for a young lady in the parlor, but not for bedside manners. Leeches, for example, were to be regarded as “a curious piece of mechanism . . . their orna- mental stripes should recommend them even to the eye, and their valu- able services to our feelings.” And she went on calmly to discuss their use. Nor were women to shrink from medical terminology, since “If you cultivate right views of the wonderful structure of the body, you will be as willing to speak to a physician of the bowels as the brains of your patient.” 68
Nursing the sick, particularly sick males, not only made a woman feel useful and accomplished, but increased her influence. In a piece of heavy- handed humor in Godey’s a man confessed that some women were only happy when their husbands were ailing that they might have the joy of nursing him to recovery “thus gratifying their medical vanity and their love of power by making him more dependent upon them.” 69 In a simi- lar vein a husband sometimes suspected his wife “almost wishes me dead
-for the pleasure of being utterly inconsolable.” 70
In the home women were not only the highest adornment of civiliza- tion, but they were supposed to keep busy at morally uplifting tasks. Fortunately most of housework, if looked at in true womanly fashion, could be regarded as uplifting. Mrs. Sigourney extolled its virtues: “The science of housekeeping affords exercise for the judgment and energy, ready recollection, and patient self-possession, that are the characteristics
66 The best single collection of nineteenth-century cookbooks is in the Academy of Medicine of New York Library, although some of the most interesting cures were in hand-written cookbooks found among the papers of women who lived during the period.
67 Sarah Josepha Hale, The Ladies’ New Book of Cookery: A Practical System for Private Families in Town and Country (5th ed.; New York, 1852), p. 409. Similar evi- dence on the importance of nursing skills to every female is found in such books of advice as William A. Alcott, The Young Housekeeper (Boston, 1838), in which, along with a plea for apples and cold baths, Alcott says “Every female should be trained to the angelic art of managing properly the sick,” p. 47.
68 The Young Lady’s Friend, pp. 75-77, 79. 69 “A Tender Wife,” Godey’s, II (uly 1831), 28. 70 “MY WIFE! A Whisper,” Godey’s, II (Oct. 1831), 231.
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The Cult of True Womanhood 165
of a superior mind.” 71 According to Mrs. Farrar, making beds was good
exercise, the repetitiveness of routine tasks inculcated patience and perse-
verance, and proper management of the home was a surprisingly complex
art: “There is more to be learned about pouring out tea and coffee,
than most young ladies are willing to believe.”72 Godey’s went so far as to
suggest coyly, in “Learning vs. Housewifery” that the two were comple- mentary, not opposed: chemistry could be utilized in cooking, geometry
in dividing cloth, and phrenology in discovering talent in children.73
Women were to master every variety of needlework, for, as Mrs.
Sigourney pointed out, “Needle-work, in all its forms of use, elegance,
and ornament, has ever been the appropriate occupation of woman.” 74
Embroidery improved taste; knitting promoted serenity and economy.75
Other forms of artsy-craftsy activity for her leisure moments included
painting on glass or velvet, Poonah work, tussy-mussy frames for her own
needlepoint or water colors, stands for hyacinths, hair bracelets or baskets
of feathers.76
She was expected to have a special affinity for flowers. To the editors
of The Lady’s Token “A Woman never appears more truly in her sphere,
than when she divides her time between her domestic avocations and the
culture of flowers.” 77 She could write letters, an activity particularly
feminine since it had to do with the outpourings of the heart,78 or prac-
tice her drawingroom skills of singing and playing an instrument. She
might even read.
Here she faced a bewildering array of advice. The female was danger-
ously addicted to novels, according to the literature of the period. She
should avoid them, since they interfered with “serious piety.” If she
simply couldn’t help herself and read them anyway, she should choose
edifying ones from lists of morally acceptable authors.79 She should study
71 Letters to Young Ladies, p. 27. The greatest exponent of the mental and moral joys of housekeeping was the Lady’s Annual Register and Housewife’s Memorandum Book (Boston, 1838), which gave practical advice on ironing, hair curling, budgeting and marketing, and turning cuffs-all activities which contributed to the “beauty of usefulness” and “joy of accomplishment” which a woman desired (I, 23).
72 The Young Lady’s Friend, p. 230.
73 “Learning vs. Housewifery,” Godey’s, X (Aug. 1839), 95.
74Letters to Young Ladies, p. 25. W. Thayer, Life at the Fireside (Boston, 1857), has an idyllic picture of the woman of the house mending her children’s garments, the grandmother knitting and the little girl taking her first stitches, all in the light of the domestic hearth.
75 “The Mirror’s Advice,” Young Maidem’s Mirror (Boston, 1858), p. 263. 76 Mrs. L. Maria Child, The Girl’s Own Book (New York, 1833).
77P. 44.
78 T. S. Arthur, Advice to Young Ladies (Boston, 1850), p. 45.
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166 American Quarterly
history since it “showed the depravity of the human heart and the evil
nature of sin.” On the whole, “religious biography was best.” 79
The women’s magazines themselves could be read without any loss of
concern for the home. Godey’s promised the husband that he would find
his wife “no less assiduous for his reception, or less sincere in welcoming
his return” as a result of reading their magazine.80 The Lily of the Valley
won its right to be admitted to the boudoir by confessing that it was “like
its namesake humble and unostentatious, but it is yet pure, and, we trust,
free from moral imperfections.” 81
No matter what later authorities claimed, the nineteenth century knew
that girls could be ruined by a book. The seduction stories regard “excit-
ing and dangerous books” as contributory causes of disaster. The man
without honorable intentions always provides the innocent maiden
with such books as a prelude to his assault on her virtue.82 Books which attacked or seemed to attack woman’s accepted place in society were re-
garded as equally dangerous. A reviewer of Harriet Martineau’s Society
in America wanted it kept out of the hands of American women. They
were so susceptible to persuasion, with their “gentle yielding natures”
that they might listen to “the bold ravings of the hard-featured of their own sex.” The frightening result: “such reading will unsettle them for
their true station and pursuits, and they will throw the world back again into confusion.” 83
The debate over women’s education posed the question of whether a
“finished” education detracted from the practice of housewifely arts. Again it proved to be a case of semantics, for a true woman’s education
was never “finished” until she was instructed in the gentle science of homemaking.84 Helen Irving, writing on “Literary Women,” made it very
clear that if women invoked the muse, it was as a genie of the household
lamp. “If the necessities of her position require these duties at her hands, she will perform them nonetheless cheerfully, that she knows herself capable of higher things.” The literary woman must conform to the same standards as any other woman: “That her home shall be made a loving place of rest and joy and comfort for those who are dear to her, will be
79 R. C. Waterston, Thoughts on Moral and Spiritual Culture (Boston, 1842), p. 101. Newcomb’s Young Lady’s Guide also advised religious biography as the best reading for women (p. 111).
80 Godey’s, I (1828), 1. (Repeated often in Godey’s editorials.) 81 The Lily of the Valley, n. v. (1851), p. 2.
82 For example, “The Fatalist,” Godey’s, IV (Jan. 1834), 10, in which Somers Dudley has Catherine reading these dangerous books until life becomes “a bewildered dream…. o passion, what a shocking perverter of reason thou art!”
83 Review of Society in America (New York, 1837) in American Quarterly Review (Philadelphia), XXII (Sept. 1837), 38.
84 “A Finished Education,” Ladies’ Museum (Providence), I (1825), 42.
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The Cult of True Womanhood 167
the first wish of every true woman’s heart.” 85 Mrs. Ann Stephens told
women who wrote to make sure they did not sacrifice one domestic duty.
“As for genius, make it a domestic plant. Let its roots strike deep in your
house…. “86
The fear of “blue stockings” (the eighteenth-century male’s term of
derision for educated or literary women) need not persist for nineteenth-
century American men. The magazines presented spurious dialogues in
which bachelors were convinced of their fallacy in fearing educated wives.
One such dialogue took place between a young man and his female
cousin. Ernest deprecates learned ladies (“A Woman is far more lovable
than a philosopher”) but Alice refutes him with the beautiful example
of their Aunt Barbara who “although she has perpetrated the heinous
crime of writing some half dozen folios” is still a model of “the spirit of
feminine gentleness.” His memory prodded, Ernest concedes that, by
George, there was a woman: “When I last had a cold she not only made me a bottle of cough syrup, but when I complained of nothing new to
read, set to work and wrote some twenty stanzas on consumption.” 87
The magazines were filled with domestic tragedies in which spoiled
young girls learned that when there was a hungry man to feed French
and china painting were not helpful. According to these stories many
a marriage is jeopardized because the wife has not learned to keep house.
Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote a sprightly piece of personal experience
for Godey’s, ridiculing her own bad housekeeping as a bride. She used the same theme in a story “The Only Daughter,” in which the pampered
beauty learns the facts of domestic life from a rather difficult source, her
mother-in-law. Mrs. Hamilton tells Caroline in the sweetest way possible to shape up in the kitchen, reserving her rebuke for her son: “You are her husband-her guide-her protector-now see what you can do,” she
admonishes him. “Give her credit for every effort: treat her faults with tenderness; encourage and praise whenever you can, and depend upon it,
you will see another woman in her.” He is properly masterful, she prop-
erly domestic and in a few months Caroline is making lumpless gravy and keeping up with the darning. Domestic tranquillity has been restored and the young wife moralizes: “Bring up a girl to feel that she has a
responsible part to bear in promoting the happiness of the family, and you make a reflecting being of her at once, and remove that lightness and frivolity of character which makes her shrink from graver studies.” 88 These stories end with the heroine drying her hands on her apron and
85 Helen Irving, “Literary Women,” Ladies’ Wreath, III (1850), 93. 86 “Women of Genius,” Ladies’ Companion, XI (1839), 89.
87 “Intellect vs. Affection in Woman,” Godey’s, XVI (1846), 86. 88 “The Only Daughter,” Godey’s, X (Mar. 1839), 122.
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168 American Quarterly
vowing that her daughter will be properly educated, in piecrust as well as Poonah work.
The female seminaries were quick to defend themselves against any
suspicion of interfering with the role which nature’s God had assigned to women. They hoped to enlarge and deepen that role, but not to
change its setting. At the Young Ladies’ Seminary and Collegiate Insti- tute in Monroe City, Michigan, the catalogue admitted few of its gradu-
ates would be likely “to fill the learned professions.” Still, they were
called to “other scenes of usefulness and honor.” The average woman is to be “the presiding genius of love” in the home, where she is to “give a
correct and elevated literary taste to her children, and to assume that influential station that she ought to possess as the companion of an edu-
cated man.” 89
At Miss Pierce’s famous school in Litchfield, the students were taught
that they had “attained the perfection of their characters when they
could combine their elegant accomplishments with a turn for solid do- mestic virtues.” 90 Mt. Holyoke paid pious tribute to domestic skills: “Let a young lady despise this branch of the duties of woman, and she
despises the appointments of her existence.” God, nature and the Bible “enjoin these duties on the sex, and she cannot violate them with im- punity.” Thus warned, the young lady would have to seek knowledge of these duties elsewhere, since it was not in the curriculum at Mt. Holyoke. “We would not take this privilege from the mother.” 91
One reason for knowing her way around a kitchen was that America was “a land of precarious fortunes,” as Lydia Maria Child pointed out in her book The Frugal Housewife: Dedicated to Those Who Are Not Ashamed of Economy. Mrs. Child’s chapter “How To Endure Poverty” prescribed a combination of piety and knowledge-the kind of knowledge found in a true woman’s education, “a thorough religious useful educa- tion.” 92 The woman who had servants today, might tomorrow, because of a depression or panic, be forced to do her own work. If that happened she knew how to act, for she was to be the same cheerful consoler of her husband in their cottage as in their mansion.
An essay by Washington Irving, much quoted in the gift annuals, dis- cussed the value of a wife in case of business reverses: “I have observed that a married man falling into misfortune is more apt to achieve his
89 The Annual Catalogue of the Officers and Pupils of the Young Ladies’ Seminary
and Collegiate Institute (Monroe City, 1855), pp. 18, 19. 90 Chronicles of a Pioneer School from 1792 to 1833: Being the History of Miss Sarah
Pierce and Her Litchfield School, Compiled by Emily Noyes Vanderpoel; ed. Elizabeth C. Barney Buel (Cambridge, 1903), p. 74.
91 Mt. Holyoke Female Seminary, p. 13.
92 The American Frugal Housewife (New York, 1838), p. 111.
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The Cult of True Womanhood 169
situation in the world than a single one . . . it is beautifully ordained by
Providence that woman, who is the ornament of man in his happier
hours, should be his stay and solace when smitten with sudden calam-
A story titled simply but eloquently “The Wife” dealt with the quiet
heroism of Ellen Graham during her husband’s plunge from fortune to
poverty. Ned Graham said of her: “Words are too poor to tell you what
I owe to that noble woman. In our darkest seasons of adversity, she has
been an angel of consolation-utterly forgetful of self and anxious only
to comfort and sustain me.” Of course she had a little help from “faith-
ful Dinah who absolutely refused to leave her beloved mistress,” but
even so Ellen did no more than would be expected of any true woman.94
Most of this advice was directed to woman as wife. Marriage was the
proper state for the exercise of the domestic virtues. “True Love and a
Happy Home,” an essay in The Young Ladies’ Oasis, might have been carved on every girl’s hope chest.95 But although marriage was best, it
was not absolutely necessary. The women’s magazines tried to remove the stigma from being an “Old Maid.” They advised no marriage at all
rather than an unhappy one contracted out of selfish motives.96 Their
stories showed maiden ladies as unselfish ministers to the sick, teachers of the young, or moral preceptors with their pens, beloved of the entire vil-
lage. Usually the life of single blessedness resulted from the premature
death of a fiance, or was chosen through fidelity to some high mission. For example, in “Two Sisters,” Mary devotes herself to Ellen and her abandoned children, giving up her own chance for marriage. “Her devo- tion to her sister’s happiness has met its reward in the consciousness of having fulfilled a sacred duty.” 97 Very rarely, a “woman of genius” was
93 “Female Influence,” in The Ladies’ Pearl and Literary Gleaner: A Collection of Tales, Sketches, Essays, Anecdotes, and Historical Incidents (Lowell), I (1841), 10.
94 Mrs. S. T. Martyn, “The Wife,” Ladies’ Wreath, II (1848-49), 171. 95 The Young Ladies’ Oasis, p. 26. 96 “On Marriage,” Ladies’ Repository, I (1841), 133; “Old Maids,” Ladies’ Literary
Cabinet (Newburyport), II (1822) (Microfilm), 141; “Matrimony,” Godey’s, II (Sept. 1831), 174; and “Married or Single,” Peterson’s Magazine (Philadelphia) IX (1859), 36, all express the belief that while marriage is desirable for a woman it is not essential. This attempt to reclaim the status of the unmarried woman is an example of the kind of mild crusade which the women’s magazines sometimes carried on. Other examples were their strictures against an overly-genteel education and against the affectation and aggravation of ill health. In this sense the magazines were truly conservative, for they did not oppose all change but only that which did violence to some cherished tradi- tion. The reforms they advocated would, if put into effect, make woman even more the perfect female, and enhance the ideal of True Womanhood.
97 Girlhood and Womanhood, p. 100. Mrs. Graves tells the stories in the book in the person of an “Old Maid” and her conclusions are that “single life has its happiness too” for the single woman “can enjoy all the pleasures of maternity without its pains and trials” (p. 140). In another one of her books, Woman in America (New York, 1843),
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170 American Quarterly
absolved from the necessity of marriage, being so extraordinary that she
did not need the security or status of being a wife.98 Most often, however,
if girls proved “difficult,” marriage and a family were regarded as a
cure.99 The “sedative quality” of a home could be counted on to subdue
even the most restless spirits.
George Burnap saw marriage as “that sphere for which woman was
originally intended, and to which she is so exactly fitted to adorn and
bless, as the wife, the mistress of a home, the solace, the aid, and the
counsellor of that ONE, for whose sake alone the world is of any conse-
quence to her.”‘100 Samuel Miller preached a sermon on women: “How interesting and important are the duties devolved on females as WIVES
. . . the counsellor and friend of the husband; who makes it her daily
study to lighten his cares, to soothe his sorrows, and to augment his joys;
who, like a guardian angel, watches over his interests, warns him against dangers, comforts him under trials; and by her pious, assiduous, and at-
tractive deportment, constantly endeavors to render him more virtuous,
more useful, more honourable, and more happy.””10 A woman’s whole interest should be focused on her husband, paying him “those number-
less attentions to which the French give the title of petits soins and
which the woman who loves knows so well how to pay . . . she should
consider nothing as trivial which could win a smile of approbation from him.”102
Marriage was seen not only in terms of service but as an increase in
Mrs. Graves speaks out even more strongly in favor of “single blessedness” rather than “a loveless or unhappy marriage” (p. 130).

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