|Barbara Welter, "The Cult
of True Womanhood: 1820-1860" (1966)
In the following article, historian Barbara Welter looks
at the antebellum decades of the nineteenth century and
describes an important stage in the expression of sexual
stereotypes. The idea of "The Cult of True Womanhood,"
or "the cult of domesticity," sought to assert that
womanly virtue resided in piety, purity, submissiveness and
domesticity. As you read, consider why these characteristics
were seen as so crucial to promoting a woman's
"proper role," and how such assertions about the roles
of women might have served as a response to the growth of
The nineteenth-century American man was a busy builder of
bridges and railroads, at work long hours in a materialistic
society. The religious values of his forbears 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 cast 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. 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 that made up True
Womanhood, he was damned immediately as the enemy of God, of
civilization, and of the Republic. It was the 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
herself and was judged by her husband, her neighbors, and her
society could be divided into four cardinal virtues - piety,
purity, submissiveness, and domesticity... Without them.... 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. Religion belonged to woman by divine right, a
gift of God and nature. This "peculiar susceptibility"
to religion was given her for a reason: "the vestal flame
of piety, lightened up by Heaven in the breast of woman"
would throw its beams into the naughty world of men. So far
would the candle power reach that the "Universe might be
enlightened, improved, and harmonized by Woman...."bringing
the world back "from its revolt and sin..."
Caleb Atwater, Esq., writing in The Ladies Repository,
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 dependence." And Mrs. John Sanford... agreed
thoroughly: "Religion is just what a woman needs. Without
it she is ever restless and unhappy..." [These writers]
spoke of religion 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 societies or movements, church work would
not make her less domestic or submissive... In religious
vineyards, said the Young Ladies╠ Literary and Missionary
Report, "you may labor without the apprehension of
detracting from the charms of feminine delicacy." Mrs. S.
L. Dagg, writing from her chapter of the Society in Tuscaloosa,
Alabama, was equally reassuring: "As no sensible woman will
suffer her intellectual pursuits to clash with her domestic
duties," she should concentrate on religious work
"which promotes these very duties..."
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
Joseph Hale spoke darkly of those who... threw away the
"One True Book" for others, open to error... Mrs. Hale
used [these unfortunate women] as fateful proof that "the
greater the intellectual force, the greater and more fatal the
errors into which women fall who wander from the Rock of
Purity was as essential as piety to a young woman, its
absence as unnatural 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
such loss of purity brought tears; to be guilty of such a crime,
in the women╠s magazines, at least, brought madness or death.
Even the language of flowers had bitter words for it: a dried
white rose symbolized "Death preferable to the loss of
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, but woman,
stronger and purer, must not give in and let man "take
liberties incompatible with her delicacy." "If you
do," Branagan addressed his gentle reader, "You will
be left in silent sadness to bewail your credulity, imbecility,
duplicity, and premature prostitution."
If such good advice was ignored the consequences were
terrible and inexorable... 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 upon her cheek," came out of her vine-covered
cottage and ran into a city slicker. "And Lucy was
beautiful and trusting, and thoughtless... Needs the story be
told- Nay....Lucy was a child - consider how young, how very
untaught - oh! Her innocence was no match for the sophistry of a
gay, city youth! 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... The frequency
with which derangement 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 towards
her hymen, not her brain.... If, however, a woman managed
to withstand man╠s assaults on her virtue, she
demonstrated her superiority and power over him... Men could be
counted on to be grateful when women thus saved them from
In the nineteenth century, any form of social change was
tantamount to an attack on woman╠s virtue... 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 of only the ignorant. In an 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 motion, is
healthful, and attractive. The Professor sets her straight.
Trousers, he explains, are "only oe of the many
manifestations of that wild spirit of socialism and agrarian
radicalism which is at present so rife in our land..."
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, 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, submissive responders. The order
of dialogue was of course, fixed in Heaven. Man was "woman╠s
superior by God╠s appointment..." Therefore, as Charles
Elliot argued in The Ladies╠ Repository, she should submit to
him "for the sake of good order at least." In The
Ladies Companion a young wife was quoted approvingly 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." Women were warned
that if they tampered with this quality, they tampered with the
order of the
Woman understood her position if she was the right kind of
woman, a true woman...Put strongly by Mrs. Sandford: "A
really sensible woman feels her dependence. She does what she
can, but she is conscious of her inferiority, and therefore
grateful for support...." "True feminine genius,"
said Grace Greenwood, "is ever timid, doubtful, and
clingingly dependent; a perpetual childhood...". Thus,
"if [your husband] is abusive, never retort." A Young
Woman╠s Guide to the Harmonious Development of a Christian
Character suggested that females should "become as little
children" and avoid "a controversial spirit..."
Without comment or criticism the writer affirms that "to
suffer and be silent under suffering seems to be the great
command a woman has to obey..."
Domesticity was among the virtues most prized by women╠s
magazines... 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."
From her home woman performed her great task of bringing men
back to God. The Young Ladies╠ Class Book was sure that the
"domestic fireside is the great guardian of society against
the excesses of human passions...Even if we cannot reform the
world in a moment, 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..."
One of the most important functions of woman as comforter was
her role as nurse...There were enough 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 her housewifely arts. She could thus fulfill her dual
feminine function - beauty
In the home women were not only the highest adornment of
civilization, 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, an patient self-possession, that are the
characteristics of a superior mind." According to Mrs.
Farrar, making beds was good exercise, the repetitiveness of
routine tasks inculcated patience and perseverance...
The female was dangerously 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 the lists of morally acceptable authors... Nineteenth
century knew that girls could be ruined by the book... Books
which attacked or which seemed to attack woman╠s accepted place
were regarded as dangerous. [Women] 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
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 Institute in Monroe City, Michigan, the catalogue
admitted few of its graduates 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... 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 domestic virtues."
Mt. Holyoke paid pious attention tribute to domestic skills:
"Let a young lady despise this branch of the duties of
woman, and she despises the appointments of her
If any woman asked for a greater scope for her gifts, the
magazines were sharply critical. Such women were tampering with
society, undermining civilization. [Such women] were condemned
in the strongest possible language... "They are only
semi-women, mental hermaphrodites." The Rev. Harrington
knew the women of America could not possibly approve of
such perversions and went to some wives and mothers to ask if
they did want a "wider sphere of interest" as these
nonwomen claimed. The answer was reassuring. "NO! Let the
men take care of politics, we will take care of our
children!" Again female discontent resulted only from
a lack of understanding: women were not subservient; they were
rather "chosen vessels..."
"Women's Rights" meant one thing to reformers, but
quite another to the True Woman. She knew her rights.
The right to love whom others scorn
The right to comfort and to mourn.
The right to shed new joy on earth.
The right to feel the soul╠s high worth.
Such women╠s rights, and God will bless
And crown their champions with success...
But even while the women╠s magazines and related literature
encouraged this ideal of the perfect woman, forces were at work
in the nineteenth century which impelled woman herself to
change, to play a more creative role in society. The movements
for social reform, westward migration, missionary activity,
utopian communities, industrialism, the Civil War - all called
forth responses from woman which differed from those she was
trained to believe were hers by nature and divine decree. The
very perfection of True Womanhood, moreover, carried with it the
seeds of its own destruction. For, if women were so very little
less than the angels, she should surely take a more active part
in running the world, especially since men were making such a
hash of things...