In the 1960’s feminist history began to rise. Barbara Welter pioneered the study of nineteenth century women, their roles in society, and the moral compass that drove them. Since the publication of her article The Cult of True Womanhood, many have agreed with her sentiments. In the past twenty-five years the application of Welter’s claims have been hotly debated.
Barbara Welter pioneered the study of the “Cult of Domesticity.” Welter claimed that women of the nineteenth century were “held hostage in the home.”1 In an environment where things constantly were changing, such as control of fortunes, materialistic gains and the chance for social mobility, according to Welter one thing remained the same, a “true woman.” Welter described the “true woman,” as holding steadfast to four qualities, piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity.2
Anyone testing the intrinsic worth of the four qualities was seen as an enemy to civilization, and of God.3 Women saw it as “a fearful obligation, a solemn responsibility, which the nineteenth century woman had to “uphold the pillars of the temple with her frail white hand.”4 By using the four virtues to build her own sense of woman, and judge her peers the average woman was promised contentment and power. Without them, no matter what else she had accomplished, she was nothing.
Piety or strong respectful belief in a deity or deities, and strict observance of religious principles in everyday life, made up the core of the virtues. A young man looking for a woman to spend his life with, was encouraged to search for someone who held this faithfulness because if they had it all other merits would follow. Welter reported that the masses of the population felt the world would be salvaged for God by way of woman’s suffering.5 Welter collected evidence supporting why women were religious and why they needed to be. Sources for this include a speech to a graduating class of medical students, an article in the Ladies Repository, and the book Woman In Her Social and Domestic Character.6 Different from involvement in other organizations or clubs, religious practice to not take a woman away from her “proper sphere,” her home.7
The absence of purity was considered unnatural and unfeminine. According to Welter, a woman who lacked purity, pertaining to whether or not she had chosen to save herself for marriage, was “no woman at all , but a member of some lower order,” who was undeserving of the company of others.8 Quoting from women’s magazines Welter discovered that the loss of one’s purity was thought to bring about madness and even death.9 Purity was to be the single greatest gift a woman bestowed upon her husband on their wedding night, from that moment on she became completely dependant upon him. Welter displayed the level of dependency by quoting from Mary R. Beard’s book, Women as a Force in History, “women became an empty vessel, without a legal or emotional existence of her own.”10
In her article Welter presented many examples of advice given to young girls in order to avoid the challenge men put upon a woman’s purity. One example can be found in Eliza Farrar’s The Young Lady’s Friend, advised women not to sit too close, read out of the same book or place one’s head to close to a member of the opposite sex.”11 Welter also showed evidence on what would happen to a girl who was considered “loose.” In a collection of stories about her childhood schoolmates, A.J. Graves told the story of Amelia Dorrington, who died in an almshouse after living a life of “depravity and intemperance,” as the result of her mother allowing her to live a “high spirited and imprudent life.”12 Her spirited lifestyle was misinterpreted by a man, and had “disastrous results, followed by a total loss of virtuous principle.”13 Welter argued, if a woman resisted the assaults men placed upon her virtue, she proved her superiority and power of men.
Welter placed emphasis upon the submissiveness of women, “Submissiveness was perhaps the most feminine virtue expected of women.15 All of virtues thus far have been given the same emphasis, so which is truly the most important? Men were considered to be the movers, the doers, and the actors while women were seen as the passive submissive responders.16 Using material from the mid nineteenth century, Welter concluded that “a woman understood her position, if she was the right kind of woman, a true woman.”17 George Burnap lectured in his Sphere and Duties of the Woman, that “a woman asks for wisdom, consistency, firmness, perseverance and is willing to repay it all by the surrender of the full treasure of her affections.”18 Welter further backed up her claims with a letter by Grace Greenwood in which she stated, “A wife who submerged her own talents to work for her husband was extolled as an example of a true woman.”
Once again Welter describes the final virtue of domesticity to be of most important value. Domesticity can be described as a state of being domestic, pertaining to life lived within the home.20 Welter illustrated the importance of domesticity to the women’s magazine industry. Welter explained that “from her home woman performed her greatest task of bringing men back to God.”21 She evidences this by quoting The Young Lady’s Class Book, “the domestic fireside is the great guardian of society against the excesses of human passions.”22 The home was to be seen as a comforting place where husbands, brothers and sons could go instead of searching outside of the home for something more positive. The woman was expected to soothe and cheer her family members as seen in such essays as Woman a Man’s Best Friend, Woman, the Greatest Social Benefit, and the Wife: Source of Comfort and the Spring of Joy.
Domesticity included nursing the sick husband and children, learning and mastering sewing and needlepoint, cleaning house, and cultivation of flowers and plants. Welter demonstrates a woman’s need for nursing by citing the Godey’s Lady’s Book, “women were happy when their husbands were ailing they might have the joy of nursing him back to health , thus gratifying their medical vanity and their love of power by making him more dependant upon them.24 Welter concluded with “making beds was good exercise, the repetitiveness of routine tasks inculcated patience and perseverance, proper management of the home was a surprisingly complex art, after reading The Young Ladies Friend.
Barbara Welter closes her essay reflecting that “the very perfection of True Womanhood, carried within itself the seeds of its own destruction.”26 Welter suggested that real women frequently felt as if they did not live up to the ideal of True Womanhood, blaming themselves, challenging the norms and encouraging the range of qualities that qualified one as a “true woman.”27 Welter also accused the magazines and other publications of manipulation of their readers in order to convince them that the stability of society rested upon their adherence to the four virtues.28
Since the article written by Barbara Welter, women’s history has exploded. The “new” history has come to include women of all classes, races and religion. The application of the “cult of domesticity,” can no longer be applied to nineteenth century American women as a whole. Under further review of true womanhood, scholars such as Linda Kerber, Kathleen Brown , Mary Kelly and Laura McCall reject the use of a unilateral acceptance applying the virtues of true womanhood to all women. Kathleen Brown believes that by embracing a more expansive conception of early American history-including the effects European, colonial Africa and indigenous populations we can create a more refined investigation of gender roles in America.29 Brown’s idea was a meshing of “new” history, paying closer attention to specific details of specific populations, while using the older comparative history’s framework.
Laura McCall found new knowledge that opposed Welter’s stance on women from the mid nineteenth century. McCall suggests the role played by women in both the household and in the workplace increased their autonomy within and outside their sphere.30 Agreeing with Brown, McCall understood that by shifting from literary and narrow sources to more personalized sources such as diaries and letters, historians could get a more accurate picture of all women’s lives. She also believed that by evaluating a document for itself, rather than by culminating an idea based upon all materials was the best way to interpret how and what images were absorbed into mainstream women’s culture.
The focus of McCall’s article was the scrutiny faced by the Godey’s Lady’s Book. Critics of the Godey’s book claimed that by way of the four virtues they fostered an antifeminist outlook.32 The “book”, which was actually more of a magazine has been extensively cited by countless scholars. The creator of the book, Louis Godey, claimed “it is my business and pleasure to please them,” speaking of his readers.33 Godey joined forces with Sarah Josepha Hale who wrote editorials calling for the creation of women’s colleges, female doctors, less restrictive dress and was not a “mouthpiece for an ideology dictated by men,” conflicting Welter’s findings.
McCall created a content analysis of a random sample of 120 stories for each of the thirty years it was published. For each story 109 questions were asked reflecting age of the women involved in the story, socioeconomic status, literacy level, marital status and occupation.35 Other questions were geared towards traditional masculine or feminine traits, and those concerning the author such as sex, setting and tone. The statistical data was interpreted and recorded by McCall, they are purely her interpretations.
Through her statistical research McCall was surprised to learn that 79% of the articles did not make any reference to piety, one of the four virtues that Welter stated as the core value of true womanhood.”36 McCall also found that while suffering, death and great personal danger was present in many stories, rarely did the subjects turn to church or to God.37 With regard to purity McCall also suggested that historians critically rethink what they have previously imagined. While infidelity was shunned, sexual pleasure within the sanctity of marriage was considered healthy. Only six of the stories represented the “fallen angel,” with just one of them passing on as a result of her lost virtues.38
According to Barbara Welter the true place of a woman was in her home as a wife and mother. In 64.5% of the stories domesticity was not tackled at all, and not one story condemned a woman for her lack of domestic skills.39 More prominence was place upon a woman fulfilling her own interests in addition to maintaining the respect, confidence and affection of their husbands.40 McCall also learned that in only 25.7%of the stories the lead character felt the home was an emotionally satisfying environment, 64.5% felt the home was not a haven at all, and in 19.35% of the stories women did not provide the comfort and tranquility Welter described.41 These figures suggest that marriage and family were not the only pursuits that women were encouraged to seek out.
With regard to submissiveness, there were eleven questions posed. The results of these questions may be skewed because so few stories dealt with he differences between men and women. In 76.5% of the stories no comparison between the sexes was made.42 There were however many stories that portrayed the women as heroines.43 88.1% of the women in the stories were considered intelligent, 74% were seen as physically strong, 86.5% as independent and 87.5% as emotionally strong.44 According to McCall these findings “modify the belief that assertive behavior was condemned.”
McCall concludes her essay dismissing the common idea that Godey’s Lady’s Book subscribed to the belief in the cult of true womanhood, in either their editorial or fictional stories. She also notes that “a systemic approach enables the historian to appreciate a source’s richness and complexity.”
Mary Kelley, another historian debating Welter’s claims to true womanhood also backs up her argument with the works of many historians. Kelley and other historians including Lori D. Ginsburg, Barbara Leslie Epstein and Julie Roy Jeffery believe that “true womanhood’s tenets could be made to do cultural work that empowered women.”47 Ginzburg claimed that nineteenth century white women used their religious affiliations to help promote benevolent and reform causes.48 Jeffery theorized that women who championed the anti-slavery cause not only challenged the institution as immoral but also brought it into the public eye.
Kelley suggests that purity was used a “weapon of righteousness wielded against the male sexual license and the double standard.”50 She backs up this argument quoting from Nancy Cott’s Passionlessness: An Interpretation of Victorian Sexual Ideology, 1790-1850, “antebellum women translated the same feminine purity into a female passionlessness that they deployed to secure social and familial power.”
With reading antebellum fiction Kelley became skeptical of the submissiveness that Welter described that deprived women of power. Reading Private Women, Public Stage: Literary Domesticity in Nineteenth Century America, replaced and discarded much of Welter’s theory. This coincides with McCall’s findings in her study. In regards to domesticity Kelley touches on a change in boundaries that Welter used to define it, but relates it mostly to a change in women’s involvement in the anti-slavery movement.
Barbara Welter made claims that spread the ideology of “true womanhood,” across the entire United States, spanning all races and classes. Newer historians suggest that while this culture may have applied to certain groups, upon further review and scrutiny realized it did not apply to all. Welter closed her article suggesting that the cult of domesticity made women challenge the norm and brought about change, a point often overlooked by historians, arguing against Welter. The focus of Welter’s article lies in proving how the four virtues taught women how to be women, not how it shaped them into changing how they thought of themselves and how other’s viewed them.