'The Cult of True Womanhood' & Female Cardinal Virtues | Feminism 101

Fabiana Mayer | Samuli Karala | Gloria Finland October 2011 | Extreme Beauty

Michelle Cameron’s styling of ‘Extreme Beauty’, a romantic, Victorian, ladylike editorial starring Fabiana Mayer and lensed by Samuli Karala prompts us to take a look at the British and American ‘Cult of Domesticity’, a plan developed to insure that women lived their lives with perfect virtue.

This is another of our new women’s history lessons, that I am prompted to write as American women face the prospect of returning to the Dark Ages, far behind the women of Finland in the quality of our lives — which we are already today. (Note: I will clarify what I mean by quality of life for women in the coming weeks.)

The Victorian Cult of Domesticity in America

In America, the good Christian women who embraced and promoted the Cult of Domesticity were educated and living in the Northeast. They are the very women Phyllis Schlafly loves to hate today, calling us educated Eastern liberals living in glass bubbles and working against women’s interests — a thinking, female, anti-home and family mafia.

Let me not digress. Our focus today is the soulful and spiritual beauty of Victorian women.

According to Barbara Welter, author of the influential essay on this topic, “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820–1860” (American Quarterly, Vol. 18, No. 2, Part i (Summer 1966), pp. 151–174), True Women were to hold the four cardinal virtues:

  1. Piety – believed to be more religious and spiritual than men
  2. Purity – pure in heart, mind, and body
  3. Submission – held in “perpetual childhood” where men dictated all actions and decisions
  4. Domesticity – a division between work and home, encouraged by the Industrial Revolution; men went out in the world to earn a living, home became the woman’s domain where a wife created a “haven in a heartless world” for her husband and children.

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.

Women’s Superior Role as Civilizer

Catherine Beecher, sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe, the 19th century abolitionist who wrote ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ was an American educator known for her advocacy of kindergarten for children and the value of educating women. Beecher believed that women had a higher calling to shape children and society.

Beecher once said: “Woman’s greatest mission is to obey the laws of God, first in the family, then in the school, then in the neighborhood, then in the nation, then in the world.”

Because women were considered to be better a teaching, one of their first jobs out of the home was as teachers.

Godey’s Lady Book

Victorian women in America got their Christian women marching orders from Godey’s Lady Book, published by Louis A. Godey from Philadelphia from 1830-1878 and was the most popular magazine of the day. Elevated in tone, the magazine cultivated women’s innate moral superiority, but also her sense of fashion and need for physical exercise.

It was imperative for women to stay up to date in order to please their husbands. Instructions for seamstresses were often included as part of the Godey’s Lady Book fashion presentation.

Godey’s Lady’s Book proclaimed that, “The perfection of womanhood…is the wife and mother, the center of the family, that magnet that draws man to the domestic altar, that makes him a civilized being, a social Christian,” and that, “The wife is truly the light of the home.”

Caleb Atwater, Esq., writing in The Ladies Repository and cited in ‘The Cult of Womanhood’, 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…”

Sanford’s 19th century Victorian words — and those of her contemporaries — provide a foundation for womanly behavior that has evolved in America, but also resonates loudly with new calls for women’s submission in America from evangelicals and modern muses alike:

“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, 1823-1904 an American writer and first woman reporter on the payroll of the NY Times “is ever timid, doubtful, and clingingly dependent; a perpetual childhood…”. Thus, “if [your husband] is abusive, never retort.”

All of women’s suffering would be rewarded in heaven.

Smart Women As Mental Hermaphrodites

If any woman asked for a greater scope for her gifts, the magazines were sharply critical. Such women were tampering with society, undermining civilization. These women were condemned vociferously.

Women who attempted to use their heads beyond this traditional sphere were “only semi-women, mental hermaphrodites,” declared Henry Harrington in the Ladies’ Companion. He warned women that they ran the risk of driving themselves mad by diverting blood and energy from their true center — the womb.

When asked if women actually wanted a more active role outside the home, writes Welter, the answer was reassuring. “NO! Let the men take care of politics, we will take care of our children!” 

Pushing back against the post Civil War discontent of some women, the vast majority of Americans charged that these radical women had a lack of understanding that females were not subservient; they were rather “chosen vessels…” and on a Christian mission to do God’s work in uplifting men and society by not being contaminated by it. This social mission pilgrimage was particularly important in America — God’s divine right nation.

The fact that Dr Charles Meigs explained to his all-male gynecology class in 1847 that a female had “a head almost too small for intellect and just big enough for love” rang true with many Victorian women, who either accepted their innate intellectual inferiority to men or prioritized the Christian importance of virtue over intellect.

If women were short on brains, it didn’t really matter much. After all, the big reward was in Heaven. Anne

via mnn

‘Woman’s Power’ by Frank J. Walters

Godey’s Lady Book, February 1850

OH! tell me not that woman’s weak,
Inconstant, or unkind;
Though flippant writers often speak
As though dame Nature’s master freak
Was molding woman’s mind.
Around the sufferer’s lowly bed,
When palls the heart of men;
When science falls and hope is fled,
And helpless lies the dying head,
Oh! who is constant then!
Who watches, with a tireless eye,
The faintly heaving breath?
Who hovers round, for ever nigh,
To catch the last expiring sigh,
And soothe the pangs of death?
When disappointment sink the soul,
And round us troubles throng;
When grief exerts its wild control,
And sorrow’s stormy billows roll,
Then, then, oh! who is strong?
Man sinks beneath misfortune’s blow
And hope forsakes his breast;
His boasted powers are all laid low,
His strength is swallowed up in woe,
When not by woman blest.
But she can cheer his drooping heart,
And rouse his soul again;
Can bid his cankering cares depart,
And, by her smiling, artless art,
Can soothe his keenest pain.
Is woman weak? Go as the sword,
The weapon of the brave,

Whose look, whose tone, whose lightest word,
Though e’en but in a whisper heard,
Commands it as her slave.
Go ask man’s wild and restless heart
Who can its passions quell;
Who can withdraw hate’s venomed dart,
Bid malice and revenge depart,
And virtue in it dwell.
If woman’s weak, then what is strong?
For all things bow to her:
To her man’s powers all belong;
For her the bard attunes his song,
Her truest worshiper.
Woman, a fearful power is thine:
The mission to the given
Requires a strength almost divine,
A bosom that is virtue’s shrine,
A soul allied to heaven.