It is hard to imagine in our world today, that there was actually such a thing as The Cult of True Womanhood. This article, by Barbara Welter, written in 1966, shocked me when I read it. Also known as the Cult of Domesticity, this fearful obligation fell, like a load of bricks, on the 19th-century woman and was beat into her by women’s magazines, religious literature and gift annuals like Godey’s Lady’s Book. A hostage in her home held by these societal mandates, a woman could only hope to aspire to be judged worthy – the alternative was damnation by God, civilization and the Republic.
No wonder society in the mid-19th century was so suffocating! And no wonder there were souls who looked at the opportunity to flee to California in the name of quick riches, both male and female.
Given the economic events in the late 1830s and 1840s, most men had to have been struggling with the messages being sent by society: be ambitious, work hard, build things, make something of himself. But to be successful he had to neglect the religious values of his forbearers and guilt racked his soul. Not to worry! As long has he left behind a “true woman” in his household, his tormented conscience was easily salved.
As the article states, the four pillars of the Cult of True Womanhood were: piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity. If she could maintain all of those cardinal virtues she was promised happiness and power along with helping her flawed and sinning husband find peaceful sleep at night.
When I created my protagonist, I knew she would have to struggle with the ideas presented by this societal demand. Partially because she is an independent thinker but also because she doesn’t fit the mold. She is very intelligent and outspoken which makes men uncomfortable. She has parents who, while worried about her not being married at twenty-five, have allowed her freedoms and education that other families have not given their daughters.
Remnants of the axioms of The Cult of True Womanhood have survived to this day in forms that are slowly being enveloped by our more tolerant society. My mother’s role was clearly defined, as was my father’s, along those very virtues. My husband’s parents, not so much. My husband and I are a blend of both. Our children will be an even further blend. I think we can all look at our lives and see aspects that shadow what our forbearers mandated. But, thankfully, we are evolving and learning to spread the roles around a little.