The American Woman of the Early Nineteenth Century
Perceptions of Women in the 19th Century
During the early 1800s, Americans generally believed that there was a definite difference in character between the sexes -- man was active, dominant, assertive, and materialistic, while woman was religious, modest, passive, submissive, and domestic. As a result, there developed an ideal of American womanhood, or a "cult of true womanhood" as denoted by historian Barbara Welter. This cult, evident in women's magazines and religious literature of the day, espoused four basic attributes of female character: piety, purity, submissiveness,domesticity. 1) Religion/Piety was the "core of woman's virtue, the source of her strength" (Welter, 21). Religion was a gift of God, given so that the "Universe might be Enlightened, Improved, and Harmonized by WOMAN!! (Philadelphia, 1840, quoted in Welter, 22). Women were expected to be the "handmaids of the Gospel," serving as a purifying force in the lives of erring men. Women naturally possessed virtues of faith, simplicity, goodness, self-sacrifice, tenderness, affection, sentimentality, and modesty. 2) Purity was an essential characteristic to maintain one's virtue against the continuous "assault" of the more aggressive male. To protect one's self, Mrs. Eliza Farrar recommended in The Young Lady's Friend (1837): 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." Eliza Farnham stressed the importance of preserving one's innocence and demonstrating female moral superiority, concluding that "the purity of women is the everlasting barrier against which the tides of man's sensual nature surge" (Welter, 24-25). 3) Submissiveness required women to accept their positions in life willingly and obediently, thereby affirming God had appointed them to that special position. Godey's Lady's Book of 1831 emphasized this attribute: The lesson of submission is forced upon woman...To suffer and to be silent under suffering seems the great command she has to obey. (Welter, 30) Likewise, Samuel Jennings advocated complete submission in The Married Lady's Companion (New York, 1808): [Marriage rests on a] condition of a loving and cheerful submission on the part of the wife. Here again you object and say, "Why not the husband, first show a little condescension as well as the wife?" I answer for these plain reasons. It is not his disposition; it is not the custom but with the henpecked; it is not his duty; it is not implied in the marriage contract; it is not required by law or gospel;...when you became a wife, he became your head, and your supposed superiority was buried in that voluntary act. Much of this reasoning was founded upon Ephesians 5:22-23, which commanded "Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husband, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the family, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body." 4) Domesticity, or the cheerful performance of social, household, and family duties, was highly prized by women's magazines of the day. Women were expected to comfort and cheer, to nurse and support, to manage and oversee. Housework was to be viewed as a morally uplifting mental and physical exercise. Marriage was the proper sphere for women where, according to Rev. Samuel Miller (1808), she could fulfill her divinely ordained mission: 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 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 attractive deportment, constantly endeavors to render him more virtuous, more useful, more honorable, and more happy.(Welter, 37-38) Thus, popular women's...
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