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The Cult of True Womanhood

Put them all together and they spelled mother, daughter, sister, wife – woman. Without them, no matter whether there was fame, achievement, or wealth, all was ashes. With them, she was promised happiness and power” (Welter 1966 p. 152). The scholarship has focused on how this ideology was promoted both by women and men within this time frame, but even a cursory look at the literature of the Western tradition, spanning back thousands of years into the world of the ancient Greeks, demonstrates that this Ideal of Womanhood has been a long-standing tradition. Throughout time, women have been characterized on both sides of the Atlantic as the nurturer of the family, the keeper of the spiritual ideals of the home, and the individual responsible for the welfare of the home. The ideals ‘introduced’ with the Cult of True Womanhood as they relate to the definition of femininity and the woman’s nurturing role can be traced through ancient Greece in works such as Sophocles’ Antigone, to the Middle Ages and Shakespeare’s character Desdemona into the Victorian Age with Charlotte Bronte’s character Jane Eyre and finally through the evolution of the myth of CinderellaThe ideals of the True Woman were founded on four core principles – those of piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity. According to Hewitt (2002), “native-born northern white women became an increasingly undifferentiated category, all middle-class adherents of a dominant idea. As work on women who stood outside the cult’s reach multiplied, then, true womanhood lost its contested, dynamic character and became hostage to all the retrograde values that affluent white womanhood masked in a field newly focused on difference and conflict.” The hierarchy of these four core values was further delineated by Welter in their order of social importance. “Young men looking for a mate were cautioned to search first for piety, for if that were there, all else would follow” (Welter 1966 p. 152).

The Cult of True Womanhood