Changing Ideology of Womanhood

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This booklet highlights ' The New Woman's ability to have a career was most certainly attributable to the huge success of the mid-nineteenth-century novelists, not only from the financial success they gained but also the ideas that they poured forth.
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General Studies Writing Faculty Publications General Studies Writing
Changing Ideals of Womanhood During the Nineteenth-Century
Woman Movement
Susan M. Cruea
Bowling Green State University, [email protected]
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Cruea, Susan M., "Changing Ideals of Womanhood During the Nineteenth-Century Woman Movement"
(2005). General Studies Writing Faculty Publications. 1.
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2. Changing Ideals of Womanhood During
the Nineteenth-Century Woman Movement
Susan M. Cruea
"Feminism," as we know the term today, was nonexistent in nine-
teenth-century America. The phrase did not become popular xmtil the
1910s as efforts began to focus aroimd women's suffrage, yet pre-feminist
activity began long before 1910 (Cott 13). During the mid-nineteenth cen-
tury, the "Woman Movement" developed as a result of "women's striv-
ings to improve their status in and usefulness to society." The objectives
of the movement were "to initiate measures of charitable benevolence,
temperance, and social welfare and to initiate struggles for civic rights,
social freedoms, higher education, remunerative occupations, and the
ballot" (Cott 3). The setting of these goals resulted from women's rising
awareness of the precariousness of their situation in the patriarchal soci-
ety of the 1800s.
At this time, women were the continual victims of social and eco-
nomic discrimination. Upper- and middle-class women's choices were
limited to marriage and motherhood, or spir\sterhood. Both choices re-
sulted in domestic dependency. While they could find jobs as shop girls
or factory workers, women were discouraged from being wage earners by
the belief that women who earned wages were "unnatural." In addition,
"[l]ow wages, the absence of upward mobility, depressing and unhealthy
working conditions, all made marriage an attractive survival strategy for
working-class women" (Smith-Rosenberg 13). Women were forced, for a
variety of reasons, to be dependent upon their husbands for financial sup-
Evolving throughout the nineteenth century, the Woman Movement
developed in response to women's dependent situation. It promoted a
series of new images for women: True Womanhood, Real Womanhood,
Public Womanhood, and New Womanhood. While these phases have
been individually identified and defined by previous scholarship, I will
examine them not in isolation but instead as overlapping parts of a long-
term change in cultural attitudes towards gender, a gradual shifting of
power away from its patriarchal basis, and a steady movement for women
3. 188 ATQ
toward twentieth-century feminism.
During the 1820s, 1830s, and 1840s, the nonproductive matron became
a symbol of "bourgeois class hegemony" through an ideal now knovvm as
the "Cult of True Womanhood." This ideal "prescribed a female role bound
by kitchen and nursery, overlaid with piety and purity, and crowned with
subservience" (Smith-Rosenberg 13). First described by Barbara Welter in
Dimity Convictions: The American Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1976), a
"True Woman" was designated as the symbolic keeper of morality and de-
cency within the home, being regarded as innately superior to men when
it came to virtue. "[Pjiety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity" were
thought to be natural to women (Welter 21). Welter suggests that being a
True Woman was an awesome charge:
In a sodety where values changed frequently, where fortunes rose and
fell with frightening rapidity, where social and economic mobility pro-
vided 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 which
made up True Womanhood, he was damned immediately as an enemy
of God, of civilization and of the Republic. It was a fearful obligation, a
solemn responsibility, the nineteenth-century American woman had—
to uphold tfie piUars of the temple with her frail white hand. (21)
In a rapidly changing world where men were charged with the task of
creating and expanding an industrialized civilization from a wilderness,
a True Woman was expected to serve as the protectress of religion and
civilized sodety.
Because being a True Woman was such an important responsibility,
the ideal of True Womanhood was early imprinted upon young girls, who
were trained to be obedient and exhibit great self-control (Welter 4). Each
was also taught to value her virginity "as the 'pearl of great price' which
was her greatest asset" (5). She prepared herself for marriage by keep-
ing herself chaste for her future husband and learrung the skills necessary
to manage a household and rear children. Motherhood was valued as
the most fulfilling and essential of all women's duties, a view extending
the eighteenth-century ideal of Republican Motherhood, which charged
women with the task of "shaping the values of their sons, who were likely
to have a direct impact on the nation's success" (Woloch 90). This view
was communicated to young women through their families, churches,
and schools, as well as "periodical and popular literature, medical texts,
and etiquette manuals" (Welter 3). Although middle-class women had
the opportunity to attend female seminaries and colleges, the curriculum
at these schools was limited to religious instruction and basic "book learn-
ing" which would enable a mother to later educate her children. Intel-
4. changing Ideals of Womanhood 189
lectual pursuits were strongly discouraged; instead, a True Woman was
expected "to fulfill herself iii the 'instinctive' arts of child rearing, do-
mestic pursuits, and spiritual comfort" (Cogan 68). Intellectual women
like Margaret Fuller were condemned as "unfeminine," since a woman's
"heart" was valued over her "mind," the mind being associated with the
Ironically, while a True Woman was assumed to be a pillar of moral
strength and virtue, she was also portrayed as delicate and weak, prone
to fainting and illness. She dared not exert herself too much physically or
be emotionally startled for fear of her health. Strenuous physical activity
was discouraged, as women were considered to have "much more deli-
cate nervous system[s] than . . . men because of the particular fimction of
their reproductive organs [T]heir fragile nervous systems were likely
to be overstimulated or irritated, with disastrous results" (Cogan 29). Part
of this physical deficiency was real, deriving from the constricting dress
of the time. In Century of Struggle: The Woman's Rights Movement in the
United States, Eleanor Flexner describes "stays so tightly laced that women
could hardly breathe, and half a dozen skirts and petticoats (which trught
weigh as much as twelve potmds), long enough to sweep up refuse from
the streets and dust from the floor" (83). The nineteenth-century woman
"practice[d] devotions at the shrine of fashion and beauty, the former in
whose service she distort[ed] her rib cage and internal organs with cor-
sets" (Cogan 3).
Due to her emotional and physical frailty, a True Woman needed to be
protected by a male family member. She also required the luxuries that his
income could provide. The popular press perpetuated this notion through
newspapers, pamphlets, and magazines, such as Godey's Lady's Book. First
published in 1830, Godey's was, according to Gerda Lemer, the "epitome of
sentimental literature"; in its pages, the conception of "lady" was "elevat-
ed to t h e . . . ideal of femininity toward which all women could strive" but
which only the wealthy could truly afford (190). An upper-class woman's
primary function was to "display... her husband's wealth," for "idleness
... had become a status symbol" (191). Meanwhile, middle-class women's
purpose was to "elevate the status of [their] families]" through "setting
'proper' standards of behavior, dress, and literary tastes" (190). Materi-
alism was at the heart of this ideal as women were expected to dedicate
themselves to "the ladylike constimption of luxury goods" (Cogan 3).
Lacking the traditional class structure of England and Europe, America
substituted wealth for bloodline in order to "transform the formless and
uncertain into the structured and familiar," portraying "wealth and so-
cial status" as the rewards for "self-reliance" and a "drive for success"
(Smith-Rosenberg 167). A True Woman's role within this ideology was to
5. 190 ATQ
serve as "Queen" over her household, which was supposed to reflect her
husband's wealth and success, and to prepare her children to continue the
husband's legacy of success.
How did the beginnings of feminism emerge from a generation of
women who accepted such a weak and submissive ideal? The Cult of True
Womanhood laid the groundwork for the later development of feminism
by crediting women with a moral authority which implicitly empowered
them to extend their moral influence outside the home. A True Woman
was known as the "Angel in the House" whose primary purpose was to
impart moral guidance to her family. However, many women asserted
that it was their duty to spread such guidance outside the home as well,
in order to protect their families and improve the public good. Moreover,
while most women dung to the ideals of True Womanhood, many "main-
tained such a steel-engraved image only superficially, covertly holding
the reins of influence inside the fainily, the church, and the social world
to achieve what slight protections and partial reforms they felt were pos-
sible" (Cogan 4). In other words, they exploited their moral empowerment
for both covert and overt social action. As the "Angel out of ihe House,"
a True Woman's "activity within the church commimities was [seen as] an
extension of women's role within the home" (Wilson 188). Many middle-
and upper-class women were actively involved, for instance, in benevo-
lent and charitable actions on behalf of their churches. Their belief in their
moral superiority to men also empowered them to attempt to right the
wrongs, especially alcoholism and prostitution, inflicted on sodety by sin-
ful men. As a "Female Saviour," it was a True Woman's duty to sacrifice
her self in order to turn her father, brothers, husband, and sons from their
sinful ways (Showalter 134).
The Cult of True Womanliood also laid the groundwork for the later
development of feminism through its unobtainable quality for the ma-
jority of nineteenth-century American women. The vision of women as
"wan, ethereal, spiritualized creatures bore little relation to the real world,
espedally of the working class, where women operated machines, worked
the fields, hand-washed clothing, and toiled over great kitchen stoves"
(O'Neill 7-8). Even middle-class girls raised to be idle and submissive
found themselves overwhelmed when it came to managing household
duties as wives and mothers. Massive economic changes in America also
made arranging a desirable marriage difficult. Carroll Smith-Rosenberg
notes that commerdalization, industrialization, and advancements in
transportation led to a mass departure of young men from the New Eng-
land agricultural area "either to the West or to the new urban frontier"
(80-81). As a result, women's marital opportunities became limited, and
more were forced to seek employment:
6. changing Ideals of Womanhood 191
New England's daughters, like New England's sons, set off upon the
roads and canals of the new commercial world. A few sought educa-
tion and employment in the burgeoning common-school systems of the
North. Others flocked . . . to the textile towns that. . . began to dot
New Hampshire's rivers. Still others turned to larger cities, where they
sought to survive as domestic servants in the new bourgeois households
or as needleworkers in the garment industry. (81)
Finally, necessity forced many women to forsake True Womanhood in
order to fill positions left vacant by men who had gone off to Hght during
the Civil War. Women took on the roles of teachers, office workers, govern-
ment workers, and store clerks. As pointed out by Nancy Woloch, south-
em women took on the management of vast plantations with hundreds
of slaves (223). In addition, thousands of women participated in the war
efforts as nurses and volimteers, "[m]inistering to 'the boys' in the wards,
serving as teachers of former slaves, rolling bandages, or visiting camps."
Over 3000 women from the North and South served as nurses during the
war (223). However, the greatest wartime factor affecting women was
the number of casualties caused by the war: the deaths of an estimated
359,528 Union and 198,524 Confederate soldiers (NoH). Ultimately, "over
a million men were killed or wounded, more than [in] any other American
war before or since" (Woloch 225). This human loss "created a generation
of widows, spinsters, and wives with disabled husbands, and enlarged
the pool of women in dire need of income," especially in the South where
women outnumbered men by tens of thousands (225).
Frances B. Cogan asserts that in response to these factors, "another,
more open, completely autonomous and indigenous American ideal
[came to exist] for [women] to emulate" (4). Especially for the middle-
dass, the ideal of "Real Womanhood" emerged as an alternative to True
Womanhood (4). Cogan explains that Real Womanhood differed from
True Womanhood in its attitude toward health, education, marriage, and,
most importantly, employment. While, like True Womanhood, it claimed
"a unique sphere of action and duty for women," this sphere was "vastly
extended... past the dimensions of anything meant by that term to devo-
tees of the competing True Womanhood" (4). Real Womanhood encour-
aged healthy exercise and activity, permitted women a minor degree of
independence, and stressed economic self-sufHdency as a means of sur-
Instead of viewing women as "nervous, hysterical, and biologically
weak specimens . . . easily subdued and dominated by male force, strong
emotion, and male rationality," Real Womanhood offered women "a vi-
sion of themselves as biologically equal [to men] (rationally as well as
emotionally) and in many cases markedly superior" (Cogan 4-5). Real
7. 192 ATQ
Womanhood encouraged strenuous exercise and activities. Instead of re-
maining docile, as the conventions of True Womanhood dictated, girls and
young women who adopted the tenets of Real Womanhood were encour-
aged to participate in sports activities such as archery, gymnastics, row-
ing, skating, and horseback riding. Meanwhile, wives were encouraged to
perform their own housekeeping tasks, such as pumping water, washing
laundry, and sweeping floors since these provided brisk activity. Walking
and gardening in the fresh air were encouraged for women as they stim-
ulated "ruddy cheeks and vigorous health" (7). Real Womanhood also
brought about changes to fashion: corsets, heavy skirts, and thin shoes
and stockings were replaced by more serisible dress that was looser fitting
and practical. Higher skirts (touching the tops of boots) and the absence
of "tightly laced stays" made "walking along country lanes and through
meadows easier and enterprises such as . . . the ramble less hazardous in
falls and sprained ankles" (58).
An education also made a woman better equipped "to manage a
household and raise children satisfactorily," and "to help transmit culture,
gentleness, and morality to future generations, the immediate family"
(Cogan 74-75). While True Womanhood advocated learning for women
orUy as it enhanced the ability to perform domestic duties. Real Woman-
hood saw education as enabling a woman "to attract the right kind of man
and . . . fulfill the duties of wife and companion" (74). A woman with an
education was more likely to be a suitable partner for an educated hus-
band, better able to participate in conversations on a more equal level of
understanding. Moreover, "if the need arose, . . . [the educated woman
could] support [herself or her] immediate or extended family . . . to help
financially in a marriage" (75). A woman with an education was not de-
pendent on others for support, for she had the skills to gain an income.
On an individual level. Real WomarJiood saw education as beneficial for
a woman as a means "to combat neurosis, depression, and mental illness"
and "to widen [her] horizons and enrich [herself] as a person" (75).
Education was also thought to be essential to the Real Woman because
of marriage, which was viewed not as the happy product of the "inescap-
able passions, conjunctions of stars, and melting oneness" envisioned by
True Womanhood but as a potentially "risky" prospect since a woman
had little chance of divorce (Cogan 103). Cogan points out that if a wom-
an were not careful, she could easily find herself in a disastrous match
with a drunkard, gambler, or rake. Therefore, instead of teaching a young
woman "fiirting techniques . . . guaranteed to bring her romance," Real
Womanhood offered careful strategies for gaining insight into the moral
character of a prospective mate (103-04). Real Womanhood encouraged
a woman to marry "a man who was hardworking, compassionate, and
8. Changing Ideals of Womanhood 193
moral rather than one who was merely wealthy or physically attractive"
(75). Regardless of how hard a wife tried to reform her husband, "one
rarely managed to reform an alcoholic, a compulsive gambler, a chronic
philanderer, or a wastrel; the behaviors usually continued, despite tears
and promises to the contrary" (103). Therefore, though marriage was still
considered a desirable possibility for women. Real Womanhood regarded
the position of an educated spinster, able to support herself, as more desir-
able than that of an unhappy or abused wife. A woman's primsury interest
was in securing a "bearable future," as opposed to "bliss" (103).
Because of the risks of marriage. Real Womanhood also perfttitted
women to work for an income. While a career was not encoiuraged because
it would distract from domestic responsibilities, work 'flayed a central
role in Real Womanhood, which demanded that women be "employed" in
charitable, domestic, or salaried work since it "taught the woman self-reli-
ance." Conversely, "idleness" was strongly-discouraged as it^proinoted
dependency and could lead to moral teinptatiOh (Cogan 200). -By being
able to eam an income in order to support herself, a woman could also
avoid finding herself in the position of having to marry an imsuitable man
just to "acqviire a home" (107). She could support herself until a desirable
match coiild be foxmd, or she could choose not to many at all. Finally, too,
a woman able to work could support herself ah(i her family when illness,
death, or financial disaster struck. Yet, while Real Wottiarihood required
women to work, this work was usually of a domestic nature and involved
traditional housekeeping, gardening, carming and baking, and t^dhg care
of children. Any charitable work primarily involved "organiziiig food and
clothing drives for the impoverished" and delivering "Christian tracts to
the neglected" (203). Salaried work consisted of working as a seamstress
or laundress, or performing some other type of domestic function that
could be completed within the home.
However, additional occnipiations soon began to take middle-dass
woman outside of the home. Clerma Matthews defines this next step to-
wards feminism as the advent of the Public Woman. In The Rise of the
Public Woman: Woman's Power and Woman's Place in the United States, 1630-
1970, Matthews examines American women's exdusion from public space
and the history of their struggle to gain public access. She points out that
women began to gain greater public access and claim public roles for
themselves as a result of women's increasing involvement in the moral
and cultural welfare of their commuiuties. This phase involved a move
out of the private realm and into the public in the "legal, political, spatial,
and cultural sense" (6). During this phase, women strove to gain legal
visibility in order to protect their interests materially. They also sought
to lift restrictions imposed by the sexual segregation of the public space.
9. 194 ATQ
They moved into the cultural realm through publishing, performance,
and participation in public rituals. Finally, they worked toward acquiring
the vote and the right to hold public office.
These developments did not go unchallenged. Controversy sur-
rounded them, since public visibility for a woman was equated with loose
sexuality. In fact, the term "Public Woman" originally referred to a prosti-
tute. While a "public man" was "one who act[ed] in and for the universal
good," a "public woman" "was seen as the dregs of society, vile, unclean
[T]o be a public woman—in any of several senses of the term—was to
risk the accusation of sexual impropriety" (Matthews 4). A woman out-
side the home without a respectable male escort risked ruining her reputa-
tion irreparably, for she would immediately be suspected of participating
in something immoral or socially marginal.
In addition, women who worked outside the home faced "[e]conomic
hardships and insecurity" as well as "social marginality." Domestic ser-
vants were frequently employed by "new bourgeois" families who felt
little or no responsibility for their servants or their servants' well being.
These "masters" treated their servants as disposable employees, "to be
released for the smallest infraction of rules or for minor incompatibili-
ties of personality" (Smith-Rosenberg 82). Meanwhile, women working
in "sweat shops" as seamstresses were harshly exploited by capitalists,
who paid them "a few pennies" for garments that often took them hours
to make. These vvomen who had often moved away from their families
to the cities in order to find work "could not afford rooms in respectable
boarding houses or hotels [and] dung together in sordid tenement dwell-
ings" (82). Ironically, in order to survive, they often did turn to prostitu-
tion to supplement their meager incomes.
Despite these challenges, women soon began to develop occupations
for themselves outside the home which allowed them both to work re-
spectably and to be treated fairly. Matthews notes that they did so by
"cloak[ing] woman's public activity with the aura of woman's sphere"
(95). School teaching quickly became a public occupation dominated by
women since it was closely related to childcare, a role assigned to women.
Estimates suggest that during the mid-nineteenth century, "one-quarter
of all New England women spent at least a small portion of their lives"
teaching school children (96). Pioneers like Catharine Beecher, Emma
Willard, and Elizabeth Peabody "tirelessly promot[ed] female education"
while helping to transform teaching into a "true profession" (96). During
the Civil War, nursing also became a profession open to women for the
Erst time since caring for the ill was traditionally women's responsibil-
ity. With the large number of men involved in fighting the war and the
excessive casualties created, the goverrunent was soon desperate for help
10. Changing Ideals of Womanhood 195
in tending and ministering to the wounded. Dorothy Dix, a well-known
social reformer, was appointed as the Superintendent of Female Nxirses,
in April of 1861. As noted previously, over 3000 women participated as
nurses in the Civil War (Woloch 223).
Yet not all of the new professions sprang from the domestic sphere.
As America became increasingly industrialized, large corporations "de-
veloped elaborate bureaucracies to oversee their massive holdings" (Mat-
thews 148). Office work, which had traditionally been dominated by
males, began to attract women as the need increased for stenographers
and typists. With the invention of the typewriter in 1867, corporate em-
ployers quickly began hiring youing women whose "nimble fingers" were
"well suited" for typing and whom they could pay substantially less than
men. The business office, which had previously been male-dominated,
was suddenly invaded by thousands of "typewriter girls" whose "num-
bers soared to over 200,000 by 1900" (Matthews 148). The United States
Department of Commerce estimates that at least 877,000 workers were
employed in clerical positions by 1900 (141). Thus, women constituted
almost a quarter of the office work force. Tensions arose as men, who
had previously been free to smoke, curse, and drink alcohol in the work
place, were forced to edit their actions "so as not to offend their female
coworkers" (149). However, these new secretaries and clerical assistants
were there to stay as they proved themselves indispensable to their cost-
conscious employers.
In addition to finding employment outside of the home, another way
that nineteenth-century women sought public access was through reli-
gious activity. The Second Great Awakening "released a democratizing
burst of religious enthusiasm that also brought more reform in its wake
. . . [increasing] the number of women involved in-unprecedented pubhc
activity [more] than anything that had gone on before" (Matthews 94).
Thousands of women flocked to public religious meetings as "Hery waves
of revivals" swept across America. "Female converts outnumbered male
converts three to two . . . and women formed the bulk of congregations"
(Woloch 121). The Awakening presented enormous potential for women
to move into the pubhc space as the phenomenon provided "a community
of peers outside of the home" and an outlet for social activism. Women
experienced a sense of "sisterhood" for the first time in working toward
a common cause. Through the evangelical experience, they "gained one
another's company, new routes to participation in the world, and clerical
approval" (Woloch 122). Women and nainisters shared an "unstated bar-
gain" of clerical endorsement of "female moral superiority in exchange for
women's support and activism" (Woloch 121).
To be sure, women were still prohibited from participating as "reviv-
11. 196 ATQ
alists" or taking leadership roles, steps that would have usurped the min-
ister's position of power. However, a few women formed new denomina-
tions and conducted revivals of their own. Phoebe Palmer, the daughter
of a New York doctor, created the "Tuesday Meeting for the Promotion
of Holiness" and traveled across the country preaching (Hankins 118-19).
Nancy Towle, a schoolteacher from New Hampshire, "traveled 15,000
miles in the space of a decade as she spread the word" (Matthews 104).
Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Mary Livermore even "constructed [their]
own feminist Bible, which rejected both traditional Christianity and gen-
der assumptions" (Smith-Rosenberg 134-35). In addition. The American
Female Moral Reform Sodety and The Women's Christian Temperance
Union sprang from the notion of women's moral superiority. Endorsed
by the church, these groups used women's moral superiority as a justifica-
tion for public activity which transcended women's traditional domestic
role and combated social immoralities that threatened the sanctity of the
home and family. Others formed voluntary associations for "charitable,
educational, and missionary purposes" (Matthews 104-05).
Women benefited from religious empowerment primarily through the
power they gained in their own homes due to their clerically endorsed
moral superiority. Matthews notes: "As women began to make new
claims to power and influence in the name of their domestic role, both
within the family and in the larger sodety, they also began to assert their
power to dictate acceptable male conduct" within the home. The parlor,
for instance, became a place of dread for both young boys and grown men
who "knew t h a t . . . they had to be on their very best behavior as defined
by a wife or mother" (107). Also, women gained use of a new space which
was "neither wholly public or wholly private—the front porch," where
women could carry on household tasks yet at the same time "[maintain] a
public presence and [monitor] the activities of others in the community"
The Public Woman ideal also allowed women to become engaged in
the cultural realm. Writing professionally, for instance, not only enabled
women respectably to eam an income, but also enabled women to do
important cultural work (Tompkins xi). The popularity of the novel en-
abled a great number of women to contribute their voices to a traditionally
male-dominated culture: "[T]he appearance of the novel as a genre and
its burgeoning popularity... created a new set of publishing possibilities
for [the] literary woman, hence new possibilities for [the] public woman"
(Matthews 72). The novel also benefited women readers who gained ac-
cess to a wider world of thought and action:
[T]he rise of the public woman in the United States is incomprehensible
12. c h a n g i n g Ideals of W o m a n h o o d 197
without a full understanding of the role played by the novel, because
this genre provided an essential link between purely private expression
and the public world. Moreover, it gave women, authors and readers
both, a voice for the self-representation, which had been made possible
by the valorizing of female subjectivity. Further, if republicanism in its
American manifestation relied in part on female virtue for its success,
the novel spread the word of that development. Finally, the novel gave
women authors a means for taking powerful public action in a polity
where they lacked a franchise. (Matthews 73)
Thus, the novel allowed women a public forum through which they could
share experiences in an effort to reveal common concerns which allowed
women to explore solutions to the social problems that plagued nine-
teenth-century women.
Most popular fiction produced by women in the mid-nineteenth cen-
tury was directed towards advocating social change. The first significant
woman writer of the time was Catharine Maria Sedgwick, whose third
novel, Hope Leslie (1842), is "especially indicative of the proto-femirdst
potenfial irJierent in the genre" (Matthews 79). In this work, Sedgwick
followed "the life of one young woman who, self-mastered, achieved in-
dependence from circumstances and control over her own life" (Baym 54).
Much women's fiction was similarly directed toward renouncing the Cult
of True Womanhood and promoting either Real Womanhood or Public
Womanhood. Fanny Fern, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Susan Warner, Louisa
May Alcott, E.D.E.N. Southworth, and Elizabeth Stoddard were all active-
ly engaged in producing fiction which sought to initiate social change.
Stowe and Warner, in particular, produced two of the most socially infiu-
ential novels of the time with Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) and The Wide, Wide
World (1851), respectively.
While Matthews illustrates the important role of women writers in
promoting sodal change, one woman writer who is remarkably absent
from Matthews's discussion of the Public Woman is Margaret Fuller. Pri-
marily a non-fiction writer. Fuller was a leading member of Emerson's
transcendentalist circle. Thomas R. Mitchell describes her as America's
"greatest contemporary scholar and champion of Goethe," the first edi-
tor of the Dial, and an infiuenfial literary and art critic (2). She hosted an
"intellectual discussion group" for women known as the "Conversations"
at which she made it her mission "to help other women find their voices"
(2). In addition, "as one of America's first professional women journalists
. . . [Fuller became] the voice of oppressed groups, chastising a materialis-
tic America for its failure to live up to its revolutionary ideals in its treat-
ment of American Indians, slaves, Irish immigrants, the urban poor, and
female convicts and prostitutes" (3). "The Great Lawsuit" (1843), which
13. 198 ATQ
was later revised and expanded into Woman in the Nineteenth Century
(1845), launched Fuller as one of America's leading women's activists, and
called for increased legal rights and greater self-sufficiency for women as
well as equality within marriage for a happier union. Fuller's work "is
now considered the foundational text of the women's rights movement in
America" (Reynolds ix).
Fuller was traveling in Europe in July of 1848 and was thus unable to
attend the highlight of the Public Woman phase—the Seneca Falls Con-
vention. Unanticipated by any other gathering, the Seneca Falls Conven-
tion was held by women "to discuss the social, civil, and religious rights
of women" (Flexner 74). Organized by Lucretia Mott, an ordained Quaker
miruster, and EHzabeth Cady Stanton, "the young wife of an abolitionist
leader," the convention drew people from a fifty-inile radius to the church
where the convention was held. There, women and men gathered pub-
licly for the first time in an attempt to organize efforts to achieve social
change. During the proceedings, several speeches were made and de-
bates were conducted on the nature of woman and her rights. The most
important of the debates revolved around the issue of the vote, and at the
end of the convention, a "Declaration of Principles" was signed which in-
cluded the pronouncement that "it is the sacred duty of the women of this
country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise"
(Flexner 77).
Though the Public Woman image led to increased freedom for women,
for the generation of women who sprang from their "public" mothers, it
was not enough. During the 1880s and 1890s, the New Woman emerged,
as the daughters who had watched their mothers struggle for public access
came into adulthood. While their mothers had been satisfied with gaining
a minimal amount of public stature and some independence and control
over their lives, their daughters were not willing to settle for these:
They were the daughters of the new bourgeois matrons, and their dreeuns
were heralded by die clubs and organizations their mothers had created
and the role expansion those mothers had secured. Yet, ironically, their
mothers' achievements only spurred the daughters' determination to
create radically different roles for themselves. (Smith-Rosenberg 247)
Primarily middle- and upper-class, these young women demanded rights
which their mothers would barely have imagined. The New Woman phase
of the Woman Movement focused primarily on entirely "emancipating"
women from the social expectations and conventions forced upon them
by tradition. Based on the Enlightenment Rationalists' belief in "the natu-
ral rights and liberties of all humans [and aknowledging] women's de-
mands for the removal of social barriers 'arbitrarily' designated by sex," it
14. Changing Ideals of Womanhood 199
"provoked . . . analyses of gender differences, and justified claims to liber-
ties and opportunities equal to men" for women (Cott 16-17). Participants
in this phase of the Woman Movement were interested in gaining greater
access to education, employment, and economic and civic rights, and in
changing expectations concerning personal behavior. They believed that
gender, no more than race, should determine human rights or a person's
sphere of living.
The New Woman is closely associated with the new women's colleges
that emerged in the late nineteenth century. Education was one of the
New Woman's "first self-conscious demands," and she turned these insti-
tutions into "a potentially revolutionary social force" (Smith-Rosenberg
247). The New Woman demanded the right to attend college, and not just
at women's colleges. For the first time, young women began to venture
into male universities:
Laden with hatboxes, ball gowns, and lace antimacassars, they searched
[at these centers of learrung] for . . . intellectual exdtement[,].. for roles
that were not ladylike and were fulfilling. . . . [T]he coeds' demands
were .. . radical. They sought not an equal education but an identical
education. The same ceremonies would mark their acquisition of the
same degree. On a daily basis they would meet with young men to
assert their intellectual equality, perhaps to demonstrate their scholarly
superiority. And they would do so witiiout any of the protective rituals
that surrounded "visiting" between young women and men within the
Victorian home. (Smith-Rosenberg 249-50)
The New Woman met a great deal of resistance within male universities.
Not only did she suffer from homesickness, but she was snubbed by her
male peers, who greatly resented her "invasion," and subjected her to
ridicule and harassment. However, she persisted in her desire to attain
educational equality.
In an effort to gain emotional support as she pursued education, the
New Woman turned to other female students. A "sisterhood" was estab-
lished in which jimior and senior women adopted freshman and sopho-
more women as "sisters." Within this sisterhood, female students who
were successfully navigating the male-dominated academia served as
mentors for other women determined to do the same. Small gifts, such as
"fruit and flowers," combined with social events and other planned activi-
ties, brought young women together: "In a strange and, at times, fright-
ening environment, rituals that drew on traditional female expressions of
affection eased the way for the New Woman pioneers" (Smith-Rosenberg
250). These women relied on support from each other in order to with-
stand the trials of paving new paths for all women.
Yet the most important trait of the New Woman was her assertion
15. 200 ATQ
of her right, not just to an education or a job outside the home, but to a
career, which met her personal needs and fulfilled her interests.' Reject-
ing marriage and motherhood, she turned to a career for emotional and
iiitellectual fulfQlment: "From the 1870s through the 1920s, between 40
and 60 percent of women college graduates did not marry, at a time when
only 10 percent of all American women did not" (Smith-Rosenberg 253).
The New Woman "had invested college education with [her] dreams of
autonomy and power," which would lead to "a new identity," "equality
with men," and "the hope of doing something splendid" (253).
The New Woman, however, by completely abandoning the role of
wife and mother, had gone too far for much of the public. While Real
Womanhood and Public Womanhood permitted women to work outside
the home in cases of necessity or to benefit the public good, a woman's pri-
mary concern was still expected to be the well being of her family, physi-
cally and spiritually. Also, as previously mentioned, work was acceptable
outside the home only when it fell within women's traditional sphere;
occupations such as housekeeping or nursing fell within the domestic
realm. Provided a woman was not married with her own fainily to care
for, school teaching was accepted, despite its intellectual leanings, as it
involved childrearing. The New Woman, however, expressed a "distress-
ing disinterest in the female domestic sphere—especially an overt disgust
with housework... and a shocking desire for 'fellowship' with men" (Co-
gan 258). She wanted to "exercise . . . her talents . . . even if that work ex-
isted in man's sphere" (259). To take a young woman out of the "domestic
setting" and "train her to think and feel 'as a man'" was to "encourage her
to succeed at a career, indeed to place it before marriage, [which] violated
virtually every late-Victorian norm" (Smith-Rosenberg 252). The public
feared the "loss of moral decency and grace" if women were no longer
imparting their guidance within iiie home (Cogan 259).
The New Woman also set about establishing her own economic and
civic identity. She demanded the same rights as men to economic inde-
pendence and political power. Her family, shocked at her refusal to marry
or adhere to the rules of acceptable behavior for women, often rejected
the New Woman. Therefore, upon graduating from college and beginning
her career, the New Woman "experimented with alternative life styles
and institutions . . . to sustain a life lived permanently outside the bour-
geois home" (Smith-Rosenberg 253). Often the New Woman remained at
women's colleges as a faculty member where she could eam an income
while maintaining the same support system that had "initially fostered
[her] ambitions" in order to "nurture the younger women who followed
in [her] footsteps" (254). She also moved to settlement houses where she
could share housekeeping and expenses with other women like her. These
16. Changing Ideals of Womanhood 201
single-sex houses allowed the New Woman a support network which fos-
tered her independence and nurtured her intellectual growth. "The settle-
ment house represented [her] home, [her] fellow women residents, [her]
family. A sororial intensity marked the inner dynamics of the settlement
house, just as it did at the women's college" (254). The New Woman often
lived her entire life in these close-knit, female-only environments.
By way of these settlement houses, the New Woman also began to
organize herself into "a network of women reformers and social innova-
tors, . . . a singularly effective political machine" (Smith-Rosenberg 255).
One such example is Hull House; established in Chicago by Jane Addams,
daughter of John Addams, a state senator and friend of Abraham Lincoln,
the Hull House's residents included Florence Kelly, Alice Hamilton, Julia
Lathrop, Grace Abbott, and Sophonisha Breckinridge:
These women lobbied for the legalization of trade unions and strikes
and worked to organize women workers. They fought for worker's
compensation, minimum-wage and maximum-hour legislation, na-
tional health insurance, medical care for pregnant women and children,
aid for dependent children. They became expert lobbyists and effective
maniptilators of public opinion. (Smith-Rosenberg 256)
Such advancements led the New Woman to gain "greater political power
and visibility than any other group of women in American experience"
(Smith-Rosenberg 256).
Finally, the New Woman asserted her right to sexuality and separated
it from her public reputation. The majority of women involved in the New
Woman movement believed that sexual identity and behavior should not
be linked with public respectability. Sexual activity should not destroy a
woman's reputation. The New Woman rejected her mother's church-vali-
dated repression of women's sexual desire and belief in women's innate
purity and virginal innocence. Women were endowed with the same sex-
ual desires and entitled to the same sexual activities as men. By rejecting
marriage, the New Woman caused "a growing uneasiness." Accusations
of lesbianism were directed at the New Woman. The "Marmish Lesbian"
began to symbolize the New Woman's "demand to exercise male rights
and powers [S]he underscored the irrationality and 'urmaturalness' of
a world ordered around male definitions of gender and sexuality" (Smith-
Rosenberg 40-41). Her sisterly attachments to other women were consid-
ered "sexually perverted" (Smith-Rosenberg 275).
While the New Woman tried to ignore such stereotypes as she moved
toward greater equality, public opinion was stacked against her. Cogan
explains that the New Woman had strayed too far from True Womanhood
for people to accept her. The public was unwilling to abandon its notion
17. 202 ATQ
of separate spheres for men and women or accept the possibility of female
emotional fulfillment outside of heterosexual marriage. The public feared
the desecration of the private sphere:
The home, the last middle-class refuge to which a man could retreat
from the soul-destroying horrors of the marketplace . . . would be de-
stroyed when women were made "unfit" for that refuge by education
and Ctireer. With women joined in the crass and ignoble jungle battle
for economic advantage, the home without its guiding spirit and votary
would cease to be anything but a structure [void of] such necessary vir-
tues as grace, gentleness, beauty, courtesy, and piety. (259-60)
Without women serving as wives and mothers, America's civilization
would rapidly disintegrate. As the nineteenth century ended, the public
"attached a growing value to an ideology that was clearly feminine" in an
effort to protect the American home (259). The New Woman was encour-
aged to assimilate back into mainstream culture through marriage or else
be considered a lonely, old spinster. If she chose to resist, the New Woman
faced a difficult struggle to persevere within a culture that was not ready
for her radical vision of "one united human sphere" as she waited to be
swept up "into the growing tide of tum-of-the-century feminism" (257-
Regardless of the problems presented by the New Woman, the rtine-
teenth century proved fruitful for women. The four overlapping phases
of the Woman Movement advanced women from domestic prisoners to
significant members of their communities within less than a century. The
rejection of True Womanhood in favor of new ideals like Real Womarihood
and Public Womanhood liberated women significantly, creating long-term
changes in cultural attitudes regarding gender, and shifted them further
away from the patriarchal control that inhibited them. These advance-
ments allowed women the opportunity for self-sufficiency, public involve-
ment and discourse, and meaningful employment. Though nineteenth-
century culture was not ready for the New Wonian, for many women,
she represented the promise of a future where, someday, independent,
intellectual women would be accepted. Without these alternative ideals,
the feminist movement might never have occurred.
Bowling Green State University
Bowling Green, Ohio
18. Changing Ideals of Womanhood 203
' The New Woman's ability to have a career was most certainly attributable to the huge suc-
cess of the mid-nineteenth-century novelists, not only from the financial success they gained
but also the ideas that they poured forth.
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