Antebellum Women and the Cult of Womanhood

Virginia R. Bensen

American Women’s History is a fairly new specialty field emerging in the 1960s. This field has shifted focus multiple times between its beginnings until the present, but not in a linear fashion. Although American Women’s History focus was oppression of women starting in colonial American in its formative years, focus shifted to the study of Antebellum women in the early 1960s. Barbara Welter’s (1966) journal article, “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860” spurred attention, but during the 1970s it took center stage. This document has been cited throughout the rest of the twentieth century. Both in its extensive use as a foundational source in woman’s History, and as a source for argument, scholarship has shifted its meanings, enlarged upon the ideal, and finally, abandoned Welter’s “True womanhood” for new contemporary frameworks. Even after it had run its course, today’s scholars revere it as a foundational landmark for American Women’s history.

Here is a brief summation of what constitutes Welter’s interpretation of being a “True Woman.”

To practice being a true woman in Antebellum America (at least in the Northeast section), there were four attributes against which women judged themselves, and also, against which other women judged women. The first was piety or religion which was considered the core of the woman’s virtue.  The second virtue was purity which meant a woman did not allow sexual activity until she was married, and only with her husband. The third virtue was submission which meant the woman abided by her husband’s wishes.  The fourth virtue was domesticity, where a woman focussed the majority of her energies in maintaining the home.

The underlying premise for these four virtues implied that if a woman practiced and applied all of the four virtues, then she would be happy and have power over her household. Within those four virtues, there were other implications.  Women were encouraged to practice high morals herself as well as to educate her family about morality and the practice of religion. Antebellum women also had the task of strongly encouraging her husband to act morally both inside the home as well as in his “public sphere.” Because women were regarded as being pious, she also was expected to ensure that her family acted in a Christian manner, and she encouraged others to do so as well.  Welter based this interpretation on various forms of prescriptive literature and religious tracks that were circulated in the Northern section of America during antebellum.

Sources:

Barbara Welter, “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860,” American Quarterly 18, no. 2 (Summer 1966), 151-174. (Click to View Source)

 

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