19 Mar

Barbara Welter, “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860” (1966)

Barbara Welter examines how nineteenth-century Americans defined womanhood from the 1820s to 1860s in women’s magazines, gift annuals, and religious literature. Authors and writers used the phrase “True Womanhood” to express their ideals surrounding women’s gender roles. While nineteenth-century Americans never explicitly defined True Womanhood, Welter argues that the phrase attributed religion (or piety), purity, submissiveness, and domesticity to womanhood. Religion was the core of True Womanhood. Domesticity, or the woman’s sphere, was also central to True Womanhood. Welter reasoned that religion and domesticity in went in hand: “One reason religion was valued was that it did not take a woman away from her ‘proper sphere,” her home. Unlike participation in other societies or movements, church work would not make her less domestic or submissive.”[1] Americans depended on their mothers to “raise up a whole generation of Christian statesmen who could say ‘all that I am I owe to my angel mother.’”[2] American mothers played a political role in the religious education of their families and society.

Expanding “The Cult of True Womanhood”

“The Cult of True Womanhood” is just as significant as Linda Kerber’s “Republican Motherhood.” In fact, “The Cult of True Womanhood” may be more significant for scholars of American Protestantism. Welter recognizes the ways that Americans centralized religion as a part of womanhood and motherhood from the 1820s to 1860s. In fact, Welter’s work has been foundational to scholarly work on woman’s sphere and the separate sphere. Yet, Welter’s work is not above critique.

Welter overstated the degree to which True Womanhood relied on domesticity and the home. Welter argued that “Woman…was the hostage in the home.”[3] Elsewhere, she stated: “There was only one place to look for her—at home. Clearly and confidently these authorities proclaimed the True Woman of the nineteenth century to be the Valiant Woman of the Bible, in whom the heart of her husband rejoiced and whose price was above reproach.”[4] To be sure, Welter is correct that the home was central to True Womanhood and nineteenth-century Protestantism. Lithographs pictured women at home reading the bible to their children and husbands. Catherine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe equated homes with churches in The American Woman’s Home. But, these ideals of womanhood did not seclude women in homes in the domestic sphere. True Womanhood called women to reform their homes and then reform society.

The end of True Womanhood was women’s evangelization of the world. In this sense, Welter ignores the social dimension of True Womanhood that many of her primary sources laud. For example, Mrs. S.E. Farely wrote: “As society is constituted on the Domestic and Social Claims on Woman, the true dignity and beauty of the female character seem to consist in a right understanding and faithful and cheerful performance of social and family duties.”[5] Elsewhere, Welter cited other nineteenth-century titles that evoked women’s social, not just domestic duties. One essay was titled, “Woman, the Greatest Social Benefit.” Many of women’s social duties included participating in local churches, but also Christian benevolent societies for the uplift of other Americans. Church work was not valued because it would not make women less domestic or submissive. It was valued because women recognized their role in the evangelization of the world. Women’s duties went far beyond the home and the domestic circle for this evangelization. But, the home was a place to start. The Lady at Home suggested that “even if we cannot reform the world in a moment, we can begin the work by reforming ourselves and our households—It is woman’s mission. Let her not look away from her own little family circle for the means of producing moral and social reforms, but begin at home.” Evangelization started at home with women’s families, but ended in social reforms movements in the world. The sphere and duties of woman included all that was religious, whether that was at home or in society. Women had domestic, social, political roles as Christian mothers. But as many nineteenth-century women (see Sarah J. Hale) pointed out, their sphere did not include participation in the institutional political sphere.

[1] Barbara Welter, “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860,” American Quarterly 18, no. 2 (July 1, 1966): 153.

[2] Ibid., 171.

[3] Ibid., 151.

[4] Ibid., 174.

[5] Ibid., 162.

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