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Cult of True Womanhood

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Cult of True Womanhood

Before you start imagining secret compounds and brainwashing, the Cult of True Womanhood was not that type of cult. Instead, it was a name for the culture (cult → culture) surrounding what it meant to be a “true woman” in the 19th century.

The Cult of True Womanhood Definition

The Cult of True Womanhood, also known as the Cult of Domesticity is a term that describes the set of values held by upper and middle-class women in the 1800s. It is part of the separate spheres ideology, which divided the place for men and women into two spheres. Men belonged in the public sphere of business, politics, and commerce. Women belonged in the private sphere of the home.

The Four Virtues of the Cult of True Womanhood

Historian Barbara Welter coined the term, the Cult of True Womanhood, in an essay for American Quarterly in 1966 by the same name. In it, she lays out and explains the four virtues of the Cult of True Womanhood.

The attributes of True Womanhood, by which a woman judged herself and was judged by her husband, her neighbors and society could be divided into four cardinal virtues—piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity. 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.” - Barbara Welter, The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820 -1860, 1966

The Four Virtues of the Cult of True Womanhood: Piety

Abiding by the Cult of True Womanhood, a woman had to be pious, or devoted to religion. Religion was a “safe” outlet for women because it could be practiced in the private sphere of the home. It also did not challenge conventions that intellectual pursuits might interfere with.

The Four Virtues of the Cult of True Womanhood: Purity

According to the Cult of True Womanhood, a woman also had to be pure, meaning women were not to have any sexual relations before marriage. Men, on the other hand, struggled to be pure and often tempted women. It was the woman who had to be strong and protect her virtue, lest she become a “fallen woman.”

The Four Virtues of the Cult of True Womanhood: Submissiveness

Next, a woman was supposed to be submissive to her husband and other men in her life. According to Welter, this was the most feminine of the virtues as a man also needed to be pious and pure (less emphasis on the pure), but he was distinctly dominant.

She is in a measure dependent. She asks for wisdom, constancy, firmness, perseverance, and she is willing to repay it all by the surrender of the full treasure of her affections” - George Burnap, The Sphere and Duties of Woman: A Course of Lectures, 1848

The Four Virtues of the Cult of True Womanhood: Domesticity

Lastly, a woman needed to be skilled in the domestic art of housekeeping. She was in charge of cleaning the house, doing the laundry, cooking the meals, entertaining the guests, and caring for the sick. Essentially, a woman found her employment in the home. This was in direct contrast to men who worked in the public sphere.

The Cult of True Womanhood Characteristics

The Cult of True Womanhood Characteristics: Role of Print Media

Cult of True Womanhood Women's Magazine StudySmarterA popular women's magazine of the time, commons.wikimedia.org

The virtues of the Cult of True Womanhood were reinforced by print media of the time including religious literature, woman’s magazines, and gift books.

Did you know? Staunch followers of the Cult of True Womanhood believed novels were not the ideal form of reading for women as they could have corrupting material.

The Cult of True Womanhood Characteristics: Exclusivity

As we already know, the Cult of True Womanhood applied to upper and middle-class women, not working-class women. This was because women who had to work outside of the home went outside of the delegated domestic sphere.

The Cult of True Womanhood also excluded enslaved and free black women. Racist ideology suggested that Black women were not capable of holding the necessary virtues required to be a “true woman.” When it came to the Cult of True Womanhood, it was predominantly white, non-immigrant, Protestant women.

Opposition to the Cult of True Womanhood

Suffragette Elizabeth Cady Stanton, commons.wikimedia.org

Although many women did happily fall in line with the Cult of True Womanhood, there was a growing movement against it and for women’s rights, particularly the right to vote. In 1848, the Seneca Falls Convention took place, the first of its kind for the women’s movement. Women who supported the movement faced harsh attacks on their womanhood such as the one below.

"They are only semi-women, mental hermaphrodites" - Henry F. Harrington, Ladies' Companion, 1838

Later, in the Progressive Era, the “true woman” stepped aside for the “new woman” who was a feminist, worked outside the home, smoked cigarettes, and pursued an education.

Progressive Era

a period of activism and reform in the United States, with movements such as women’s suffrage

The Cult of True Womanhood Significance

The Cult of True Womanhood was significant because it defined a woman’s role in the world around her. If a woman deviated from the virtues of the Cult of True Womanhood, she lost her femininity, as her success as a woman was based on her ability to embody these virtues.

The Cult of True Womanhood also had the unintended impact of propelling the women’s movement as women rebelled against its oppressive values. If we look forward to the 1950s, we see a similar situation. The re-vamped Cult of Domesticity around being a housewife propelled the second wave of feminism in the United States.

The Cult of True Womanhood - Key takeaways

  • The Cult of True Womanhood was a set of values that defined moral success for upper and middle-class women in the 19th century. These women were often Protestant as well.
  • The four virtues of the Cult of True Womanhood were piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity.
  • The Cult of True Womanhood excluded working-class women, immigrant women, and women of color.
  • Opposition to the Cult of True Womanhood helped fuel the women's movement.

Frequently Asked Questions about Cult of True Womanhood

The Cult of True Womanhood was a set of values that defined success for upper and middle-class women in the 19th century.

The four ideals of the Cult of True Womanhood were piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity. 

Historian Barbara Welter coined the Cult of True Womanhood in an essay by the same name, 

The Cult of Domesticity defined true womanhood as a woman adhering to her place in the domestic sphere and holding the virtues that went with it. 

Final Cult of True Womanhood Quiz

Question

In what century did the Cult of True Womanhood develop?

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Answer

19th

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Among what classes did the Cult of True Womanhood exist?

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Answer

upper class

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What groups of women were excluded from the Cult of True Womanhood?

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Answer

women of color

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According to the Cult of True Womanhood, in what sphere did women belong?

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Answer

private sphere

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Who coined the Cult of True Womanhood?

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Answer

Elizabeth Cady Stanton

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Which of the following was not a virtue of the Cult of True Womanhood?

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Answer

piety

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What forms of print media reinforced the Cult of True Womanhood?

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Answer

women's magazines

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According to Barbara Welter, what was the most feminine virtue of the Cult of True Womanhood?

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Answer

submissiveness

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What effect did the Cult of True Womanhood have on the women's movement?

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Answer

It helped propel it as not all women were happy with the values of the Cult of True Womanhood.

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Question

In what era did the "new woman" start to replace the "true woman"?

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Answer

the Progressive Era

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