Reforming Women

From the swift emergence, a decade ago, of a serious new interest in women’s history, scholars have recognized in this field not only a subject of intrinsic fascination, but a constructive approach to numerous aspects of social and cultural history. Recent works in the history of the family, medicine, literature, and social reform have benefited from attention to women; indeed there are few aspects of American social history that have not been enriched by this newly opened area of investigation, although study of the great reform movements of the nineteenth century has probably benefited most. With all the good that has come from this interest, there lurks below the surface, indeed sometimes in full view, an embarrassment for the twentieth-century scholar who deals with nineteenth-century women.

The cause of this discomfort is variously labeled “the cult of true womanhood,” “the cult of domesticity,” or, in one instance, “the feminization of American culture,” an expression carrying with it some of the condemnation for weakness and fussiness associated even now with the word “feminine” in the minds of most people. The cult conveyed, to be brief, the idea that women were superior in moral and spiritual insight to men, yet limited in their mental hardihood in confrontation with the tougher ideas, and distinctly in need of male protection in a world too heartless for their kind and gentle natures, too coarse for their refined sensibilities. Woman was morally pure, for she was less prone to temptation; she understood religion readily, though her mind might not be strong enough for theology. Woman’s kingdom was the home, and her specialty the family.

The problem for the modern scholar, who usually rejects the assumptions on which this conception of women is based, is that many of the women who achieved most in the nineteenth century were themselves subscribers to the cult of femininity, and that though there were many who accepted it only partially, there were very few who rejected it out of hand. It would be easy to write off, or discount, the idea as a myth imposed on women by narrow-minded or envious men were it not for the disagreeable fact that many of the women who participated in the major reforms of their time were either victims of these ideas, advocates of them, or busy employing them to advance their causes.

As Ronald G. Walters has written, from the point of view of one scholar whom the “cult” does not embarrass,

the cult of domesticity,” a rationale for female economic and political irrelevance, carried implications that justified public activity by women, particularly in reforms to suppress mankind’s animal nature and to liberate the downtrodden.

This description fits, of course, most of the great movements of the Jacksonian era of “freedom’s ferment,” but it fits none quite so closely as the abolition movement, where the questions of animal nature and “liberation of the downtrodden” came to focus on the plight of the slave. Walters suggests that the …

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