Did you ever wonder where all this “women are weak, timid and lack self-confidence” stuff came from? We often think of the 1950’s and the visions of the idealistic stay at home mother in her apron and pearls but it actually goes back to the period from 1820 – 1860. This was an age when the Cult of True Womanhood thrived.
According to the Cult of True Womanhood, true women held four cardinal virtues – Piety, Purity, Submissiveness and Domesticity.
- Piety – Religion, by divine right, belonged to women. In the dark, sinful world created by men, women could cast out a light and bring men back closer to God. Religion and religious works kept a woman busy, tempered her, without interfering or disrupting her “proper sphere” – her home.
- Purity – A woman’s greatest treasure was her virginity. Since sexual feelings are absent in a woman, a woman was expected to maintain her purity and only give away her virginity on her wedding night. Women should expect assaults from men trying to persuade them to lose their virginity but they must resist. Women who lose their purity were considered fallen creatures, only part woman and they were told madness was often the result of the loss of purity. But a woman who maintained her purity proved her superiority and power over men.
- Submissiveness – Men were the movers and shakers, the doers, the actors in life. Women were passive by-standers who must submit to fate, duty, God and man. They were not strong enough for the darkness created by men in the world outside the home. “True feminine genius is ever timid, doubtful, and clingingly dependent; a perpetual child.” “She feels herself weak and timid, she needs a protector.” “A true woman feels her dependence to a man and it grateful for it.”
- Domesticity – The home was a woman’s “proper sphere.” It is how she brings her husband back to God. Domestic tasks such as needlepoint, sewing, caring for children, cleaning and cooking were uplifting tasks for her.
According to the ideal, a true woman despises anything in a man that is like herself. Therefore, male gender identity was based on:
- Possessing no feminine qualities
- Achieving success and status. Men needed sufficient financial means in order to have a wife who did not need to work outside the home.
- Being tough, reliant, self-confident, stoic, independent – a sturdy oak
- Being aggressive and daring
I have to admit that I have struggled writing this article much more than I expected to. I expected this to be quick and easy – I could just write about the cult and blast it as being the cause of the misperceptions of women in business. But I find some truth and some things I like in it. I read the following by Barbara Welter and it got me thinking:
Women were expected to uphold the values of stability, morality, and democracy by making the home a special place, a refuge from the world where her husband could escape from the highly competitive, unstable, immoral world of business and industry. It was widely expected that in order to succeed in the work world, men had to adopt certain values and behaviors: materialism, aggression, vulgarity, hardness, rationality. But men also needed to develop another side to their nature, a human side, an anticompetitive side. The home was to be the place where they could do this. This was where they could express humanistic values, aesthetic values, love, honor, loyalty and faithfulness.
I like the idea that women create a home that is a refuge from the ugliness of the outside world. I like the idea that women bring light into the world and make the home and community a better place. I like that we stand for positive values and upholding what is good and right in the world. That is empowering. I also read the following stating that a true woman’s rights are:
The right to love who others scorn
The right to comfort and to mourn
The right to shed new joy on earth
The right to fill the soul’s high worth
Such woman’s rights a God will bless
And crown their champions with success
I thought that was pretty cool. So the Cult of True Womanhood is not all bad.
The point that I originally wanted to make in this article is that when you read an article or blog post describing women as timid, weak or lacking self-confidence, you should immediately File 13 it because it is using female stereotypes based on the Cult of True Womanhood. If you accept that women are timid and weak, then you also accept that:
- Women should only engage in religious work outside the home
- Women have no sexual desires
- Women are submissive/childlike
- Women only go to work because their husbands don’t make enough money for them to stay home and pursue their true passion – housework.
But there is a bigger point I am getting out of writing this – a point I make in many of my articles – the need for women to empower themselves so we can balance the influences of men.
The Cult of True Womanhood shows the power of women to balance men – in the home. It shows the power of women to bring out the better nature of men – in the home. If women can bring light into the home, then what happens when women go in mass into the workplace – can we bring light to the darkness of the workplace and bring out the better nature of men there too?
The idea that women are too weak to survive the workplace is contradicted within the virtues. The virtue of purity expects women to have the strength to stand up and say “no” to men who want to persuade them to lose their virginity. If a young girl can stand up and hold her ground with a man in this circumstance then what is to stop her in every other aspect of her life and in every other situation?
I haven’t written the articles yet, but I believe that it is very empowering for women simply to say “no” to men. We don’t have to engage men as men, we don’t have to engage in conflict with them – our power comes from not engaging, from simply saying “no” and establishing balance.
It seems one purpose of the Cult of True Womanhood was to promote the status of men, not just to women but to other men. Only women in the middle and upper classes could obtain true womanhood. Poor white, immigrant and black women who needed to work could not obtain the ideals. Only a man who was superior in the work place could have a true lady as his wife. (the origin of the trophy wife)
So, if women enter the workplace in mass and change its characteristics, how can men continue to use the workplace as their proving grounds to distinguish themselves from other men?
It seems that for the past 200 years the workplace continuously evolved and redefined male status and superiority. And the real reason the “No Women Allowed” sign was hung out was because men understand that if women are empowered in the workplace men will lose their ability to use it as their proving grounds. Then where do men go to battle each other for dominance??
Maybe that’s the real issue – for men.
For women, we still need to understand that timidity, lack of self-confidence, submissiveness, weakness etc., etc., etc. are made up female characteristics intended to keep us from changing the workplace. But we need to change the workplace! Looking at the state of our country, businesses and government we see a dark place created for the most part by men.
What needs to change is for women to believe we have an obligation to empower ourselves and bring our light, our positive values to the workplace and all institutions. They need our female influence.
Oh, and I still think when you read an article that says women don’t get ahead because they are weak, timid etc., you should immediately file 13 it. You would be better served to read an article on the Cult of True Womanhood – at least there you can read about women’s positive virtues.
Empowered women understand they bring light and positive qualities to the home and the workplace.
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