As part of the required reading in literature courses throughout many liberal arts colleges, Barbara Welter’s 1966 essay “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860” has become a staple academic source for feminist and deconstructionist literary critics.
The Cult of True Womanhood, a.k.a. The Cult of Domesticity, is a phrase that Welter uses to define the prevalent philosophy towards women in America during the mid-19th Century. The philosophy, which she portrays as a particular set of demands and expectations, is founded upon four tenets: Piety, Purity, Submission, and Domesticity.
I suggest you read the essay prior to going any further. It’s a short piece, and the diction is easily accessible to modern readers.
Before I delve into these four tenets, however, allow me to provide a context for this essay and how it pertains to contemporary discussions of gender and society.
It is imperative for participants in the manosphere to be aware of this essay, for it underpins much of what feminism has become today. It is frequently cited as evidence of patriarchal constructs: horrible creations of man that feminists would have us believe are behind everything that makes them uncomfortable.
Not human nature, not biological imperative, not healthy norms, but… patriarchal constructs.
This essay gives feminists the perception of authority they need to re-define natural, functional gender roles as incongruent demands being forced upon women by a dominant (white) male class. Consider when the essay was published: 1966, in the midst of the second-wave feminism movement.
Welter frames the issue by alluding to the consequences of violating this prevailing set of values, summed up in the following: “If anyone, male or female, dared to tamper with the complex of virtues that made up True Womanhood, he was damned immediately as the enemy of God, of civilization, and of the Republic.”
If you consider the above quote as the introduction, then it becomes clear that this essay is a focus upon the 19th-Century response to those transgressions, a focus which serves the underlying purpose of deconstructing the philosophy itself in order to render it problematic and obsolete in a Progressive™ 20th-century context.
Although Welter does not explicitly condemn the Cult—her essay is more informative than persuasive—she had to be aware of the political context in which she wrote.
She begins the essay by labeling Man as a “busy builder” and Woman as a “hostage.” These terms are not accidental. Furthermore, the assignment of the term “cult” to what is really a set of ancient norms and values allows Welter to subliminally present those norms as inane and excessive. It allows her readers to equate the brutality of the enforcement of the cult with brutality of the cult itself.
Having made that distinction, I will now illuminate the four cardinal virtues of the Cult of True Woman.
The virtue of religious devotion, which includes faith, prayer, and participation in church activities.
This trait, it seems, is the natural state of woman. Their brain is wired to believe in something they can’t see.
Women already knew this in the 19th Century. Elizabeth “Mrs. John” Sandford said in her book, Woman, in Her Social and Domestic Character, “Religion is just what woman needs. Without it she is ever restless or unhappy.”
When Welter mentions in her essay Sanford’s view that Piety is a virtue, she says it thus:
“Mrs. John Sanford, who had no very high opinion of her sex, agreed thoroughly.”
Emphasis is my own, in order to illustrate that Welter insists any woman’s opinion that differs from her own must be “no very high opinion.”
Solipsism? Welter, have a little faith in your elder sister!
True Woman Waits.
There is a biological imperative behind this value which ensures that women form stronger bonds to their husbands and as a result maintain healthier a family setting for their children.
Regardless of the aim of Purity during the 19th Century, modern research has shown that it is actually better for children to have their mothers maintain their chastity until the night of marriage to the father of those children.
The alternative? An Alpha Widow who accomplishes the following: she fails to form a proper bond with her husband, divorces him, then ostracizes him from the lives of her children.
No one wins.
A woman’s obedience to her man. A wife’s deference to the wisdom and worldly experience of her husband. A daughter’s respect towards her capable father.
The problem is not female submission to males, since it is a biological tendency common among mammals, but rather the abuse of power that natural feminine submission affords the stronger sex.
The abuse of gender roles by unrefined or lesser men does not constitute a delegitimization of the gender roles themselves. Individual men are the problem. Wrath is the evil, not power. Does gluttony make food evil? Does sloth make rest evil?
Is all sex evil because of the existence of lust? Is submission inherently bad just because it has gone wrong in the hands of the incompetent?
This virtue should be self-explanatory. It holds that a woman’s ideal place is in the home and the kitchen.
Woman, Welter states, was “hostage in a home,” but not so the man “work[ed] long hours in a materialistic society.” How is it that a man enslaved to employment is not a hostage?
Regardless, the woman had specific roles while assuming the realm of the domestic: nurse, cook, and child-care giver, among others.
Nowadays, instead of mother fulfilling these roles, we have the government and multi-national corporations deciding how to heal, feed, and raise our children instead of the mothers who bore them from their womb.
I say this: anyone who seriously challenges the notion that the domestic sphere pertains to the expertise of woman has got to have serious mental issues.
Dismemberment of the cult
The Cult of True Womanhood is really a description of beliefs and attitudes towards women that can not be confined to a mere 40 years of history.
Indeed, the tenets of Piety, Purity, Submission, and Domesticity have been guideposts for women throughout the ages, in nearly all parts of the world, and they continue to hold sway in many dominant cultures and sub-cultures across the globe.
So what allowed the initial breakdown of the notion of True Womanhood in America? One possibility I propose is that the Industrial Revolution changed the business of men.
Subsistence farming, trades, and artisanry steadily lose their effectiveness at sustaining families when the demands and pressures of society change.
Mercantilism, on a government level, and capitalism, on a corporate level, raise the level of the dollar’s importance not only for those actively seeking wealth but also for those passively living within the system.
Welter herself mentions that in America “the fathers, alas, were too busy chasing the dollar.” As if the majority of them made a conscious choice to abandon their families for the sake of satisfying their own greed.
Rising materialism demands men to work as wage slaves, and these men carry their weariness and incongruency of spirit into the domestic sphere.
Rather than note, however, the threat that industrialization and materialism pose to the family unit, Welter and feminists in general look to deconstructing a core set of values that have served the survival and advancement of our species for thousands of years.
That is to say, rather than examine a more probable cause of unhappiness, they have decided to examine a side effect of the original cause (whatever that may be) and use that as an opportunity to demonize the age-old definitions of femininity, utilizing such terms as “cult,” “hostage,” and “patriarchy” in order to achieve their selfish goals.
Ideally, men work, build, learn, and discover, while women keep it all together at home. Life is demanding for men, and it is demanding for women. But what receives very little mention in today’s gender dialogue is that the expectations placed on men have changed very little in the past century.
We are still expected to study, to pursue a career, to provide, to be resilient, and to stand up for the weak and defenseless.
In addition, however, we are also now expected to be sensitive, to listen, to share domestic duties, and, most offensively, to ignore our natural inclinations and standards toward beauty, which are driven by biological urges to mate with healthy, viable potential mothers.
But if you want to bed attractive, quality women, you are expected to be fit, wealthy, witty, charming, and a combination of other qualities. There is nothing wrong with demanding excellence, but why does it apply to only one sex nowadays?
Hardcore feminists will try to convince us that it is backwards to uphold that women are delicate, gentle, and best suited to service. On the other hand, a message that men are brutish and given to violent tendencies gives feminism a reason to attack men and masculinity. A philosophy towards women that regulates their nature does not serve the aims of feminism, while a philosophy towards men that regulates their nature does.
Keep these ideas in mind the next time you encounter someone citing “Cult of True Womanhood” as evidence of patriarchal constructs. Remind them that it is nothing more than a feminist tactic to demonize the aspects of human nature which they consider to be inconvenient.
I originally intended to end this article by posing a question about the existence of a Cult of True Manhood, but then I realized that the very idea is as preposterous as a Cult of True Womanhood. Instead, I’ll end with a brief anecdote.
At work today, my supervisor (a woman), was on her way to get a fork so she could sample the birthday cake that another woman brought for the business owner (male, in case it matters).
I asked her to grab a fork for me as well, and she scoffed, saying, “I don’t even serve my own husband.”
“Really?” I asked in disbelief. “You don’t serve your husband?”
“Absolutely not,” she huffed, walking past me towards the cake.