Women’s History Month: The Cult of True Womanhood

The women’s rights movement during the late 19th and early 20th centuries set the foundation for women’s rights advocacy throughout the last century. Women activists reflected the transformation in the United States as the country transitioned to an industrial society. The passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution guaranteeing women the right to vote signified a culminating event during this period, but women’s rights activists took many different approaches to expanding the role of women in American society that continued well beyond the passage of the Constitutional amendment.

By the late nineteenth century, Victorian ideals governed the role of women in middle and upper class society. The cult of true womanhood, as it was called, set parameters to women’s behavior. Society expected women to be pious, as their nature appeared more religious and spiritual than men. Women needed to be pure of heart, mind, and body—not engaging in sexual relations until marriage, not enjoying it even when married (no birth control either, since this indicated engaging in sexual activity for pleasure), not being concerned with politics or economics, or other worldly topics. Women had to be submissive, allowing men to make decisions for them. And finally, domesticity governed a woman’s life, in which the home became the female domain and her refuge from the temptations, pressures, and unsavory conditions of life.

Some women reformers during this period actually used elements of the cult of true womanhood to justify their public activism. Jane Addams and the settlement house movement and Frances Willard and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union emphasized the need for moral reform and improving the lives of families in the United States. Florence Kelley and the National Consumers’ League focused on laws improving the working conditions of women and children. Even voting rights for women could be argued as necessary to correct men’s immoral behavior. All of this came under the purview of legitimate women’s roles as they focused on children and the family.

As more and more women entered the activists’ ranks, many of them began to push the boundaries of public discourse on women’s issues. As challenges to the cult of true womanhood grew, the foundation of modern American feminism developed.