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The Feminine Ideal

A look at America’s “ideal woman”, from the 1800’s to the late 1900’s

By CthulhuPublished 2 years ago 7 min read

Who is the ideal woman? Is she calm and quiet? Is she caring and motherly? Is she sassy, bold and shamelessly sexy? From the Republican Mother of the 1700s to 1920’s promiscuous flappers, the “ideal woman” has changed drastically in America’s history. Not only limited to visual aspects, personality and nature were important parts in defining a “model” woman. To track the development of idealized femininity, we need to look at the trends, limitations, influences, and foundations women were bound to when exploring their femininity.

To trace America’s “ideal woman”, we need to start at the country’s beginning: the American Revolution! Before, during, and after the American Revolution, a woman's jobs were mainly rooted in motherhood: domestic tasks such as cooking, cleaning, and caring for children. Nearing the end of the 1700’s, “Republican Motherhood” became a common concept women were expected to follow. Its main idea was that women should “serve as educators of young men in order to teach them to become productive American citizens and embrace the Enlightenment ideas that fueled the concept of Republicanism…”. This ideology, while initially encouraging women’s domestic lifestyles, ended up increasing educational opportunities for American women. Many argued that to be able to pass on knowledge to their sons, mothers needed to have an education. Benjamin Rush stated, “There are several circumstances in the situation, employments and duties of women in America which require a peculiar mode of education.” According to him, some of these circumstances and duties are the duty to help advance their fortunes, be a stewardess of the property, to help prepare the children, and be politically knowledgeable as to teach her sons. Although equipped with newfound political knowledge, women were still limited in what they could do with that knowledge. Nevertheless, Republican motherhood reinstated women’s importance in society, and let them become more educated and politically active, however miniscule.

The “Cult of True Womanhood”—also called the “Cult of Domesticity”—began in the 1820s, and was rooted in the idea that women were physically and mentally inferior to men. Much of what we see in True Womanhood is reflected in its predecessor, “Republican Motherhood,” particularly the idea that a woman’s purpose was to serve the family. It had four ideals: piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity. Piety, or religious devotion, was a high quality in women. So much so, that a lack of religion was considered the worst human characteristic. Religion was the core of a woman's purity; the source of her strength. Without it, she would be considered less than those around her. Purity was on a similar wavelength. Without sexual purity, a woman was no woman, but a lower form of being; unworthy of love and respect. The virtue most linked to femininity was submissiveness. Women were expected to submit, to God, to her duties, and most importantly, to men. The fourth and final virtue was domesticity; the idea that a woman’s place was working within the home. She was to cook, clean, cater to her husband, and care for children. These ideals were restrictive for some, but many embraced the virtues and found fulfillment and purpose in them.

Many say that this “cult” was the beginning of America having an idealized woman. Women who, financially supported by their husbands, would stay home to cook, clean, and take care of their children. This woman was the paragon of femininity and domesticity. A popular saying of the time was: "A woman has a head almost too small for intellect but just big enough for love.” From Barbra Welters’ well known text, The Cult of True Womanhood. Near the end of the nineteenth century, True Womanhood started to lose its shine. Women no longer felt it was fulfilling, but rather restrictive, and sought to replace it with something different. This is where the “New Woman” movement started to take place.

During and after the Gilded Age, America went through great change. The country’s rapid economic expansion and industrialization led to many new jobs, but also instability and uncertainty. America found that stability in cemented, yet altered, family dynamics. “A modified ideal of true womanhood developed as a response to a rapidly growing population, expanding frontiers and industrial developments and the effects they all had on society and the Family.” As industrialization continued to improve, the lives of middle to upper class families became more lax. Household appliances made a woman’s job in the household easier, and gave them more power and pleasure as consumers. With these appliances, housewives' lives became more leisurely, and quickly grew restless and felt unfulfilled. Here, begins the “New Woman”

The “New Woman” movement began post-WWI, in the 1920’s, and was a response to the limiting roles of mothers and wives. The term was used to describe women who “were pushing against the limits which society imposed on women.” The foundation of the “True Woman” was challenged; exchanging self-sacrifice for self-fulfillment, and domestic work for paid jobs. Family and home-wise, the ideal woman of the mid-1900’s was still based on four stereotypes, slightly altered from the True Woman’s: first, is that a woman’s place is in the home with her family, as a mother. Second, that women could not make big decisions, such as buying the family car, due to their “frivolous” spending on non-essentials. Third is that a woman should be dependent on her husband and in need of his protection and acceptance, to shape herself to fit his needs. Finally, the fourth stereotype is that women were made to be sexual objects, and lower status to men because of it. The “New Woman” challenged these stereotypes; she values independence, perhaps stays single, gets a job in the workforce, believes in legal and sexual equality, and is often more open about her sexuality than her predecessor. The age of the New Woman began the “flapper” trend: women who would wear short skirts, with red painted lips and cheeks, and bobbed hair. They smoked, enjoyed clubbing and dancing, and participated in promiscuous premarital sexual acts. This version of the New Woman was sexy, bold, and undoubtedly beautiful. With the implementation of household appliances and the rise of consumerism, more and more middle-upper class women began buying products marketed towards beauty ideals. The “ideal beauty” was perpetuated in magazines; simultaneously advertising beauty products and home appliances under the guise that they would help women achieve the new beauty standard. Here, we begin to see trends that only some were in position to follow; typically, the white middle-upper class women.

Not all women could achieve these new standards—in fact, the majority of the products advertised were done so strictly to the white middle to upper class. Racial and ethnic prejudice limited women’s ability to meet the new expectations set before them. To be considered “beautiful,” black women were advertised skin lightener, hair straighteners, and anything that would get rid of their ethnic features. As more women began getting jobs, these prejudices continued into the workforce. Black and Mexican women were often limited to grueling factory work, and even in the massive increase of needed workers in WWI, these jobs did not last after soldiers returned home. White women, in contrast, often found themselves in cleaner, better paying, less demanding jobs. With the “new sexuality” taking place, many African-American women thought it problematic. They had been protecting themselves from sexual exploitation for decades. This was just another thing that was non-universal because of racial prejudice.

Each of the standards brought in by the “New Woman'' age were highly limited to those who could afford them: the rich, white women in middle and upper classes. No single type of feminist liberation could encapsulate all womens needs. Under popular opinion, women were believed to be liberated. The glamorized image of the prosperous white woman generalized the experiences for all women, but was heavily inaccurate towards those outside their social spheres.

American history shows us that the “ideal” woman may never be defined. In some people’s eyes, she is quiet and demure. In others, she is outspoken and bold. She might stay at home, she might work, she may or may not be married. There is no true definition of ideal femininity with no single opinion to use as universal fact. From the Republican Mothers of the 1700’s, to the flappers of the 1920’s, America’s “ideal” woman has changed drastically. Each and every woman of the past struggled against the odds to express herself the way she wanted, whether that be through housework, red lipstick, or a hard working job. You cannot define “feminine,” but without a doubt, they are feminine!


About the Creator


horribly literal writing of a depressed youth

Yes, Cthulhu is a reference to H.P. Lovecraft. I am a sucker for gothic and eldritch horror, though I rarely write it.

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