2 Controversial 19th Century Feminine Ideals
2.1 The “Southern Lady”
2.2 The “New Woman”
3 The Creole Community – Origin and Values
From the mid-19th century on, the hitherto largely male dominated US-American society felt compelled to face the first wave of feminism, which united women in their fight for equality. Although women had contributed a great deal to the colonization of the USA, they had not been granted the civil right to vote in national and local elections until the passage of the 19th amendment to the Constitution in 1920, which stated that “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex” (National Archives and Records Administration).
At a time when the US saw themselves confronted with major social and economic changes, among others caused by the industrialization, the influence of science (e.g. Darwin’s revolutionary theory of evolution, transportation by means of the first continental railroad completed in 1869) gender specific role models were affected, too. As these developments caused feelings of insecurity in many people, much importance was attached to the own home, which was seen as a haven of security amidst social and economic turmoil (Shanley 3).
The making of a stereotype like that of the “Victorian Lady” or the “Southern Lady” can be seen as an attempt to create a solid authority in a time of radical changes.
The Louisiana Purchase in 1803 posed a challenge to the Protestant Americans as the lifestyle of the Catholic Creoles differed greatly from the ones in the rest of the US. The beliefs – comprising, amongst others, religious ones - and values of the Creole community were met with rejection and were sometimes described as un-American.
The American feminine ideal of the “Southern Lady” represents the equivalent to the English feminine ideal of the “Victorian Lady”. The term “Victorian Lady” refers to the era of Queen Victoria’s reign (1827-1901) in England and describes the ideal woman as “The Angel in the House” (Langland 87). This term originated from a poem by Coventry Patmore (1823-1896), in which he depicted his wife Emily, whom he thought to be the embodying of the perfect Victorian wife (Hobson 16), as a woman who lives in selfless devotion to her children and submits to her husband. Another frequent term depicting the ideal woman is that of the “Ministering Angel”. In her 1899 novel The Awakening, Kate Chopin characterizes the “Southern Lady” as somebody who “esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels” (Walker 26). Although this “domestic ideology […] granted women substantial (if not symbolic) power as moral authorities, […] that moral authority was largely restricted to the confines of the home” (Poplawski 415). In Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, a representation of the “Southern Lady” can be found in the figure of Adèle Ratignolle, who is described as embodiment a “mother-woman” (Walker 26).
A Victorian couple’s world consisted of two spheres; a public one and a private one. Whereas to men the public sphere represented an open world and several possibilities, the women’s sphere was confined to the household’s privacy and the raising of children. However, the woman’s role was not seen as confining or restrictive, but idealized in a false way; the woman’s role was that of a “guardian of the ‘sacred place’, home” (King 9)1. While men had to cope with the rude outside world, “women’s perfect compliance, obedience, innocence, and refinement would make them too easy to victimize in the competitive public world” (Mitchell 267). Not only were women supposed to be obedient to her husband and devoted to raising their children, but also, when entering marriage, they had to depend on their husbands financially. The common perception of marriage was still highly influenced by Wiliam Blackstone, one of the most influential figures in the 18th century. In 1765, he defined a woman’s role in marriage as follows: “By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband” (Johnson Lewis. Blackstone Law Commentaries). Upon entering marriage, women were deprived of such fundamental rights as the right of property or the right of financial freedom as “by law virtually all of a woman’s property became her husband’s […]” (Pool 181).
The “Cult of True Womanhood” or “Cult of Domesticity” comprised four cardinal virtues: Piety, purity, submission and domesticity. “Without them, no matter there was fame, achievement or wealth, all was ashes. With them she was promised happiness and power” (Welter 152). These virtues were inextricably linked with the type of the “True Woman”. A lack of piety, purity, submission or domesticity would indicate a woman’s imperfection.
The perceptions of differences between the sexes and female inferiority were mainly shaped by publications and pamphlets promulgating sometimes more and sometimes less scientifically proven points of view. In 1895, the Contemporary Review, a British quarterly publication “with an established Christian outlook” printed an article written by Cesare Lombroso, an Italian criminologist. There, Lombroso pronounced that “in figure, in size of brain, in strength, in intelligence, woman comes nearer to the animal and the child” (Richardson 41). The “Southern Lady” was commonly refused access to education. In 1874, Henry Maudsley, an eminent British psychiatrist, asserted that women, by virtue of their reproductive functions, could not stand up to the rigors of higher education or sustained cerebral activity. According to Maudsley, nature had endowed women with a finite amount of energy, and its proper use belonged to reproduction. Reproductive processes demanded all the energy a woman could muster; to spend it in another direction would inexorably undermine the very functions that gave woman her only raison d’être. If women foolishly attempted to undertake study, he concluded, they risked ruining forever their childbearing capacities, thus endangering the future of the race. (Kent 43)
The ‘scientific findings’ also extended to women’s sexuality. In 1857, William Acton, a gynecologist, who became known for his books about the bad impact of masturbation, gave the following characterization: “As a general rule, a modest woman seldom desires any sexual gratification for herself. She submits to her husband, but only to please him; and but for the desire of maternity, would far rather be relieved from his attention” (Acton zit. nach von Heynitz 73). By denying female sexual desire, women were raised on a moral pedestal and depicted as morally superior to men. Although moral decency was not only demanded from women, men were regarded as “prey to the animalistic drives in [their N.H.] masculine nature” (Ayers 470). While the importance of prudery and chastity of women as part of the feminine ideal was stressed, moral ambiguity in Britain produced an increasingly number of prostitutes and venereal diseases, which eventually led to certain measures like the Contagious Disease Acts 2 (1864, 1866 and 1869) (von Heynitz 75-6). While the Contagious Disease Acts were passed by the Parliament of the United Kingdom in the 1860s, the problem of men seeking for sexual pleasure outside of marriage was not only restricted to Britain, but also existed in 19th century America. However, according to the prevailing view, for men, prostitution was a necessary and therefore tolerable social evil, while prostitutes themselves were considered social outcasts. Many men regarded prostitutes as “the necessary evil to protect the pure [i.e. the wife at home; N.H.], who otherwise might unwittingly provoke the male to rape them” (Kent 62). Originating in the call for purity in women, the “cult of the little girl” (Nelson, Claudia 19) evolved, which induced “a substantial number of engagements, and often marriages, contracted between adult men and teenagers” (Nelson, Claudia 19).
1 The strong affection to the home was reflected by some widely popular songs at the time, entitled “Home! Sweet Home!” or “Where Home Is” (The Library of Congress).
2 The 1860s witnessed a spate of legislation aimed at both domestic and colonial prostitution known as the Contagious Diseases Acts (Burton 126).
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