The Cult of True Womanhood

Where did I come up with this phrase, “Cult of Perfect Motherhood”? Well, that is a story that takes me back to my college days. I was a history major in college and I minored in women’s studies. Had there been a major in women’s studies at my university at the time (there is now), I almost certainly would have double-majored in history and women’s studies. I know, you’re SHOCKED! SHOCKED! to learn that there is a feminist writing this blog. And not only a feminist, but a university-trained one, which means I know my shit. I learned my women’s history from the best, including Bonnie Morris (whose books are amazing because she is brilliant) and some other amazing professors. Because of what they taught me, now when I look at how the women around me are living their lives, I see all sorts of parallels between the shit that happened to women in the past, and the shit that happens to them now.

And one of those parallels that jumps out to me all the time is between how mothers experience parenthood now, and what feminist historians call the Cult of True Womanhood, AKA the Cult of Domesticity. Shout out right here to Barbara Welter’s classic text on the subject. What feminist historians mean by that phrase is this: during the Victorian era, middle and upper class women were expected by society to meet an ideal of womanhood that included being docile to one’s husband, being pure and chaste, being super pious (Christian was preferable), and of course, being the ultimate homemaker. I’m really abbreviating the historical discussion here, but just think of poor long-suffering Melanie Hamilton from Gone with the Wind, and there’s your example of the ideal woman during the Cult of True Womanhood era. (You haven’t read the book OR seen the movie?!?! Stop reading right now and go fix that. No, seriously, go right now. I’ll wait.)

How was that ideal enforced? Well, women who didn’t live up to the ideals of the Cult of True Womanhood got shit on. God forbid a woman did something untoward or worse, unchaste. Throw that woman out of “decent” society, shunning is the solution! Poverty in 19th century America was even shittier than it is today. Nobody wanted to be disowned by their parents and end up living in a tenement in 1870. Seriously.

Now, you may be saying at this point, “Gee, that sounds shitty, but hello, it’s 2013.” Yes, in the words of Ani DiFranco (see, feminist!), “Chicks got it good now–they can almost be president.” See, the thing is, progress doesn’t mean the end of the need for change. You don’t stop potty training your kid after the first time they pee on the potty and say “That’s progress, no need to actually get you to stop using diapers entirely.” Nor do you say, “We tried teaching you to use the potty, but you had an accident, so we give up, you’re wearing diapers for the rest of your life.” No, you keep at it until you no longer have to keep cleaning their shit off their asses for them. And, feminism doesn’t stop just because women are going to college and playing sports, because women are still living with crazy unrealistic expectations placed on them. The expectations have a slightly different flavor than they did in the 19th century, but we have to keep pushing back against those expectations. Because they are crazy and nobody can meet them. Hell, even Melanie Hamilton took that money from Belle Watling.

So, I started calling the flavor of today’s idealized womanhood The Cult of Perfect Motherhood. Start with the Cult of True Womanhood, and replace being docile with being constantly vigilant about your child’s safety, and replace being pious with being completely dedicated to following the teachings of the latest parenting “experts.” Being the perfect homemaker remains part of the picture (Martha Stewart, Pinterest). Chastity is no longer the standard exactly, but it’s been replaced by an extremely complicated relationship with our sexuality–must be attractive, can’t be slutty. See? Same cult, different flavor.

What’s so fantastic about studying women’s history is that we can learn from the women who fought the last cult, and maybe they can teach us how to fight back against the cult. There were some seriously badass women who took a big bite out of the patriarchy back then. Did they eat it all and poop it out and now we live in some utopian paradise? Of course not, but they made progress, and maybe if we learn from them, SO CAN WE.