Imago Feminae: Image of Woman


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Let's Rock the Boat

Women in 19th and 20th Century American Society and Religion

As American life in general changed over the decades of the nineteenth century, so too did society's expectations of women. Before the industrial revolution, men and women worked in the home, which was the center of daily life. With the beginning of industrialization in the early part of the century, entire families worked in factories. The focus of daily life shifted from the home to the workplace. The end result of industrialization in America, which went into full swing in the 1860s, was the separation of the home and the workplace. The men were keepers of the workplace, and the women were keepers of the home. This separation of home and workplace facilitated a sharp distinction between gender roles for men and women. Thus the nineteenth century ideal of the "cult of true womanhood" developed (McDannell, 6-7).

True womanhood dictated that women be meek, mild, pure, and dependent on men. Alongside this was the maternal model for women's proper behavior. The coexistence of the cult of true womanhood with the maternal model meant that women were expected to be both meek and nurturing (McDannell, 129). This nurturing role was filled not only in the home but outside of it as well; therefore, many women took on the role of public mother. During the Civil War (1861-1865), which occurred along side increasing industrialization, women went outside of the home to nurse wounded soldiers (Gifford, 310-311). After the Civil War, women's nurturing outside of the home continued.

Other historical events besides the Civil War fostered women's changing roles and status in society. Religious revivals were frequently supported by women's groups, even though men were the organizers of such events. Women sat by men at revivals, a worship practice new to Protestants, and women were encouraged to speak. The conversion that women experienced at revivals often led them to reform areas of life other than the religious. Hence, women formed social reform groups, the larger goal of which was moral reform (Braude, 45). 

Alcohol consumption, mainly that of hard liquor, was a major area of concern for moral reform for nineteenth century women. Women, motivated in part by the desire to preserve the household and in part by economic concerns, became involved in temperance, and a close relationship between temperance movements and feminist movements began and persisted into the twentieth century. In 1874 several women founded the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), whose motto was "for God and home and native land" (Gifford, 309). "Crusading women were certain that intemperance could be eliminated by converting individuals, that woman's moral authority would prevail, and that the gift of the Spirit would usher in the kingdom of God on earth" (Lee, 294). Women also concerned themselves with the elimination of prostitution. Prostitution presented a double standard: women were seen as being sexually impure, but the men who hired prostitutes could retain their moral standing. In their work to reform both the female prostitutes and the men who used them, women would visit brothels to get the names of patrons, which would then be published (Braude, 47).  In addition to social reform groups formed by lay women, Catholic women came together as nuns for the purpose of achieving social reform beginning in the 1700s (Braude, 84). By the twentieth century, nuns were teachers and nurses, and they ran care facilities for many marginalized members of American society (Bruade, 86-87). Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and even before then, women were nurturing both their homes and American society.

The image of the virtuous woman was the true nature of woman, according to the prevailing thought behind women's involvement in social and moral reform movements. Women were seen as being more moral than men and capable of redeeming men (Lee, 293, 300). As women moved out of the home sphere into the public sphere, becoming not just mothers to their own children but also public mothers, they for the most part did not redefine their definition of womanhood (Lee, 309). The only difference between their views and those of the cult of true womanhood was location: in the cult of true womanhood, women were virtuous in the home whereas in women's social reform movements women were virtuous in the public sphere. Despite the strong hold of the cult of true womanhood and the persistent definition of women as moral and virtuous creatures, women's roles began to be questioned at this time. Women were not just the keepers of the home anymore; they were now the keepers of society.

As the eighteenth century passed and the twentieth century began, women sought an ever larger role in American society in general and American religion in particular. One of the big issues within American Christianity has been the oridination of women, beginning on a large scale in the 1960s, even though some denominations were ordaining women as early as the nineteenth century (Braude, 114). A central point in defending a male-only clergy is the maleness of Jesus Christ. An argument in favor of maintaining that status quo is that women cannot adequately represent Christ on earth, since Christ was male. This argument is especially prevalent in Catholic, Episcopal, and Orthodox circles (Braude, 117). Protestants against the ordination of women turn to Biblical passages, such as I Corinthians 1:2-5 (Braude, 122). Other passages used in this argument include the creation story in Genesis and the social codes of the deuteroPauline letters. Christian feminists who support the ordination of women reinterpret these passages in light of other passages that seem to support women's ministry, thus using methods of modern Biblical criticism (Braude, 123-4). The issue of ordaining women is certainly not over. Many denominations do ordain women, whereas some do not. This will continue to be an issue well into the twenty-first century.

Now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, women are in a unique position: they have made great strides over the past centuries in claiming an elevated social status. Women have choices; they can be wives, mothers, and/or a part of the work force. In many ways, American society has given women new roles; women just have to take them (Wolf, 52). However, one of the last frontiers that women must cross before they can be truly free from oppression is body image. Women can give birth and raise children, they can preach before a congreation of thousands, and they can argue before the Supreme Court, but they might not feel good about themselves or their accomplishments if they do not possess the "perfect body." A poor body image affects women in a fundamental way: it attacks the very core of existence. Women will never be able to fully claim their power until this frontier is crossed.

I'm Nobody! Who are you?

Are you -- Nobody -- Too?

Then there's a pair of us!

Don't tell! they'd advertise -- you know!

How dreary -- to be -- Somebody!

How public -- like a Frog --

To tell one's name -- the livelong June --

To an admiring Bog!

Emily Dickinson


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