Journal of Women's History 14.1 (2002) 163-169
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Barbara Welter's "The Cult of True Womanhood, 1820-1860" shows how well any scholarly work might age: it reads as deftly now as ever, burdened neither by the considerable weight of the historical sources it interprets nor, as sometimes happens with texts that have become classics, by the enormous critical response that followed it. Very little has been written in the last three decades about gender in nineteenth-century America that does not refer to "The Cult of True Womanhood," or to the separate-spheres model it scrutinizes with such clarity, or to the notion of feminization, which Welter introduced in relation to American religion before historian Ann Douglas applied it to American culture more broadly. 1 And to my ear, Welter's writing—elegant, funny, generous—sounds more contemporary than much of what, when we read it in the 1980s or early 1990s, led some of us to appraise "The Cult of True Womanhood" as deeply engaging but, as we might have said then, insufficiently "theorized." This is not to say that Welter's essay sits any more comfortably with us now. Classic works of interpretation produce a certain ambivalence in their readers, and this is what makes them classics: they compel us both to absorb their conclusions and to revise them, to return to them again and again. I once took part in a discussion devoted to figuring out what had given Carol Gilligan's In a Different Voice canonical status nearly overnight. 2 What we came up with, I recall, seems just as applicable to Welter's "The Cult of True Womanhood": impeccable research in the service of an accessible and beautifully crafted argument that seems intuitively both right and wrong.
For my own part, I first read "The Cult of True Womanhood" in a women's studies class fifteen years or so ago and found it a wonderful read but not an immediately relevant one, since it had a great deal to do, I was sure, with my great-great-grandmothers' world and very little to do with my own. I have since learned what now seems an obvious lesson: that what Welter delineated as the cultural expectations that shape the experience of caring for homes and families, however the families are configured and however the work is shared, are deeply entrenched and enduring. And what was bafflingly remote to me in the socially saturated but still rarefied environment of graduate school was the knowledge—or what to do with the knowledge—that the world Welter describes was in fact not at all the world of my great-great-grandmothers, whose experience of middle-class home life in America was likely to have been confined [End Page 163] to the homes of those they worked for as servants. Something like this was also true for many of my classmates, as it is certainly now true for most of my students.
These two belated forms of awareness line up, I think, with two of the most promising directions that reflection on Welter's essay has taken: one, a recuperative appreciation of the intricate ways that those who were subject to the discourse of true womanhood negotiated its demands; two, an insistence on how restrictive this discourse actually was, and remains. What has become clear is that the locus of the true woman's "cult," the home that her presence rendered a haven of tranquility and spiritual value, was always embedded in a quite specific set of social matrices. As Aída Hurtado points out, the separate-spheres model that assigns women to the home and men to the public world of politics and commerce "is relevant only for the white middle and upper classes since historically the American state has intervened constantly in the private lives and domestic arrangements of the working class" and of people of color, for whom there has been no private sphere "except that which they manage to create and protect in an otherwise hostile environment." 3 The last dozen years or so...