The Cult of True Womanhood and The Yellow Wallpaper

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The Cult of True Womanhood and The Yellow Wallpaper

Prior to the twentieth century, men assigned and defined women’s roles. Although all women were effected by men determining women’s behavior, largely middle class women suffered. Men perpetrated an ideological prison that subjected and silenced women. This ideology, called the Cult of True Womanhood, legitimized the victimization of women. The Cult of Domesticity and the Cult of Purity were the central tenets of the Cult of True Womanhood. Laboring under the seeming benevolence of the Cult of Domesticity, women were imprisoned in the home or private sphere, a servant tending to the needs of the family. Furthermore, the Cult of Purity obliged women to remain virtuous and pure even in marriage, with their comportment continuing to be one of modesty. Religious piety and submission were beliefs that were more peripheral components of the ideology, yet both were borne of and a part of the ideology of True Womanhood. These were the means that men used to insure the passivity and docility of women. Religion would pacify any desires that could cause a deviation from these set standards, while submission implied a vulnerability and dependence on the patriarchal head (Welter 373-377).

The medical profession’s godlike attitude in “The Yellow Wallpaper” demonstrates this arrogance. The Rest cure that Dr. Weir Mitchell prescribed, which is mentioned in Gilman’s work, reflects men’s disparaging attitudes. His Rest cure calls for complete rest, coerced feeding and isolation. Mitchell, a neurosurgeon specializing in women’s nervous ailments, expounded upon his belief for women’s nervous conditions when he said,

American woman is, to speak plainly, too often physically unfit for her duties as woman, and is perhaps of all civilized females the least qualified to undertake those weightier tasks which tax so heavily the nervous system of man. She is not fairly up to what nature asks from her as wife and mother. How will she sustain herself under the pressure of those yet more exacting duties which nowadays she is eager to share with the man? (Mitchell 141)

On the other hand, the male sector of society enjoyed mobility. Men reaped benefits from not only the private domain, but they were also free to leave and enter the public sphere. They received nurturing from women in the private arena. The public sphere was where men enjoyed the competition engendered in the market place through which they gained their identity.

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