The Victorian period in American history spawned a certain view of women that in many ways has become a central part of gender myths still alive today, although in a diluted way.
In this essay, some characteristics of this view of women, often called "The Cult of True Womanhood", will be explored with reference to Thomas R. Dew "Dissertation on the Characteristic Differences Between the Sexes (1835). Some of the feminist developments arising in conflict with this ideal will also be traced. Then, in accordance with my view that literature and culture is often interrelated, I will proceed by with an analysis of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's short story "The Yellow Wallpaper" as a critique of the gender roles of the time, commenting on its symbolism as well as its plot development.
The 19th century was a time of male dominance more extreme than has been seen ever since. Dew portrays the woman as a weak and dependent creature that needs to be protected by "the shield of woman", Man. Therefore, she is to be confined to a sphere of her own: Home. This reflects two of the cardinal characteristics of True Womanhood (as defined by men, of course), the ideal woman of this period. Those are submissiveness and domesticity. It was widely believed that women were created inferior to men, and should therefore be commanded "within the domestic circle".
Support to this view was to be found in the Bible (which, not incidentally, is written by men), and although Dew is not so concerned with them, there were two other main characteristics of the perfect Victorian woman; piety and purity, characteristics that "delight and fascinate". Apart from subtle allusions such as "...at her shri...
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...ted normal womanhood to her, she felt that she was the anomaly. In this psychological conflict she saw herself trapped behind bars of male rule, and her yearning for freedom became destructive.
Not so in real life, thankfully. the feminists succeeded in overthrowing the male regime. Or did they? The Cult of True Womanhood is, in some ways, still with us.
Works Cited and Consulted
Dew, Thomas R. "Dissertation on the Characteristic Differences Between the Sexes (1835)". Breidlid, Brøgger et.al.: American Culture. An Anthology of Civilization Texts (1996), pp. 102-103.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. "The Yellow Wallpaper". Baym et.al.: The Norton Anthology of American Literature vol.2, 4.ed., pp. 645-657.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. "Why I Wrote 'The Yellow Wallpaper'?". Baym et.al.: The Norton Anthology of American Literature vol.2, 4.ed.pp.657-658.
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