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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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Women were cast as emotional servants whose lives were dedicated to the welfare of home and family in the perservence of social stability (Papke 10). It is against the incredible pressure exerted by men to retain control that women had to agitate. Women attempted to overthrow the traditional definition of women’s roles. They subverted the ideology thrust upon them, thereby enabling a redefinition that resulted in a New Womanhood. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, in the “Yellow Wallpaper,” depicted Gilman’s struggle to throw off the constraints of patriarchal society in order to be able to write.
The yellow wallpaper is symbolic of the Cult of True Womanhood, which binds women to the home and family. As in the case of Charlotte Gilman, women were constricted to the set parameters that men determined. Women are conditioned to accept these boundaries and remain in place, in the private sphere. “If anyone, male or female, dared to tamper with the complex virtues which made up True Womanhood, he was dammed immediately as the enemy of God, of civilization, and of the Republic” (Welter 372). Getting beyond the yellow wallpaper, women defied the corrupted power that men wielded over women, escaped their confinement, and created for themselves a new ideological role, one that included entry into the public sphere, or the market place.
In the face of the prevalence of discrimination and “masculine self-interest” (Roland and Harris 78), Emma Hart Willard “contended that women were entitled to the same dignities and freedoms as men . . .” (Lipman-Blumen 136). As early as 1819, she published a “Plan for Improving Female Education” which would not only enable women to teach their children, but would be a means of enlarging their world beyond the domestic sphere and into the workplace (Lipman-Blumen 136). However, it was the Seneca Falls convention in 1848, with the adoption of the Declaration of Sentiments--fashioned after the Declaration of Independence--that facilitated the eventual redefinition and movement towards New Womanhood. The work History of Woman Suffrage notes that at such meetings “it is striking how many women doctors are mentioned as either attending the meetings or corresponding with women's rights leaders. . . . Their stories dramatize . . . the prejudice that they faced . . .” in their struggles to remove the shackles of their jailers (Giele 48).
Women such as those Charlotte Gilman portrayed in her work forged ahead and challenged patriarchal ideologies. Women could move beyond the constrictions of the ideology, the Cult of True Womanhood. The existence of the institution of marriage, in which men played the dominant role and wielded control, placed women at the mercy of their male counterparts. The Cult of True Womanhood allowed the perpetrators to be the beneficiaries while calling for women’s complicity in the denigration of self. Such women made the emergence from the private sphere a reality, despite the seeming impediment of feminine biology. As a result, the romanticizing of woman’s role in the family and home segregated women, barring them from the public domain became a thing of the past. Freed from the enslavement of the ideology associated with the institution of marriage, women seized the right to self-assertion. Reacting to oppression women revolted against the implementation of feminine gender roles. Womanhood could no longer be interpreted by the Cult of True Womanhood. Instead, it now expounded the self-establishment of the expansion of women into the public realm and the birth of a New Womanhood.
Giele, Janet Zollinger. Two Paths to Women’s Equality: Temperance, Suffrage, and the Origins of Modern Feminism. New York: Twayne, 1995.
Lipman-Blumen, Jean. Gender Roles and Power. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1984.
Mitchell, Weir S. “Wear and Tear, or Hints for the Overworked.” Charlotte Perkins Gilman: “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Ed. Dale M. Bauer. Boston: Belford Books, 1998. 134-141.
Papke, Mary E. Verging on the Abyss: The Social Fiction of Kate Chopin and Edith Wharton. New York: Greenwood P, 1995.
Roland, Alan, and Barbara Harris. Career and Motherhood: Struggles for a New Identity. New York: Human Sciences P, 1979.
Welter, Barbara. “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860.” The American Family in Social Historical Perspective. Ed. Michael Gordon. New York: St. Martin’s P, 1978. 373-392.