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Killing the Angel: Anxieties about Motherhood for Women Writers

Contexts

1 The essay “Women’s Education According to Rousseau and Wollstonecraft” focuses on the two authors’ attitudes about women’s education.

2 Rousseau’s Emileis available in its entirely at google books.

3 E. Ann Kaplan’s Motherhood and Representation: The Mother in Popular Culture and Melodrama (1992) is available at google books.

4 The following excerpts are from Barbara Welter’s influential 1966 essay “The Cult of True Womanhood:1820–1860.” The essay originally appeared in American Quarterly. Welter expanded on these ideas in Dimity Convictions: American Women in the Nineteenth Century (Athens: Ohio UP, 1976).

The nineteenth-century American man was a busy builder of bridges and railroads. . . . The religious values of his forebears were neglected . . . and he occasionally felt some guilt that he had turned this new land, this temple of the chosen people, into one cast countinghouse. But he could salve his conscience by reflecting that he had left behind a hostage, not only to fortune, but to all the values which he held so dear and treated so lightly. Woman, in the cult of True Womanhood presented by the women’s magazines, gift annuals, and religious literature of the nineteenth century, was the hostage in the home. . . . If anyone . . . dared to tamper with the complex of virtues that made up True Womanhood, he was damned immediately as the enemy of God, of civilization, and of the Republic. It was the fearful obligation, a solemn responsibility, which the nineteenth-century American woman had—to uphold the pillars of the temple with her frail white hand.
The attributes of True Womanhood . . . could be divided into four cardinal virtues—piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity. . . . Without them . . . all was ashes. With them she was promised happiness and power. . . .
If any woman asked for a greater scope for her gifts, the magazines were sharply critical. . . . The Rev. Harrington knew the women of America could not possibly approve of such perversions and went to some wives and mothers to ask if they did want a "wider sphere of interest" as these nonwomen claimed. The answer was reassuring. "NO! Let the men take care of politics, we will take care of our children!" Again female discontent resulted only from a lack of understanding: women were not subservient; they were rather "chosen vessels." . . .
"Women’s Rights" meant one thing to reformers, but quite another to the True Woman. She knew her rights.
The right to love whom others scorn
The right to comfort and to mourn.
The right to shed new joy on earth.
The right to feel the soul’s high worth.
Such women’s rights, and God will bless
And crown their champions with success. . . .

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5 Coventry Patmore’s The Angel in the House is posted in its entirety at Project Guttenberg.

Here is an excerpt:

I. THE WIFE'S TRAGEDY

Man must be pleased; but him to please
            Is woman's pleasure; down the gulf
Of his condoled necessities
            She casts her best, she flings herself.
How often flings for nought, and yokes
            Her heart to an icicle or whim,
Whose each impatient word provokes
            Another, not from her, but him;
While she, too gentle even to force
            His penitence by kind replies,
Waits by, expecting his remorse,
            With pardon in her pitying eyes;
And if he once, by shame oppress'd,
            A comfortable word confers,
She leans and weeps against his breast,
            And seems to think the sin was hers;
And whilst his love has any life,
            Or any eye to see her charms,
At any time, she's still his wife,
            Dearly devoted to his arms;
She loves with love that cannot tire;
            And when, ah woe, she loves alone,
Through passionate duty love springs higher,
            As grass grows taller round a stone.

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