In American popular memory, women’s rights
struggles are imagined to be founded on
notions of equality and sameness between
the sexes. The word "feminism” brings to
mind activists who believe that differences
between men and women are socially constructed,
not biological. Though this notion is representative
of a large number of women’s rights activists,
there is another school of activism with
a long and rich history in America.
During the Victorian era, there was a
model of womanhood founded on ideals of
domesticity. This model, True Womanhood,
rarely held true for real women, but it
nevertheless effected women’s lives. Women,
particularly white middle-class women, often
lived at least partially conforming to True
Womanhood. They generally stayed in the
home to devote themselves to their family,
allowing their husbands to fulfill the male
role of breadwinner. They remained sexually
pure and devotedly religious. An important
part of living this ideal was not interfering
with men’s public affairs, remaining untainted
from public life.
Despite the rigidity of True Womanhood
in regard to staying in the home, the ideal
contained the preconditions for uniting
women’s rights struggles. As historian Nancy
Cott has argued, when women begin to imagine
themselves as a unified group, it is possible
for them to take that notion to the next
level: imagining themselves as a group that
can shape its own destiny. (i) This process
is precisely what happened in the late nineteenth
Maternalism is a concept created by historians
to explain women activists who used the
qualities they believed were inherent to
females to fight for public causes. These
activists believed that because women were
more pious and pure than men were, they
could aid the poor, bring about moral reform,
and generally improve the lives of Americans.
In other words, women took mothering outside
of the home and into their communities,
and, unlike True Womanhood, the ideology
stretched across racial lines. In fact,
black women often using maternalism as a
basis for their struggles for racial uplift.
In addition to these moral reform efforts,
maternalists frequently argued for women’s
rights. Some maternalists even argued for
suffrage on the basis of women’s differences
from men. For these women, having the vote
was a powerful tool to reforming the country.
After all, if women really were more moral
than men, they could remain disinterested
from partisan politics and truly concentrate
on what was best for the country.
While maternalism is generally thought
of as beginning in the 1880s and continuing
through the 1920s, the logic behind the
ideology is still visible today. Not all
feminists believe that men and women are
the same, and some feminists believe that
arguing for women’s difference from men
is still a useful tool for reform. The struggle
between the sameness ideology and the difference
ideology in feminism is significant, but,
in the end, the most important part of each
idea is simply a commitment to women’s rights.
i. Nancy Cott, Bonds of
Womanhood: “Women’s Sphere” in New England
1780-1835. (New Haven: Yale University
ii. Eileen Boris, “Black
and White Women Bring the Power of Motherhood
to Politics,” in Mary Beth Norton
and Ruth M. Alexander Major Problems in American
Women’s History. (Lexington: D.C. Heath and
1. Boris, Eileen “Black and White Women
Bring the Power of Motherhood to Politics,”
in Mary Beth Norton and Ruth M. Alexander
Major Problems in American Women’s History.
Lexington: D.C. Heath and Company, 1996.
2. Cott, Nancy Bonds of Womanhood: “Women’s
Sphere” in New England 1780-1835. New
Haven: Yale University Press, 1977.
* This article benefited
from the lectures of Dr. Robyn Muncy, professor
of History at the University of Maryland
in College Park.
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