marycatelli (marycatelli) wrote,

All-American Girl

All-American Girl:  The Ideal of Real Womanhood in Mid-Nineteenth Century America by Frances B. Cogan

A study of those advice writers in 19th-century America who advocated physical exercise, education, cool reason in the selection of a husband and calm acceptable of being an old maid at need, and the ability of a woman to earn wages.  Apparently this was quite common, enough to amass an ideal.

Not an exclusive ideal -- it contrasts with the passive, pretty, frail True Woman -- but not incipient feminism, on account of the importance of all these things was their role in the women's sphere, and the woman who took to a profession, such as becoming a doctor, was doing something praiseworthy but atypical, the ideal still holding that marriage and motherhood was the normal course of a woman's life.

Their prescriptions for exercise seem quite vigorous -- and the advice writers are back up by fiction writers, who in short stories and novels presented women quite capable of long walks, horse-back riding, and other substantial exercise.  Education was often prescribed as the same humanities, mathematics and sciences as boys studied, though often advocated for purposes of managing the household.  (Given the prevalence of amateur nursing, biology was certainly needed.)

Marriage should not be too young, for fear a young woman would think herself in love the first time she becomes acquainted with an unrelated male.  Marrying for money was unwise because, among other reasons, the wealthy man might easily be bankrupted; the woman would be wiser to chose a prudent young man with clear ability to work.  Many advice writers churn out many pages about what to look for in compatibility, warning against foreigners (especially with titles) the unhealthy, those who drink, gamble or do not work -- and in particular warn against men with bad tempers, sullen dispositions and above all else who strike or restrain her, even in jest, for those are warning signs of a wife-beater, and a woman who even considers a match with a man who shows them is insane.  And how the young lovers should discuss matters to learn each others' souls and prepare for their lives together.

The discussion of employment is somewhat complicated by the writers' including paid employment but not limiting themselves to it.  Many occupations are recommended for obvious benefits of being able to take them up again after a hiatus, and otherwise being compatible with a domestic life; fiction agrees about women going to work, but tends (oddly enough) to concentrate on the more dramatic employment possibilities..  But a woman who does not work for wages can still be employed.  She could work in the family business, saving wages, or do the housework, again saving wages, or if she was truly financial secure, performing good works in the neighborhood.

An interesting look at an ideal.
Tags: ethos, history reviews: 19th century-wwi, secondary source, world-building: economics

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