any nineteenth-century Americans believed that women had unique abilities, talents, and propensities that were natural attributes of their sex. Women were thought to be naturally dependent, nurturing, and well suited for domestic labor. Such ideas complemented the notion that men were defined by opposite characteristics, which included independence and bravery; strength of character, mind, and body; and a natural talent for mastery and dominance over their environments.
In the nineteenth century it was widely assumed that women were the weaker sex. But some authors suggested that a beautiful woman might be able to turn the tables and enchant men into submission with her feminine charm and visual appeal. Alexander Walker, author of Beauty (published in the United States in 1840), was one such person. A widely read, self-styled authority on the aesthetics of the female appearance, he wrote of the power of women's beauty over men, calling it “a power that rules with a milder or a mightier sway in the bosoms of all who answer to the distinctive name of Man." 1 He added, "The power of Beauty operates widely, and everywhere. It takes the good man captive as well as the miscellaneous one, who has no definite rule to guide him on his wanderings. It bows the masters and teachers of men at its shrine, as well as the scholars and children of life." 2
At a time when men were supposed to wield supreme power over women, Walker depicted this shift in the order of power as a most delightful captivity. While real-world nineteenth-century women were denied the rights of citizenship and excluded from participation in most aspects of the public world, artists and authors like Walker suggested the limited ways in which a beautiful woman might enjoy an exceptional kind of power over men.
Like many Americans, Walker believed that a woman’s physical beauty corresponded with her inner character. Outward beauty, he confidently asserted, “represents a spiritual beauty—corresponds with a moral symmetry. Though we call it an outward property, still it must be a picture of the internal. It would seem impossible that there can be a speaking expression of grace and loveliness, upon a face that is but a telegraph of an inward deformity and ugliness …. That the spirit should speak out in the language of the countenance, is to us as excellent sense as that it should tell its story in protuberances and indentation. Who can deny this—and where will the argument fail?" 3 American prints helped establish and unify standards of ideal beauty in the United States. They also reinforced popular pseudo-scientific notions that equated inner virtue with physical beauty and associated corrupted character with beauty’s absence.
1. Walker, Alexander. Beauty; Illustrated Chiefly by an Analysis and Classification of Beauty in Woman. London: Henry G. Bohn, York Street, Covent Garden (1836, 1846), pp. ix. This book seems to have been published in the United States as late as 1856, and as Ladies' Guide to Perfect Beauty in the United States as late as 1892 and in Great Britain as late as 1897.
2. Walker, Beauty, pp. xxi.
3. Walker, Beauty, pp. xix.