Nineteenth-century America underwent continuous social and economic changes on a large scale: cities grew at a rapid pace, industrial development changed individuals' relationships with work and family, and new transportation and communication systems fueled commerce and territorial expansion. Ideas about women's place in the developing nation also changed, often in tandem with broader social shifts.

Writers and artists alike idealized what was known as "True Womanhood," an ideal that was especially promoted to middle-class women but inflected virtually all representations of women in popular culture during this era. As historian Barbara Welter wrote, "The attributes of True Womanhood, by which a woman judged herself and was judged by her husband, her neighbors, and her society, 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." 1

This idealized version of womanhood appeared everywhere: in advice manuals, fiction, newspapers, magazines and in American prints. Just as American prints employed a narrowly defined standard of beauty, images that showed exemplars of True Womanhood also imagined a limited sphere of activity for women.

A Map of the Open Country of a Woman's Heart D. W. Kellogg, c. 1833–1842

This map of a woman's heart tells us much about what the artist and his society believed about women. This illustration perfectly captures nineteenth-century ideas about womanhood. The caption reads, "The Open Country of Woman's Heart, Exhibiting its internal communications, and the facilities and dangers to Travellers therein." According to this map, Love is at the center of a woman's heart, and Sentimentality and Sentiment (including Good Sense, Discrimination, Hope, Enthusiasm, and Platonic Affection) take up a sizeable portion of the entire territory. This region of Sentiment and Sentimentality is separated from the larger, treacherous areas of a woman's heart: Selfishness and Coquetry pose dangers, especially to gentleman travelers, and these attributes suggest that all women are basically untrustworthy. The largest regions, Love of Admiration, Love of Dress, and Love of Display, all suggest that women are also essentially shallow and frivolous. Although the image claims to have been drawn by "A Lady," it is just as likely that it proceeded from the imagination of a man.

[Those interested in this image can order a reproduction of the print here]

Detail from A Map of the Open Country of a
Woman's Heart
c. 1833-42. 36 x 24 cm



Welter, Barbara. “The Cult of True Womanhood.” American Quarterly 18:2, Part I (Summer 1966), pp. 151-174.


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