Real Women v. True Women

The ancient Greeks weren’t known for their enlightened view of women. However, Homer was certainly aware of their athletic abilities, and made a ball game a plot point in the Odyssey:

In Book Six of the Odyssey some young ladies went to the river to do laundry, “When they had done dinner they threw off the veils that covered their heads and began to play at ball, while Nausicaa sang for them. As the huntress Diana goes forth upon the mountains of Taygetus or Erymanthus to hunt wild boars or deer, and the wood-nymphs, daughters of Aegis-bearing Jove, take their sport along with her (then is Leto proud at seeing her daughter stand a full head taller than the others, and eclipse the loveliest amid a whole bevy of beauties), even so did the girl outshine her handmaids.” [Homer]

Indeed, veil off, freed of male scrutiny, and allowed personal space, the ladies were enthusiastic enough to wake the Greek hero, and to be the object of Olympian — in the classic sense — praise for excellence.  It’s a long fall from the approval of Leto to the Cult of True Womanhood that hasn’t yet been exterminated from modern rhetoric.  One of the ideological strands playing out in American politics sets Real Women (of whom Leto could be proud) against True Women.

Who are the True Women of American mythology?

The attributes of True Womanhood, by which a woman judged herself and was judged by her husband, her neighbors and society could be divided into four cardinal virtues-piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity. Put them all together and they spelled mother, daughter, sister, wife-woman. Without them, no matter whether there was fame, achievement or wealth, all was ashes. With them she was promised happiness and power. [Welter]*

The concept of True Womanhood is properly categorized as a cult, because it never extended its arguments toward promoting the health and welfare of working women, or women in domestic service.   True Women were pious, pure, submissive, and domestic because they were frail help-mates of the strong white upper or middle class males.  Or, they could be the pious, pure, submissive, and domestic help-mate capable of keeping their own homes after putting in a 12 hour day keeping up someone else’s home or sewing someone else’s shirt-waists.  The cult still demands the same four attributes in modern anti-female rhetoric.

Educating women?  This was acceptable to the cult during the Victorian/Edwardian eras so long as the goals remained the same:

“…to put the education young women are now getting into its true relation to their future. . . . It needs to do more to equip the girl for what I may call the great profession of being a woman, in her social trinity of wife, mother, and member of society. (Dike, 1892a) [ pdf]

Sound familiar?  We’re still grappling with the question proposing  “motherhood” as a “profession.”  Not sure? Contact Hilary Rosen.  [Think Progress]  Still think “frailty” isn’t associated with the concept of womanhood, then consider the humiliation of Caster Semenya, a track star from South Africa who spent altogether too much time in 2009 having to prove that a woman could “do” 800 meters in 1:55:45.  A late kick earned her second place in the 2012 Olympics; the winner clocked in at 1:56:19.  [NYDailyNews] 34/100ths of a second is NOT a test of gender.

It did cause the gentleman of sports to clutch their cravats in 2009.  How could the “feeble sex” clock such outrageous times?  When 34/100ths of a second is enough to call for Gender Testing, Queen Victoria’s complaint must still resonate:

‘The Queen is most anxious to enlist every one who can speak or write to join in checking this mad, wicked folly of “Woman’s Rights”, with all its attendant horrors, on which her poor feeble sex is bent, forgetting every sense of womanly feeling and propriety… It is a subject which makes the Queen so furious that she cannot contain herself. God created men and women different – then let them remain each in their own position.’ (Queen Victoria, letter 29 May 1870) []

The position?  Piety, Purity, Submissiveness, and Domesticity.   Hardly the stuff with which current British heptathlon winner Jessica Ennis is primarily endowed.   Great-great-great-grandmother to the current monarch might be rolling, considering what all those “poor feeble” members of the British contingent are doing?

Even a cursory look at the official Court Circular for the last week shows the reigning Queen (and latest Bond Girl) shuffling almost every member of The Family off to be seen at various and sundry Olympic venues, meetings, and events.  Whatever would the G³-Mother think of Zara Phillips riding astride? Of her mother, Princess Anne, serving on the International Olympic Committee?  If the direct descendents of the Arch-Deaconess of the Cult of True Womanhood have set aside the Four Pillars of Womanhood in favor of savoring Olympic hardware, then the comments of Victoria’s Torch Bearer, Liz Trotta about women in journalism make even less sense:

“Don’t try to make any sense of this hypocrisy. For with their inborn sense of class warfare — as well as their funny clothes — the ladies of the press really believe they are acting on principle, except that the principle is driven by envy, envy of a woman who managed to do exactly what their mothers told them, although they would never admit it: marry a good, preferably rich man; raise your children full time and dress like a lady.” Liz Trotta, Fox News, August 6, 2012 [RawStory]

Thus, while the Trottas of this world harken back to the days of yore, when:

“In Victorian America, women were discouraged from being physically active. The generally accepted belief of the day was that women were naturally frail. Too much physical (or intellectual) stimulation would upset the delicate balance of their bodies and lead to physical illness, infertility, “nervous” diseases, even insanity. Women who were judged by the society to be overly liberated or overly interested in physical or mental pursuits were sometimes subjected to the “rest cure.” They were confined to their beds for weeks at a time and not allowed to have visitors, read, sit up or use their hands. It was believed that this “cure” would calm women’s bodies and minds and make them acceptably compliant and pleasingly frail.” [Bradley U]

No one was about to accept compliance and pleasing frailty from the U.S. Women’s Basketball Team. (Gold) Or, the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team. (Gold). Or, the U.S. Women’s Volleyball Team. (Silver) Or, to remotely consider giving May-Treanor and Walsh-Jennings in Beach Volleyball the “rest cure.”  Or, advocate “rest” for the U.S. Women’s 4×400 relay team.(Gold)  The Women’s Eight rowing team? (Gold)  The Women’s Water Polo Team? (Gold)

Anyone want to watch a compliant, pleasingly frail, pure, submissive, and domestic version of Serena Williams on the tennis court? (Gold)  Gabby Douglas demurely shying away from the uneven parallel bars thereby demonstrating her  preference for dressing like a lady?  What of watching Rebecca Soni and Missy Franklin gently playing in the pool clad in heavy flannel “patelot” costumes  or heavy woolen dresses with sailor collars worn over bloomers?
Sounds silly doesn’t it.

However, that would be the outcome if the activist members of the Cult of True Womanhood regained control of the American conversation.  A conversation in which True Women don’t use contraceptives even to prevent a life threatening pregnancy.  A conversation in which True Women don’t make decisions about their own bodies lest they not be judged “pleasingly frail,” and appropriately submissive.  A conversation in which education for women trains them for their position in the Trinity of Wife, Mother, and Acceptable Member of Society.

A conversation in which the Cult of True Womanhood seeks to revert to Victorian principles rather than exalt modern accomplishments.

Sports writer Sally Jenkins summed it up:

“Women out-medaled men for the United States, China, and Russia. I’ll say that again: The leading medal winners for the three traditional Olympic powerhouses were women — despite the fact that there were 30 fewer medals available to be won. We can talk all we want about the financial complexities of Title IX, or try to analyze the stratospheric growth of women’s sports by country or culture, but the bottom line was that the London Games defined something critical: It can’t happen if it isn’t available. With no gold medal to aspire to, no one gets better.” [WaPo]

We could reverse the question:  Which three nations expended the most resources training and preparing female athletes?  The answer is the same — The United States, China, and Russia.   Or, we could ask which three nations prefer the admiration of Leto to the Cult of True Womanhood?  Real women are better than True Women anytime national pride is on the track, in the pool, on the pitch, or in the arena.

* The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860, Barbara Welter, American Quarterly, Vol. 18, No. 2, Part 1 (Summer, 1966), pp. 151-174

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