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Mothers and Daughters in Nineteenth-Century America

Mothers and Daughters in Nineteenth-Century America: The Biosocial Construction of Femininity

Nancy M. Theriot
Copyright Date: 1996
Pages: 240
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    Mothers and Daughters in Nineteenth-Century America
    Book Description:

    The feminine script of early nineteenth century centered on women's role as patient, long-suffering mothers. By mid-century, however, their daughters faced a world very different in social and economic options and in the physical experiences surrounding their bodies. In this groundbreaking study, Nancy Theriot turns to social and medical history, developmental psychology, and feminist theory to explain the fundamental shift in women's concepts of femininity and gender identity during the course of the century -- from an ideal suffering womanhood to emphasis on female control of physical self.

    Theriot's first chapter proposes a methodological shift that expands the interdisciplinary horizons of women's history. She argues that social psychological theories, recent work in literary criticism, and new philosophical work on subjectivities can provide helpful lenses for viewing mothers and children and for connecting socioeconomic change and ideological change. She recommends that women's historians take bolder steps to historicize the female body by making use of the theoretical insights of feminist philosophers, literary critics, and anthropologists.

    Within this methodological perspective, Theriot reads medical texts and woman- authored advice literature and autobiographies. She relates the early nineteenth-century notion of "true womanhood" to the socioeconomic and somatic realities of middle-class women's lives, particularly to their experience of the new male obstetrics. The generation of women born early in the century, in a close mother/daughter world, taught theirdaughters the feminine script by word and action. Their daughters, however, the first generation to benefit greatly from professional medicine, had less reason than their mothers to associate womanhood with pain and suffering. The new concept of femininity they created incorporated maternal teaching but altered it to make meaningful their own very different experience.

    This provocative study applies interdisciplinary methodology to new and long-standing questions in women's history and invites women's historians to explore alternative explanatory frameworks.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-5820-4
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface to the Revised Edition
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction: Investigating Identities and Experience from a Generational Perspective
    (pp. 1-16)

    Writing 150 years apart, Margaret Fuller and Adrienne Rich offered two perspectives on the relationship between women and sexual ideology. InWoman in the Nineteenth Century(1840), Fuller urged her countrywomen to begin the difficult task of developing a feminine ideal out of the wildest, freest visions of their woman-souls.¹ Inspired by German Romanticism and American Transcendentalism, Fuller recognized two important points about sexual ideology that most later writers have forgotten. She clearly saw that women participate in the creation of “femininity,” and she realized that the raw material of that creation is the female life-process. InOf Woman Born...

  5. 1 “Imperial Motherhood” and Its Material Roots
    (pp. 17-39)

    Early-nineteenth-century popular literature reflected a new set of common middle-class values about American womanhood based on a glorified notion of women’s reproductive role. Celebrating the private, nuclear family and the moral bond between women and children, popular writers defined the home as the “empire of the mother” and praised domesticity and child-centered motherhood as the apex of womanly fulfillment. As the major script of true womanhood between 1830 and 1860, imperial motherhood defined the boundaries of female propriety, created a new sense of “feminine” personality, and specified a uniquely female avenue of power for middle-class women.¹ Before considering the socioeconomic...

  6. 2 The Physical Roots of Ideology
    (pp. 40-61)

    The meaning women give to womanhood in any historical time and place is a blend of inherited ideas, the social and economic conditions defining women’s place, and the somatic experience of being a female within this cultural setting. To understand women’s role in creating feminine ideology, sex-specific physical experience must be considered along with the socioeconomic conditions of female life. Just as there was a relationship between the material conditions of women’s lives and the imperial motherhood script, so too the physical experience of motherhood influenced women’s collective sense of “true womanhood.”

    There is a fundamental reason for examining women’s...

  7. 3 Acculturation into “True Womanhood”
    (pp. 62-76)

    In 1882 Mary Terhune wrote of a “guild of suffering” among women, “known in its fullness of bitterness only to the initiated. “Terhune had very definite ideas as to how daughters were initiated into the guild, many of them having to do with socialization and physical restrictions, but she also revealed that the female body itself provided an early lesson about the requirements of adult femininity. The girl entering puberty “must be made to understand that it is cowardly to cringe or lament under her share of woman’s appointed lot, or to shirk her given lesson in the practice of...

  8. 4 Daughters’ Brave New World
    (pp. 77-100)

    Imperial motherhood, with its emphasis on suffering and self-abnegation, was the major feminine script the maternal generation passed on to daughters. Not only were young women exposed to their mothers’ feminine ideology in popular literature and in general cultural norms, but they also encountered it from early childhood through adolescence in the mother-daughter relationship itself. Middle-class daughters’ gender-learning included living with a mother who advocated domesticity while admitting dissatisfaction with it and who modeled self-effacing womanhood by providing her daughter with a carefree adolescent lifestyle. The daughters’ generation came to maturity with imperial motherhood as its core feminine ideal.


  9. 5 The “Green Sickness” and Daughters’ Ambivalence
    (pp. 101-113)

    As we have seen, both clinical observation and social-psychological theory indicate that the child-nurturing context of the privatized nuclear family produces definite consequences for mothers and daughters. The structure itself leads to an intensely close motherdaughter relationship and overidentification on the part of both mother and daughter. For the girl, gender is personified; the daughter’s sense of femininity is fused with her sense of mother-as-female. We saw, too, that this structural feature of the middle-class family was accentuated in the nineteenth century by the woman’s world Carroll Smith-Rosenberg has described. Not only were daughters raised in constant proximity to their...

  10. 6 A New Feminine Synthesis
    (pp. 114-136)

    American women who were adolescents or young adults during the middle part of the nineteenth century were raised with a feminine ideology that stressed that suffering and self-abnegation necessarily accompanied the domestic life and that willingness to suffer was the feminine avenue to fulfillment. But by late century the material conditions of womanhood, which had inspired the ideal of feminine suffering, began to change. Just as their mothers’ physical experience of womanhood became the root metaphor of femininity in the early nineteenth century, the daughters’ different physical experience became the basis of a new feminine synthesis. The daughters’ synthesis involved...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 137-183)
  12. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 184-219)
  13. Index
    (pp. 220-228)