To the Divine blessing the work is again commended, in the hope that its perusal will stimulate many to aspire after “true womanhood.”

The above book dedication sounds like it was written for True Woman 101 — the book Nancy and I just finished writing (available in Spring 2012). You’ve heard of the True Woman Movement, haven’t you? It launched in Chicago in 2008 with the first True Woman conference, and to date has resulted in almost 25,000 women signing the “True Woman Manifesto.”

The Great Awakening and True Womanhood

But the aforementioned book dedication isn’t for our book. Nor is it for any resource associated with the current True Woman movement. It was written in 1829, for a biography entitled, “True Womanhood: Memorials of Eliza Hessel.” I’ve been digging my way through several books written in and about the 1800s, and was surprised to discover that a “true woman” movement isn’t unique to this generation. It appears that such a movement occurred on the heels of the First Great Awakening, and contributed to the Second and Third Great Awakenings—which were heightened periods of religious revival in American history.

Along with “True Womanhood” (1829), I’m also reading “The Mirror of True Womanhood: A Book of Instruction for Women in the World” (1883), “True Men As We Need Them: A Book of Instruction for Men in the World” (1888), “Noble Womanhood: A Series of Biographical Sketches” (1894), “Womanhood: Lectures on Woman’s Work in the World” (1880), “The New Womanhood” (1904). These are just a few of what feminist historian, Nancy Cott, calls the “efflorescence of didactic writings about womanhood” that sprung up in the early 1800s. I’m also reading Cott’s book, “The Bonds of Womanhood:  ‘Woman’s Sphere’ in New England, 1780-1835,” (written in 1977) in which she quotes from the journals and diaries of women of that era.

The “Cult” of True Womanhood

Hessel’s 1859 biography “True Woman” quickly sold out and went into a second printing. Apparently, womanhood was a popular topic amongst the women of that day. The True Woman Movement of the late 1700s and early 1800s was so strong and prevalent, that feminist historian Barbara Welter dubbed it a “cult.”  (Barbara Welter, “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820 to 1860.” American Quarterly 18, Summer 1966. pp. 151—174.) Another feminist historian, Aileen S. Kaditor, called it the true woman movement of the 1800s the “Cult of Domesticity.” (I had to smile, since I suspect that feminist historians will undoubtedly also call the modern-day True Woman Movement a “cult.”)

Becoming a True Woman

It’s fascinating to dig into these old books to get an idea of what concepts and ideas motivated the True Womanhood Movement of the 1800s. At this point, I can’t say that I understand enough about it to discern its points of commonality and/or departure from the True Woman Movement of today, or whether or not I would agree with the doctrine and ideology. But I am intrigued to discover that this is not the first time in history that there has been a ground-swell of Christian women who have sought to determine—from a biblical perspective—what God’s design for male and female is all about, and to become God’s true woman.

As the True Woman biographer noted about Eliza Hessel in 1829:

“Soliciting divine assistance, she resolutely determined to attain the nobility of a true woman, and she succeeded.”