The Visual Sources Essay on Godey’s Lady’s Book (pages 232–239) poses an analytical question regarding the representation of women in the publication. The profiles of women in Godey’s illustrated their slim waists, poised hands, and graceful demeanor, reinforcing the societal notion that women were unsuited for public life. However, it is worth noting that these standards were often impossible for many women who did not belong to the middle or upper classes. The images in Godey’s Lady’s Book showcased the concept of “true womanhood,” emphasizing qualities like piety and domesticity.
They were meant to serve as both the emotional support and as the primary teacher to their children. The pictures shown in Godey’s represented the ideal wife and mother, symbolizing the values of its readers. The women portrayed in the publication appeared delicate, innocent, and modest. They were considered too weak and fragile to participate in public jobs or activities, as it was believed that women should be delicate and fragile beings. Additionally, women were considered mentally and emotionally unsuited for the public sphere. Their innocence and purity made them unfit for potentially dangerous endeavors such as suffrage or politics.
According to Figure 4.1, also known as The Constant, portrays the ideal wife as a woman who diligently watches over her sleeping child while her husband enters the room. This image not only showcases her protective nature towards her infant but also highlights her subordinate position to her spouse. Godey’s illustrations like this one aimed to teach women the importance of striking a balance between being a wife and a mother. The “true” woman acts as a stabilizing force to her husband by taking care of their home, tending to their children, and unconditionally loving him, thus preventing him from straying away (p. 233).
The Constant showcases the husband’s affectionate behavior towards his wife, symbolizing that her patience and love have kept him obedient. This notion of women providing emotional and spiritual stability (p. 232) was strongly advocated by Josepha Hale, the editor of the magazine. Hale believed that this role for women was critically important for the nation. She expressed, “The empowerment of the female gender will not involve emulating men, performing masculine tasks, or striving for worldwide dominance. The genuine woman…has a loftier and more sacred calling. She operates within the realms of human nature.”
The visual representation found in Figure 4.2 of The Christian Mother highlights the significance of woman’s “higher and holier” role. This painting portrays a mother who draws clear inspiration from Mary, the mother of Christ. Her attire mirrors that of the revered Holy Mother, while her gaze towards the heavens conveys tranquility. In her arms rests a young boy, reminiscent of the Christ child, emanating serenity and wisdom beyond his years. This depiction implies that women were expected to embody piety and virtue, passing on these qualities to their children.
Teaching was considered a crucial and inherent role for women, as it was believed that their dedication to educating their children would help shape them into responsible members of society. This representation of women as nurturing figures, reminiscent of Madonna, also served to introduce the previously forbidden image of Mary to the expanding Protestant middle class (p. 234). Another example showcasing women’s piety is illustrated in Figure 4.4, titled Purity. The image depicts two young women dressed elegantly, seemingly inside a church. One is deeply engaged in reading from the Bible while the other stands in quiet contemplation.
The picture and accompanying information depict the latest wedding dress fashion. The image suggests that these dresses represent the ideal wives, embodying the four elements of true womanhood identified by historian Barbara Welter: domesticity, piety, submission, and purity (p. 236). These women can be seen practicing their piety in church, while also displaying their purity through the white dresses they are wearing.
Women were expected to embody the ideals of true womanhood, which entailed waiting for a husband and nurturing their children. This concept of true womanhood mainly applied to women from the middle to upper class. The contrast between a wife and domestic help is evident in Figure 4.5, Cooks. The mistress depicted in the painting is attractive, well-groomed, and visibly frustrated. This frustration likely stems from the clumsy cook who has just dropped a tray of food on the floor.
The depiction of the cook in this drawing immediately conveys a sense of her lower social standing. Her unattractive appearance and seemingly dim-witted demeanor contribute to this portrayal. Furthermore, her clothing suggests that she is not completely virtuous or pious. In contrast, the mistress of the house is presented wearing finer garments, appearing well-groomed and slim. Her attire is more modest, covering more of her skin. The husband in the image seems utterly shocked by the entire scenario, as he gazes down at the cook with a look of disgust, observing her inappropriate attire and lack of grace.
He appears torn between protecting his wife and wanting to escape from the horrifying events unfolding in the kitchen. Nonetheless, this painting portrays the reality that lower-class women faced immense challenges in achieving true womanhood, as it was often impractical for them. Society expected women to be devoted to domesticity and caring for the household. Yet, the cook depicted in this image is laboring outside of her own home. It is possible that her husband’s income is insufficient to support their family, or she may be a widow or have been overlooked for marriage.
No matter why she needs it, she requires the income offered by this wealthier household, but she is being stigmatized for that need. The irony is that the engraved plates used to print images like Cook were made and hand colored by a group of female wage laborers (p. 232). The pictures from Godey’s Lady’s Book were explicitly created to promote the feminine ideal of selflessness, purity, and subtle maternal influence (p. 232), while also serving as an iconic representation of true womanhood. The nation was going through an industrial and economic revolution.
The widening gap between social classes reached unprecedented levels. Godey’s magazine aimed to both honor the heritage of the American Revolution and establish a stable, peaceful, and everlasting nation (p. 233). In terms of history, this publication offers certain factual insights. It embodies an ideal embraced by numerous women, encompassing the concept of true womanhood. Nevertheless, Godey’s should also be regarded as a form of propaganda, perpetuating stereotypes. Its purpose extended beyond helping women attain true womanhood; it also showcased current fashion trends. Additionally, the magazine featured stories that reinforced the submissive, domestic, and pious wife stereotype. The illustrations present delicate and fragile women deemed unfit for the public space, while men were depicted as strong and robust, thus more suited for the public realm. Women were portrayed as devout, virtuous, innocent, and reserved. As the nation confronted turbulent times, it required an anchor amidst the storm – that anchor was the true woman.