Identities in Conflict
Edited By Flocel Sabate
Helpless and Invisible: Female Identity, Invalidism and the Cult of True Womanhood in Ellen Glasgow’s The Miller of Old Church
Universitat de Lleida
He likes us that way. He keeps us shut up in houses and tied up in clothes, and says it isn’t proper for us to do anything to develop strength, and he only marries the weak ones1.
Woman’s dialogue with Mother Nature in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s story “Improving on Nature” is an aptly ironic portrait of the socio-politico-medical constraints placed upon upper- and middle-class women in the nineteenth century, the fin de siècle, and the first decades of the twentieth century. As this paper seeks to illustrate, the overtly misogynistic attitude that permeated religious, social and medical predicaments in the Victorian period often pushed women into serious states of illness, chronic invalidism, or even serious mental disorders.
The cult of True Womanhood conveniently idealised maternity and defined the virtues of obedience, piety and passivity as essentially feminine, while it condemned the desire of an education or the practice of birth control as unnatural and dangerous to women and to the whole of society. Medical men of Victorian England and America consciously or unconsciously helped to justify gender roles and women’s seclusion in the domestic on the grounds that their specific physiology made them slaves of their reproductive system. As women’s ovaries presumably controlled their lives and their behaviour, genitals determined social roles, and doctors urged mothers to remind their daughters that any deviation from their natural and legitimate functions as wives and mothers could ruin...
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