Maids in their-land: A study of the effects of the cult of true womanhood on Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland (1915) and Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (1986)
The "cult of true womanhood," as it came to be called by many modem day feminist critics, began in the early 1800's and thrived until it was trampled by the social and sexual revolution of the 1920's. According to the philosophy of true womanhood, the four basic feminine virtues necessary to being a prize to husband and community included: piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity. In order to achieve an adequate level of femininity (as well as shun that which was traditionally accepted as masculine") a woman was encouraged to be self-policing in her efforts to excel within her god-given "place" which was, according to cult teachings, firmly restricted to the domestic sphere. A woman who defined herself according to those human character traits found only in the sphere of femininity displayed not merely acceptable by exemplary social behavior. Thus, a strict separation of the masculine and feminine spheres in this way was enforced by cult teachings. Using these guidelines, substantial comparisons can be made between Charlotte Perkins Oilman's creation of a utopian society in her 1915 novel Her/and and Margaret Atwood's conception of a dystopian (utopia-gone-wrong) society in her 1986 novel The Handmaid's Tale. In each of the novels, the four cult virtues are used as a cornerstone to create societies in which the success or failure of that society is proportionally related to the distance between the masculine and feminine spheres. While Gilman subverts the cult of true womanhood traits in order to create her perfect world in which the masculine and feminine spheres intermingle, Atwood magnifies cult traits, strictly separating the masculine and feminine spheres from one another and thus forming her dysfunctional society. Both authors use the cult virtues in order to call for the integration of the masculine and feminine spheres, thus admonishing modem society from repeating social mistakes of the past.
Women in literature, Womanhood, Herland, The Handmaid's Tale, Gilman, Charlotte Perkins, Atwood, Margaret
Rojas, A. (2000). <i>Maids in their-land: A study of the effects of the cult of true womanhood on Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland (1915) and Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (1986)</i> (Unpublished thesis). Southwest Texas State University, San Marcos, Texas.