Theory/Novel Paper: Challenging Barbara Welter's "The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860" through Gloria Naylor's Mama Day

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In 1966, Barbara Welter studied countless amounts of literature that was aimed at the female audience of the nineteenth century with the goal of discovering the roots of sexual stereotypes. She published these findings in “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860.” “The Cult of True Womanhood” outlines, in a tongue-in-cheek fashion, the standards that woman of the time were held to. Though the “Cult of True Womanhood” was based off of the lives of middle-class white women, all women of every class and race were expected to portray the features of the “True Woman.” According to Welter’s article, women were expected to uphold “four cardinal virtues—piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity,” (Welter 115). These four pillars of “True Womanhood” are disputed in Gloria Naylor’s novel Mama Day. Mama Day tells the story of a marriage between a successful black businessman named George, who has grown up in New York City without any real family, and Cocoa (also referred to as Ophelia), a young black woman uneasy about her identity as she attempts to balance her past as a small-town southerner with her present life trying to make it in the bustling city of New York.

The story reaches its climax when the two visit Cocoa's home in Willow Springs—a small island not found on any maps where the two women most influential in her life reside: her grandmother (Abigail) and great-aunt (Mama Day). Through the two core characters (George and Cocoa) and their relationship with one another, as well as the other individuals on Willow Springs, the four virtues laid out in “The Cult of True Womanhood” are challenged through methods such as role reversals, the defiance of the “True Woman” stereotype, and the praise and reenvisioning of matriarchal power.

Throughout Naylor’s Mama Day, a clear role reversal is witnessed in George and Cocoa’s relationship that controverts the domestic and submissive virtues described by Welter. “The Cult of True Womanhood” asserts that “men were the movers, the doers, the actors” while “[w]omen were the passive, submissive responders” (Welter 118). But, this order was not so between Cocoa and George. Naylor depicts Cocoa as just as much of a “mover” “doer” and “actor” as George and more times than not, George is the “passive, submissive responder.” An excellent presentation of George as the responder and Cocoa as the initiator and driving force is seen within the very framework of the novel. The way that Naylor sets up the points of view is such that Cocoa is the initial speaker; Naylor is sure to recant Cocoa’s version of the sequence of events first, and then George’s account follows. Additionally, Cocoa is the last to speak, and even stating, “[W]hen I see you again, our versions will be different still,” (Naylor 310). In the end, Naylor makes certain that Cocoa gets the last word in, and her version of the events is the only one to be told, perhaps as its importance is greater than that of his—something that goes against the purported “conscious…inferiority” (Welter 118) women were supposed to display, according to “The Cult of True Womanhood.” In fact, certainly the very act of Naylor making the point of having the woman get the last word instead of the man demonstrates superiority rather than inferiority.

Role reversals are not only seen in the structure of the novel, but also within its content. According to “The Cult of True Womanhood,” two explicit qualities that men should possess that women should not are “firmness” and “perseverance” (Welter 118). However, throughout Mama Day, it is often Cocoa who is insistent with George and not the other way around. A great example of this is when George wants to move to Willow Springs with Cocoa, but Cocoa is the one to put her foot down and refuse—knowing full well it is a terrible idea for them. Afterwards, George admits through his internal monologue that he put her “into an unfair position,” and that Cocoa was “[r]ealistically…right” (Naylor 221). These role reversals between Cocoa and George are depicted by Naylor on numerous occasions throughout the text, and through these inversions, Naylor successfully confutes the domestic and submissive virtues outlined in “The Cult of True Womanhood.”Through the deviances from the stereotype portrayed in Welter’s article, the characters in Mama Day defy the cardinal virtues that presumably defined women. “The Cult of True Womanhood” paints a picture of the attractive attributes of a woman as someone who possesses “a spirit of obedience and submission, pliability of temper, and humility of mind,” (Welter 118). However, the men in Mama Day seem to find other qualities appealing. For instance, upon first meeting Cocoa, George states in an internal dialogue, “You had spunk, Ophelia, and that’s what I admired in a woman,” (Naylor 31). His admiration of her toughness is in direct contrast with the submissive characteristic that is so praised of women in Welter’s article: “Submission was perhaps the most feminine virtue expected of women,” (Welter 118). Additionally, the “pliability of temper” that is supposedly required of women, according to “The Cult of True Womanhood,” is not seen in Cocoa’s character in the least; her temperament is anything but malleable. For example, Cocoa and George get into a very heated argument right before a party in Willow Springs where George is to meet all of the residents. Cocoa flies off the handle after George says he does not hate her foundation, but doesn’t comment on particularly liking it either: “I guess you think I’m stupid—or deaf. Not hating something isn’t the same as liking it” (Naylor 231). This progresses into their “worst fight ever” (Naylor 230). “The Cult of True Womanhood” states that this type of inflexible attitude should not be tolerated of women. The “True Woman” would not have taken any offence at all, and if anything, would have thanked George. The act of questioning the man and accusing him of wrongdoing would not be in accordance with the “passive virtues” (Welter 118) necessary in women. Domesticity is yet another virtue challenged through Cocoa’s deviation from the “True Woman” image. “The Cult of True Womanhood” states that “domesticity [is] among the virtues most prized” (Welter 118), and criticizes women who seek higher education, yet George wholeheartedly supports Cocoa while she works towards, and finishes her history degree. The fact that he endorses this is a complete disparity from the apparent “fear of “blue stockings”” (Welter 119) that men are supposed to have of women who are educated. Divergences from the stereotypic female norm of Welter’s article are encountered countless times within Naylor’s novel.

The notion given by “The Cult of True Womanhood” that all women should be “weak” and “inferior” (Welter 118) is defied through Naylor’s representation of Mama Day and Abigail as powerful, matriarchal figures. Though the image of the matriarch is often criticized when attributed to African American women, Naylor reenvisions this image and transforms the negative connotations perceived by individuals such as Patricia Hill Collins into more positive attributes that can be seen in a new light. Collins discusses the image of matriarchs as being “unfeminine,” and “a major contributing factor to their children’s…failure[s]” (Collins 74). However, within Mama Day, the two matriarchal figures, Mama Day and Abigail, are neither of these things. In fact, they are quite the opposite. Naylor describes Abigail as “a beautiful woman” who is “able to turn a few heads.” And even states that “[a]ge only done softened [her] olive brown flesh” (Naylor 44). The fact that her description is of a quite attractive, feminine woman is in direct contrast with the conception laid out in Collins’ article that all matriarchs are “unfeminine.” Additionally, the perception that matriarchal woman do not “properly supervise their children” (Collins 74) and cause failure to their offspring is refuted through Cocoa’s constant praise of the two women in Willow Springs who raised her. But, it is not just Cocoa who has a ridiculous amount of respect for the women—it is nearly every individual in Willow Springs. The women, namely Mama Day, basically run the island. Mama Day holds a sense of power over the island that no man can; the notion laid out in “The Cult of True Womanhood” that women “should submit” (Welter 118) to men is constantly challenged by Mama Day’s character. One illustration of this is seen after George tells Mama Day that Dr. Buzzard said “there was a little professional rivalry between” Mama Day and he. Mama Day does not even allow George to finish his sentence before she erupts at him, causing him to “back away from the thunder in [her] voice” (Naylor 196). His apparent fear of her does not corroborate her as “weak and timid” (Welter 118) like she should be according to Welter’s article. Naylor effectively transforms the negative image of the African- American matriarch by bathing both Mama Day and Abigail in a nearly constant positive and respected light.

Barbara Welter’s article “The Cult of True Womanhood” declares that the four cardinal virtues together compiled what it is to be a “mother, daughter, sister, wife—woman” and that without these virtues, “all [is] ashes” (Welter 115); however, Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day successfully disproves this by completely denouncing these virtues. She accomplishes this intricately complicated task through an inversion of the gender roles within George and Cocoa’s relationship, strong aberrations from stereotypes, and the re-conceptualization of matriarchal power. By taking these steps, Naylor efficiently casts aside the image of a docile, inferior, submissive woman, and allows for the mixing and switching of typical, gender-oriented stereotypes.

Bibliography:Naylor, Gloria. Mama Day. New York: Vintage, 1989Welter, Barbara. The Cult of True Womanhood, 1820-1860. In American Quarterly, XVIII (1966), 151-74.