Hearts Through History Romance Writers

Victorian Ladies’ Magazines: The Cult of True Womanhood

by | February 7, 2013 | 13 comments


393px-GodeysLadysBookCoverJune1867Ladies Magazines played a pivotal role in the lives of women in Victorian times just as Cosmopolitan, Ladies Home Journal, Better Homes and Gardens, Real Simple, Vogue, and Vanity Fair do in our time. However, while modern magazines for women tend to specialize, e.g. Vanity Fair and Vogue for fashion, Ladies Home Journal and Better Homes and Gardens for the home, and Cosmopolitan for those subjects you can’t discuss with your mother, Victorian era magazines for women tended to be more “all encompassing”, giving women bits on fashion, home, and culture.

Often the subject matter was aspirational for the readership. For instance, The Women’s World, a British publication edited by Oscar Wilde, boasted queens and princesses as some of its contributors and these Royals wrote on fashion and trends for the up and coming educated middle class woman.

With a circulation that reached over 150,000, Godey’s Ladies Book, an American magazine, was devoted to the latest fashion and even included patterns and measurements in its pages. Though American, its pages contained the comings and goings of Queen Victoria, hiring Lydia H. Sigourney to report on the activities and events at the palace, much to its readers’ delight. Edgar Allen Poe was a contributor to the magazine as were such luminaries as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Frances Hodgson Burnett.

A review of Godey’s Ladies Book, Volume 88 (1874) has fashion, music, the latest design in houses, several poems, a number of stories including “Six Stories of First Love” and a lecture by Madam Paulina Pollycarp on “The Woman Question.” The author writes: “Should women wish or seek for the (doubtful) privilege of the ballot? Should she accept it, if offered her?” Considering this was written in 1874 and it would take more than forty years before that privilege was extended, the glimpse it offers into a woman’s world in that period is enlightening, hard as it is to imagine in 2013 a woman not being able to vote.

Peterson’s Magazine was a cheaper version of Godey’s but set up to compete with that magazine. A review of the table of contents of one of its volumes from 1876 shows the latest fashion, many articles on embroidery and crochet, patterns for children’s clothes, articles on the Declaration of Independence, serialized stories, and poetry.

Kathleen Endres and Theresa L. Lueck in their book Woman’s Periodicals in the United States: Consumer Magazines, wrote that the Victorian period developed the “Cult of True Womanhood” as described by the twentieth century historian Barbara Welter.  “At the heart of the “Cult of True Womanhood” rested four attributes: piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity, virtues upon which antebellum women were judged. The same virtues represented a common thread woven into departments, advice columns, editorials, and short stories reprinted in many of the woman’s magazines of the day. Welter specifically cited Godeys, the Ladies’ Companion, and the Ladies’ Repository as evidence in her essay, although she could have easily included Peterson’s.”

You can find free e-book downloads of these periodicals at Google Books and they make fascinating reading for anyone interested in women in the Victorian era. One wonders what a content analysis of twenty-first century magazines would reveal about the values of today’s Cult of True Womanhood. Or, for that matter, a review of today’s romance novels. Do you think any of the values cited from the Victorian era be included in the modern woman’s list of values?

Anne Carrole writes about cowboys who have grit, integrity and little romance on their mind and the women who love them. You can check out her contemporary romance, Falling for a Cowboy, at  Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com or Kobobook.com. Her western historical romance, Saving Cole Turner, will be published this month and also available at Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com and Kobobook.com.

 Sources:   Woman’s Periodicals in the United States: Consumer Magazines by Endres and Lueck; Victorian Woman’s Magazines: An Anthology by Beetham and Boardman

Wikipedia: Godey’s Ladies’ Book; Photograph is courtesy of Wikipedia and in the Public Domain






  1. Tina Gabrielle

    Great blog, Anne! I never knew Victorian women had so many magazines and how influential they were at the time. Tina

    • Anne Carrole

      They are definitely a fun read too! Thanks for stopping by, Tina.

  2. Beppie Harrison

    I’m old enough so that my mother’s view of life was largely formed in the early part of the 20th century, and her mother’s in the late (very late) 19th. Although I think both of them, being strong-minded women, would take polite issue with the “submissive” thing, from what they said to me these magazines came close to describing their most basic attitudes. For my mother, my father was the center of her world. It made for an extraordinarily happy marriage.

    • Anne Carrole

      Thanks for stopping by, Beppie. I wonder if my hubby would think he was the center of my world…hmmmm. 🙂

  3. Nancy C

    I had no idea Oscar Wilde edited a magazine! As I read about the attributes women were encouraged to maintain (piety, submissiveness, purity, domesticity) I found myself at a loss to think of one friend who fit one, much less all four 🙂

    A fun, informative read Anne.

    Nancy C

    • Anne Carrole

      I couldn’t think of anyone I knew either, Nancy. Quite a change from the 19th century! Thanks for stopping by.

  4. Sarah Richmond

    These magazines are a great research tool. I love the illustrations. I think they were an impetus for girls to learn how to read.

    • Anne Carole

      I’m sure you are right, especially for those girls in the aspiring middle class. Thanks for stopping by, Sarah.

  5. Cris Anson

    What an enlightening and interesting blog! Thanks, Anne.

    • Anne Carole

      Thanks for stopping by, Cris. Times sure have changed!:)

  6. Susan Macatee

    Great post, Anne! My heroines all exist in that time period, but I’d never think of making any of them submissive. Wouldn’t appeal to the modern romance reader, for sure!

    • Anne Carole

      My heroines, too, Susan. And when I read historical accounts of real women during that time period, none of them comes across as submissive. But apparently this was what the magazines (run by men, no doubt) were promoting. Interesting. Thanks for stopping by!

  7. Ella Quinn

    Wonderful post. My great-great-grandmother lived during that time and she was anything but submissive. I wonderful if it was written by men who were trying to convince women to act against their natures.



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