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  • Susan Stoderl

Fanny Fern and the Cult of True Womanhood

Updated: Jul 27, 2022

"The Cult of Domesticity" or "True Womanhood," was established for the wives and daughters of the white American middle- and upper-class power-hungry during the antebellum period. Proper, partially educated wives became status symbols for their husbands. At the opposite end of the spectrum, women, married or unmarried, lacked the means to remain "pure.” Many servant girls were impregnated, often against their will, then tossed out the door to a workhouse or hyper-religious missionary establishment. If they had children, they often lost them. A woman who was widowed also could easily fall into this same predicament. Making their living as a lady of the evening was sometimes the superior alternative. Along with the enslaved of the South, women in this economic stratum were considered “fallen”, undeserving, immoral, and unredeemable.

One writer, pen name Fanny Fern (1811-1872), began to call out the Cult of True Womanhood, because of becoming a widow and unable to make a living. There is currently a call to return to this period with the recent reduction in women’s rights. The difference between the women for domesticity of that time, and the right-wing congresswomen of ours, is that the latter consider assault rifles to be a required fashion accessory. So, I would like to introduce you to the A.F.R.A.I.D. anthem of my 2005 opera of the same name, presented at the New York International Fringe Festival. It was my ode to Fanny Fern. To conserve space, it is in paragraph form, rather than libretto formatting. The names, Mrs. Bilious Broadbrim and Mrs. Mary Lee are borrowed from Fanny Fern.

Mrs. Broadbrim: Certainly. “A” is for America’s True Womanhood: Christian, Pious, Pure, Submissive, and Just Plain Good.
Ensemble: Christian, Pious, Pure, Submissive, and Just Plain Good,
Mrs. Broadbrim: “F” is for Females who raise their young with Family Values: To be Blind, Deaf, and Dumb. To all with Differing Views. “R" is for Righteousness, for we are always right, always willing and ready to pick a fight. “A” is for the Abasement of all traitors and all others who do not listen and obey. “I” is for Ignorance, which is ordained, and keeps us safe within our Sacred Home, far from temptations that might allure.
Ensemble: Temptations that might allure.
Mrs. Broadbrim: “D” is for Docility, so that Man may find peace. For if women were to have a mind, all marriage would cease
Ensemble: If women were to have a mind, marriage would cease. A. F. R. A. I. D. Long may the Cult of True Womanhood abide.


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