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The identification of femininity with morality and a belief in the innate moral superiority of women were fundamental to the cult of female domesticity in the nineteenth-century United States.
Ironically, this ideology of female benevolence empowered women in the realm of social activism, enabling them to escape the confines of their traditional domestic spheres and to enter prisons, hospitals, battlefields, and slums. By following this path, some women came to wield considerable authority in the distribution of resources and services in their communities.
The sentimentalized concept of female benevolence bore little resemblance to women’s actual work, which was decidedly unsentimental and businesslike, in that it involved chartering societies, raising money, and paying salaries. Moreover, in the face of legal limitations on their right to control money and property, women had to find ingenious legal ways to run and finance organized philanthropy. In contrast to the day-to-day reality of this work, the idealized image of female benevolence lent a sentimental and gracious aura of altruism to the very real authority and privilege that some women commanded—which explains why some women activists clung tenaciously to this ideology. But clinging to this ideology also prevented these women from even attempting to gain true political power because it implied a moral purity that precluded participation in the messy world of partisan politics.
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