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Picture Perfect Images and Realities of Military Nursing During the World Wars

Class 1: From True Womanhood to New Womanhood: The Changing Feminine Ideal


The first class explores the transitions between popular ideas about American femininity from the 19th century through World War I, as well as how society depicted the ideal female character and appearance throughout the period. Barbara Welter explains how Americans valued purity, piety, domesticity and submissiveness as model feminine qualities from 1820—1860. Welter calls the manifestation of the combination of these characteristics the “True Woman.” Carolyn Kitch’s Introduction to The Girl on the Magazine Cover provides an overview of how and why the American feminine ideal began to change from the ”True Woman” to the “New Woman,” as well as how the emerging mass media visually depicted those changes. In Controlling Representations, Katherine Adams, Michael Keene, and Melanie McKay further expand the view of the “True Woman.” The authors demonstrate how newspapers portrayed “True Women,” as well as a variety of other types of females during the period: women in lower social classes, women who worked outside the home, and women who aided the war effort in World War I. Chapter two of The Girl on the Magazine Cover, “The American Girl,” explores Charles Dana Gibson’s Gibson Girl, one of the most recognizable images of American womanhood ever created, as an iteration of the “New Woman.” Kitch demonstrates what qualities the Gibson Girl embodied, what those qualities implied about her womanhood, and explores the different versions of that icon other popular artists constructed.

Students should review the images in the Library of Congress exhibition, “The Gibson Girl’s America” to gain a better understanding of what the Gibson Girl looked like and how Gibson visually represented the ideal woman.

Class Resources
  • Adams, Katherine H., Michael L. Keene, and Melanie McKay. Controlling Representations: Depictions of Women in a Mainstream Newspaper, 1900-1950. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press Inc., 2009, Chap. 1.
  • Kitch, Carolyn L. The Girl on the Magazine Cover: The Origins of Visual Stereotypes in American Mass Media. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2001, Intro., and Chap. 2.
  • Welter, Barbara. “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860.” American Quarterly 18, no. 2 (July 1, 1966): p. 151–174.
Additional Online Resources
Discussion Questions
  1. How do different scholars describe the “True Woman” and the “New Woman?” When, how, and why did the first ideal transform into the second ideal? Is there overlap between the descriptions and/or the visual images of the two? For example, what qualities of True Womanhood, if any, are reflected in Gibson’s illustrations?
  2. Based on the ideal qualities of “True Womanhood,” why do you think nursing was considered an acceptable female profession before and during World War I?
  3. What social groups created the concepts of the “True Woman” and the “New Woman?” Did all parts of American society during this period consider the qualities embodied in these images important to femininity? Explain.
  4. How did society treat women who did not fit the ideal? Provide examples from the readings.
  5. If something is a societal “ideal,” do you think it reflects reality? Explain. Who creates an ideal? How does an ideal become representative of a large group of people?
  6. Scholars created the terms “True Woman” and “New Woman” as a way to categorize particular qualities and ideals into specific time periods in order to analyze the past. How do the readings present these categories, are they clear-cut or messy? Do historical categories reflect the way in which people thought about themselves during the time period being studied? For example, what would a “New Woman” who read about herself in these class readings think about the way she was described? Given these considerations, how might applying historical categories to the past help or hinder your understanding of history?
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