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The Rise and Fall of the Angel in the House Ideal

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Recently, I’ve been contemplating some of the historical influences on what has become of young women today. One thing I want to focus on is the distortion of what was once known as the “Angel in the House” ideal, as epitomized by Coventry Patmore’s mid-19th-century poem of the same name. Although this poem eventually gave this ideal its name, many of its attributes existed before that time, and have since persisted, though they’ve evolved into a distorted and deformed version of it once was.

Leading up to the Enlightenment Era, women had tended to be seen as the Weaker Vessel for more reasons than one. Not just physically weaker than men, but more prone to psychological and even moral weaknesses, in ways men were not. This isn’t to say men were considered perfect or pure, but there were certain vulnerabilities that women were more prone to have that men didn’t have, which is one of the main reasons men were expected to be the leaders in their homes and society. Women were more likely to compromise, allow their emotions to cloud their judgment (overly sympathetic/empathic, falling for sob stories, etc), and more susceptible to succumbing to innovative ideas and charismatic leaders.

Again, not that all women are like this, nor that men can’t be like this, but it’s much more of a feminine characteristic; whereas men are more likely to stand back, evaluate the situation, and be more calculating when it comes to those same sob stories. This view of women tended to be standard throughout the world, not just the Christian world where its stories of Eve falling for the serpent’s deception first or Delilah manipulating Samson, there was a consensus that women shouldn’t be trusted with much responsibility in the public square, as in time they will almost certainly lead society astray.

Such views began to change during the Enlightenment Era, the more radical elements of the French Revolution, and the Romantic Movement of the late 18th and early 19th Centuries. People like William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft are exceptional examples of this new way of thinking. These two had various other radical ideas, including what is well-known as proto-feminist views (especially by Mary). They were also notable because these two openly lived together but were never married, yet had children in such an arrangement and repudiated marriage; during an era when that would have been considered highly radical. Their most famous child was also named Mary Wollstonecraft, but more well known by her married surname of Shelley; as she became famous as the author of the Gothic horror novel “Frankenstein.”

Now a little side note, which I think is relevant to the overall tenor of what is discussed here: Mary Shelley, who married the equally radical Percy Shelley (someone who has since become less famous than his wife, though undoubtedly more talented and prodigious in output than she ever was) wrote in the Gothic genre; a subset of Romantic literature at that time. This genre tended to include ghost stories and horror. They were also generally seen as more within a woman’s purview, not something any serious man (or, to be fair, sober-minded woman) would engage in, as it was deemed silly, almost childish, overly emotionalized, at times maudlin, and full of superstitious nonsense. This also dovetailed with the long-held view of women as the Weaker Vessel.

Even within the more radical thinking of the Romantics, women were still considered more childish and less trustworthy than men in their taste and authorship of literature. Over the coming decades, leading into the Victorian Era, a shift in thinking emerged. There was a sanitizing and Christianizing of the various Enlightenment and Romantic ideals (which were mostly born out of the Enlightenment), eschewing what were deemed the more extreme and immoral views of people like Rousseau or the previously mentioned Godwin and Wollstonecraft. This shift favored a more traditional view of marriage and children, but it also saw an inversion in the perception of women.

Instead of the centuries-old view that women were more morally compromised, men were now cast in that light, while women became the standard-bearers of all that was good, true, and beautiful. Women were seen as refining the wild, coarse nature of men, civilizing them, and, thus, civilizing all of society through their softer, kinder approach and more cultured ways. They became the idyllic women, caring for children, showing charity to their poorer neighbors, and civilizing men by softening their rough edges. This idealized woman became known as the Angel in the House.

In many ways, this was commendable and very attractive to more traditional women, as well as to men looking for a woman to support them and uphold the household—the very epitome of the Proverbs 31 woman Christians hoped their women would be when they became wives. It was a workable ideal as long as women continued to adhere to it, but as soon as they didn’t, it was doomed to fail. This is what happened. Although the Angel in the House concept continued to hold a great deal of sway into the early decades of the 20th century, it eventually fragmented and collapsed with the emergence of the more radical views that the earlier Victorians had repudiated.

As feminism became more prominent and more radical with each successive wave, women no longer saw their position as the bulwark of civilization via the home front. Instead, they began to adopt feminist thinking (even most ‘conservative’ women hold to some aspects of these views), often mocking this “old-fashioned” ideal. Over time, the Angel in the House was no longer often in the house, and her ‘angelic’ message began to convey a very different worldview.

Notably, the word “angel” means messenger. A curiosity of the Victorian Era is how they reimagined angels in a more feminine light, depicting them as soft, inviting women or little cherubic children, which was contrary to the previously long-held view of angels as powerful men, sword in hand, ready to strike down or proclaim words of comfort. This shift in thinking about angels was another effect of Enlightenment beliefs, influenced by Romanticism, that had permeated the Victorian Era. It was another sign that the feminization of society, including the church, was gradually taking over.

A key reason why the “Angel in the House” ideal met its demise is rooted in the evolving view of women. Once the traditional concept of the female was discarded for an inverted one, even with all the very positive attributes ascribed to her, the dissolution of the entire ideal became inevitable. Women had to, at the very least, understand that they were innately flawed or, in the Christian context that dominated during the rise of this ideal, inherently sinful. Once this notion was discarded or watered down to the point of being almost irrelevant, women began to be seen as the ideal in and of themselves. As a result, we see terms like “goddess” and “queen” applied to them.

One of the saddest outcomes of this shift is the number of conservative and religious leaders who still do not recognize what has transpired. Often, even they have been heavily influenced by the same thought processes that these women have adopted, albeit in a more traditionalized form. It seems that most of these leaders are stuck in an outdated or idealized version of how women were, while they place all the blame for immorality or problems between the sexes solely on men.

Today, we’re facing a highly distorted version of the Angel in the House, regardless of whether she’s in the house or not. She has gone beyond just being the ideal wife and mother to being the ideal that all men must desire, no matter what. She is also the final authority on all things cultural in society, so “civilization” has become a form of neo-liberal feminism. She is no longer virtuous in the traditional sense, as virtue now includes getting a post-secondary education, having a career, being sexually autonomous (being with anyone she wants without exception or shame), and being completely tolerant of everything she deems worthy of her attention (which means all things Progressive).

Even so-called ‘conservative,’ ‘trad,’ and ‘Christian’ figures are at least somewhat influenced by this. The good intentions of this ideal have been corrupted and devolved into something far more debauched and perfidious than any “moralizing” Victorian could have imagined. The Angel in the House has, in fact, become a fallen angel with increasingly obvious deleterious effects on society.

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Amazing word spaghetti. Proverbs 31 is not the be all end all of what is best in and for women (probably because it’s a text written by ancient Jews for ancient Jews on their perspectives on women), and the Christian view on women is not the same as the traditional White view on women (despite whatever overlap may exist), it’s like history doesn’t exist for you unless it has a Levantine dude on a cross in the Middle East involved. And it’s completely ridiculous to suggest that “women are the final authority” nowadays as if all rich and powerful men actually answer to women, or ideas or standards set by women, men have had their share and more in shaping our world as it is. You could have saved us time and just written this out as “Women bad. Enlightenment bad. Thinking bad. Please go to church, we’ll portray the angels as men this time I pinky promise.” (apparently “innovation bad” too? An odd condemnation to make since you are yourself suggesting here a sort of “innovation”… I guess some people really do have a stick up their arse)

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