In her article, "The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860," Barbara Welter discusses the nineteenth-century ideal of the perfect woman. She asserts that "the attributes of True Womanhood... could be divided into four cardinal virtues-piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity." Furthermore, she adds that "if anyone, male or female, dared to tamper with the complex virtues which made up True Womanhood, he was damned immediately as an enemy of God, of civilization and of the Republic" (Welter 152). In Hannah W. Foster's The Coquette, the characters Major Sanford and Eliza Wharton violate True Womanhood condemning them both to wretched fates. Major Sanford continually violates the True Womanhood with his systematic seduction of women.
Due to his assaults against female purity, Major Sanford is rejected by society for being devoid of virtue. Well aware of this reputation, Mrs. Richman warns Eliza that he is a "professed libertine" and is not to be admitted into "virtuous society" (Foster 20). Upon her acquaintance with him, her friend Lucy Freeman declares, "I look upon the vicious habits, and abandoned character of Major Sanford, to have more pernicious effects on society, than the perpetration's of the robber and the assassin" (Foster 63). Major Sanford's licentious past dooms him to a future of lechery; there is no possibility for him to evade his reputation.
Eliza's assaults against True Womanhood are violations of the virtues submissiveness and purity. When Eliza refuses to ignore the gallantry of Major Sanford in favor of the proposals of Reverend Boyer despite the warnings of her friends and mother, she disregards submissiveness in favor of her own fancy. Eliza's mother warns her, saying, "a thousand dangers lurk unseen around you," and supports Reverend Boyer with regard to his profession, asserting that "no class of society has domestic enjoyment more at command than clergymen" (Foster 40). Her friend Lucy Freeman also commends the Reverend Boyer to her, saying, "whatever you can reasonably expect in a lover, husband, or friend, you may perceive to be united in the worthy man" (Foster 27). Even Major Sanford questions Eliza's disregard of their admonitions: "Her sagacious friends have undoubtedly given her a detail of my vices. If, therefore, my past conduct has been repugnant to her notions of propriety, why does she not act consistently, and refuse at once to associate with a man whose character she cannot esteem?" (Foster 55).
It is understood that True Woman must submit to the desires of her friends and parents, and that disobeying these desires will most certainly result in disaster. Eliza's neglect of these opinions causes her to lose the affection of Reverend Boyer, bringing about her ultimate ruin. She declares to Lucy, "Oh my friend, I am undone!" and asks, "Where shall I seek that happiness which I have madly trifled away?" (Foster 150). In seeking this happiness that she "trifled away," Eliza gives herself to the married yet ever unprincipled Sanford, violating the even more precious virtue of purity.
Early in her acquaintance with him, Lucy warns: "Let not the magic arts of that worthless Sanford lead you... from the path of rectitude and virtue!" (Foster 57). Eliza, however, is indeed lead astray by Sanford from the path of virtue after succumbing to melancholy when rejected by Reverend Boyer. This fall precedes her subsequent pregnancy and death.