Traditions of feminine inferiority had been meaningless in pioneer life: freer attitudes developed among early immigrants who had escaped from religious and political oppression in Europe. (The Quakers, for instance, accepted the equality of men and women, and had made education available to girls as well as boys since the seventeenth century. Quaker women did not promise to obey their husbands and were encouraged to speak in public at religious meetings.) Men and women facing hard-ship and danger together had wrested farmlands and homes from the wild country. Even when pioneering days were over, self-reliance, rather than over-sentimentalized femininity, remained the quintessence of many American women. They were becoming real partners in marriage, no longer dominated, pampered or hoisted on to pedestals.

Would someone please explain the bolded? I understand the words separately but not their opaque combination. I can guess that 'rather than' implies that the bolded opposes self-reliance and connotes negativity.

Yet why's the bolded negative? Wouldn't it help these women to shield against gender inequality?

  • 1
    OP has provided a dictionary definition that has proven insufficient for understanding the phrase. This is clearly not “answerable entirely by dictionary”. It’s not entirely clear what OP is asking or how it relates to learning English, but that is a different question (and one that might be resolved by dialog rather than close-votes). Oct 6, 2014 at 19:23
  • LePressentiment, can you expand on why you think “over-sentimentalized femininity” should be positive? Can you say more about how “it” (referring again, I assume, to “over-sentimentalized femininity”) would “help these women shield against gender inequality”? If you understand the adjective “over-sentimentalized” and the noun “femininity”, what is it that you don’t understand about applying this adjective to this noun? Oct 6, 2014 at 21:11
  • I agree that more insight into why the phrase is confusing to you would be helpful. At the moment all I can say is that if femininity was sentimentalized just the right amount, maybe it wouldn't be so bad, but over-sentimentalized is probably not a positive description.
    – ColleenV
    Oct 6, 2014 at 23:08

3 Answers 3


This usage presents a complex (one might even say muddled) combination of factual assertion about the way things were and a value judgement about the way things weren’t (but could have been).

The two interrelated statements are:

  1. . . .when pioneering days were over, self-reliance [. . . .] remained the quintessence of many American women.
  2. That which did not remain the quintessence of many American women was a conception of femininity that the author believes to be over-sentimentalized.

As your linked definition states, if something is sentimentalized, it is “present[ed] in an emotional way, emphasizing its good aspects and not mentioning its bad aspects”. The definition also notes that use of this word conveys a disapproving tone (making this use of “over-” odd and sentimentally(!) redundant).

In your question, you correctly infer that use of “rather than” in this sentence places “self-reliance” and “over-sentimentalized femininity” into opposition with one another. This is not merely an opposition of good and bad, but also of fact and fiction. Self-reliance is not only depicted as a positive trait, but also as the quintessential trait that the author believes these historical figures exemplify perfectly. It is then placed in opposition to the counterfactual reality that they would exemplify something else, while simultaneously placing the women themselves in opposition to a cultural force with which they had to contend: the idea that femininity and self-reliance are opposed!

All these nested oppositions are a lot for one statement to bear, but in the context of the whole essay it seems clear that the author means to say that these women were self-reliant; they rejected the pervading, romanticized conception of femininity as preclusive of self-reliance.

Remember that “sentimentalized” refers to how something is depicted, not how it is. It doesn’t mean that something was made sentimental, or even that it was made to seem sentimental (though the author’s somewhat sloppy use of the word might indicate undertones or pending shifts in its meaning). The only thing that’s sentimental is the way in which the sentimentalized object is viewed or presented, and when someone says a depiction is sentimental, they’re saying that it has undue focus on rosy ideals over harsh(er) realities.

Examples: People (and their lives) are often sentimentalized in eulogies, which are characteristically positive and focused on the interpersonal/emotional impact a person had. Consider this in partial opposition to a C.V., which is likewise positive but focuses on quantifiable acheivements in the real world (i.e. in relation to systems/institutions); or, perhaps, opposed in another way to an ad hominem attack, which is emotionally driven like sentimentalization, but characteristically negative.


Sentimentalized is probably not the mot juste here, and over-sentimentalized is surely not, for it implies that some degree of sentimentalizing is laudable.

Being contrasted are the idea, on the one hand, that woman is inherently "dainty", that is, unable to fend for herself, and on the other hand, the capacity of pioneer (and later, of pioneer-spirited) women to deal with sometimes very harsh conditions.

Such daintiness and presumed weakness are sentimentalized when they are treated as desirable virtues: the daintier and weaker the woman, the more she resembles the paragon of womanhood.


Over-sentimentalized = sentimentalized more than is necessary or appropriate.

Femininity = state of being feminine.

The author is saying that the most important property (the quintessence) of many American women was their self-reliance, and not their femininity. (The article seems to be assuming that "self-reliance" is a masculine and not a feminine quality, something that many might dispute!) The author is also editorializing that the "femininity" which many modern people might see in these women is overly sentimental.

  • Sorry, but I have to disagree with your interpretation (i.e. the parenthetical and the closing sentence). Using “over-sentimentalized” to describe a conception of femininity that excludes self-reliance makes it clear the author does not share in that conception. The passage doesn’t actually say anything about these women’s brand of femininity per se, and certainly doesn’t characterize it itself as sentimental. It (or, rather, the conception of femininity they did not adhere to) has been sentimentalized, meaning it has been painted by idealistic nostalgia to exclude certain harsh realities. Oct 6, 2014 at 16:55

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