Cult of Domesticity

Cult of Domesticity
A New Court of Queen's Bench, As it Ought to Be -- Or -- The Ladies Trying a Contemptible Scoundrel for a "Breach of Promise", an 1849 caricature by George Cruikshank for the 1850 Comic Almanack.
Sarah Josepha Hale in Godey's Lady's Book

The Cult of Domesticity or Cult of True Womanhood[a] was a prevailing value system among the upper and middle classes during the nineteenth century in the United States[1] and Great Britain. Although all women were supposed to emulate this ideal of womanhood, it was assumed that only white women could live up to the ideal.[2] Black and lower class women in antebellum America were regarded as "unfeminine" because they had to leave the domestic sphere to perform physical labor.[3][4]

According to the ideals of the cult of domesticity, women were supposed to embody perfect virtue in all senses. The women who abided by and promoted these standards were generally literate and lived in the Northeastern United States, particularly New York and Massachusetts. Women were put in the center of the domestic sphere and were expected to fulfill the roles of a calm and nurturing mother, a loving and faithful wife, and a passive, delicate, and virtuous creature. These women were also expected to be pious and religious, teaching those around them by their Christian beliefs, and expected to unfailingly inspire and support their husbands.

According to historian Barbara Welter, author of the influential essay on this topic, "The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820–1860", True Women were to hold the four cardinal virtues:[5]

  1. Piety – Religion was valued because unlike intellectual pursuits it did not take a woman away from her "proper sphere," the home, and because it controlled women's longings
  2. Purity – Virginity was seen as a woman's greatest treasure which she had to preserve until her marriage night
  3. Submission – True Women were required to be as submissive and obedient "as little children" because men were regarded as women's superiors "by God's appointment"
  4. Domesticity – A woman's proper sphere was the home where a wife created a refuge for her husband and children; Needlework, cooking, making beds, and tending flowers were considered proper feminine activities whereas reading of anything other than religious biographies was discouraged

These ideals and virtues were elaborated on and stressed on by ministers in sermons, and physicians in popular health books. Godey's Lady's Book, which by 1860 had 150,000 subscribers for three dollars a year, was the most widely circulated women's magazine in the United States. It was edited by Sarah Josepha Hale, who strove to spread her concerns for feminine values. The magazine encouraged motherhood as a religious obligation; mothers played a crucial role in preserving the memory of the American Revolution and in securing its legacy by raising the next generation of citizens. The magazine's paintings and pictures illustrated the four virtues, often showing women with children or behind husbands. Fashion was also stressed because a woman had to stay up to date in order to please her husband. Instructions for seamstresses were often included. Most importantly, Godey's Lady's Book proclaimed that, "The perfection of the wife and mother, the center of the family, that magnet that draws man to the domestic altar, that makes him a civilized being, a social Christian," and that, "The wife is truly the light of the home."



Part of the Separate Spheres ideology, the Cult of Domesticity identified the home as women's "proper sphere" whereas the public arena was regarded as men's proper sphere.[6] The Cult of Domesticity affected married women's labor market participation in the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, as True Women were supposed to devote themselves to unpaid domestic labor and refrain from paid, market-oriented work. Consequently, in 1890, 4.5% of all married women were "gainfully employed," compared with 40.5% of single women. Women's complete financial dependence upon their husbands proved disastrous when wives lost their husbands through death or desertion and were forced to fend for themselves and their children.[7] The division between the domestic and public spheres had an impact on women's power and status. In society as a whole, particularly in political and economic arenas, women's power declined. Within the home, however, they gained symbolic power.[8]

Women were seen as better suited to parenting. Catharine Beecher, a headmistress who proselytised about the importance of education and parenting, once said, "Woman's greatest mission is to obey the laws of God, first in the family, then in the school, then in the neighborhood, then in the nation, then in the world." Also, because of the expected behaviors woman were assumed to make better teachers and thus one of the first out of home jobs for women was teaching. One estimate says that one quarter of all native-born New England women in the years between 1825 and 1860 were schoolteachers at some point in their lives. Peoples of the nineteenth century, both men and women, did not consider what women did as wives and mothers as work but as an effortless expression of their feminine natures.[citation needed]

Connection to the women's movement

Women who advocated for women's rights such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Frances Wright, and Harriet Martineau were not only accused of tampering with the natural order of things, but were also condemned as unfeminine. "They are only semi-women, mental hermaphrodites," wrote Henry F. Harrington in the Ladies' Companion.[9] After the rise of feminism and the fight for women's rights, the cult of domesticity arose again in the 1950s when television began to present shows that depicted fictional families where the mother would stay at home with the children while the man went to work. The Cult of Domesticity shaped an idealized myth of the family and paved the way for the nuclear family.[10]

After the Jacksonian Period, 1812 to 1850, had granted universal white male suffrage, extending the right to vote to virtually all white males in America, women believed it was their opportunity for civil liberty. However, even after the Declaration of Sentiments was written at the Seneca Falls convention of 1848, the right to vote was not extended to women until 1920.

See also

  • Separate Spheres


  1. ^ The home and the idea of domesticity were so important in 19th century culture that historians speak of the "cult" of domesticity.[11] The phrase "True Womanhood" was used by mid-nineteenth century authors who wrote about the subject of women.[12]


  1. ^ Keister 2011, p. 228.
  2. ^ Patton, Venetria K. (2000). Women in Chains: The Legacy of Slavery in Black Women's Fiction. Albany: State University of New York Press, pp. 29–30, ISBN 978-0791443439.
  3. ^ Yee, Shirley J. (1992). Black Women Abolitionists: A Study in Activitism, 1828-1860. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, p. 41, ISBN 978-0870497353.
  4. ^ Tyson, Lois (2001). Learning for a Diverse World: Using Critical Theory to Read and Write about Literature. New York: Routledge, pp. 88–89, ISBN 978-0815337737.
  5. ^ Welter 1966, p. 152.
  6. ^ Carroll, Bret E. American Masculinities: A Historical Encyclopedia. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications, 2003, pp. 120–22, ISBN 9780761925408.
  7. ^ Mankiller, Wilma Pearl; et al. The Reader's Companion to U.S. Women's History. Boston, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1998, pp. 263–66, ISBN 9780395671733.
  8. ^ Rotman, Deborah L. Historical archaeology of gendered lives. New York; London: Springer, 2009, p. 19, ISBN 9780387896687.
  9. ^ Welter 1966, p. 173.
  10. ^ Wegener 2005, p. 36.
  11. ^ Matthews, Glenna. "Just a Housewife": The Rise and Fall of Domesticity in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987, p. 6, ISBN 9780195038590.
  12. ^ Welter 1966, p. 151.


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