CULT OF DOMESTICITY
In the concept of 'cult of domesticity' there is a belief
that family and individual life is most fulfilling when experienced in a private household
where women are chief homemakers and caregivers.
'Cult of domesticity' is also associated with the idea that
women have moral and temperamental qualities that are best expressed in the personal and
domestic sphere of life.
"Cult of domesticity" can found in women's
magazines, religious journals, newspapers, fiction and everywhere in popular culture.
The Cult of Domesticity or Cult of True Womanhood was a
prevailing view during the Jacksonian Era, in the United States. Belief that a woman's
role in marriage was to maintain the home as a refuge for her husband, take care and teach
the children and set moral examples for children to follow.
True women were expected to possess the virtues of piety, purity, submissiveness, and
The Cult of Domesticity identified the home as the "separate, proper sphere" for
women, who were seen as better suited to parenting.
The Cult of Domesticity developed as family lost its
function as economic unit. Many of links between family and community closed off as work
left home and market economy emerged downgrading a women's work.
"We are interested in a complex conversation about the
multivalent negotiations Indigenous women have and continue to make with the cult of
domesticity. How does the cult of domesticity for Indigenous women resonate similarly with
and differently from other communities of women? How does the cult of domesticity resonate
differently within and between Indigenous communities? To what extent, as argued by
Mihesuah and Lomawaima, do Indigenous women embrace rather than reject the cult of
In what ways did the Allotment Acts alter and reify the
cult of domesticity for Indigenous women? - From: seeking papers for a proposed panel on
The Cult of Domesticity and Indigenous Women - cfp.english.upenn.edu
Beyond the cult of domesticity: Exploring the material and
spatial expressions of multiple gender ideologies in Deerfield, Massachusetts, ca.
Deborah L Rotman, University of Massachusetts Amherst
Abstract: This dissertation explores the material and spatial expressions of gender and
relations on the rural landscape of the village of Deerfield, Massachusetts.
Although the cult of domesticity has been the most widely studied, additional gender
ideologies such as equal rights feminism, domestic reform, and others-also structured
human interactions during the second half of the eighteenth through the early twentieth
Three homelots on the village landscape served as the primary case studies for this
research. Architectural changes and ceramic assemblages from archaeological deposits were
central to the analyses. Three models were used to understand gender ideologies, including
Yentsch's (1991) model for differential color coding and usage of ceramic vessels, Wall's
(1994) analysis of changing decorative motifs, and Shackel's (1993) and Leone's (1999)
formulas for measuring the penetration of modern discipline. Deviations from expected
material patterns were re-examined within a dialectical framework.
This work stresses the multiscalar aspect of landscapes and includes the interior spaces
of structures. Additionally, this research emphasizes the interrelatedness of modern
discipline and gender ideologies, both of which were expressed through the materiality of
This research yielded several important results. First a separation of gender roles
existed prior to the codification of the cult of domesticity and was, therefore, not the
exclusive domain of that ideology. Second, domesticity appeared and was codified in this
rural village at about the same time as its material manifestations were occurring in more
urban locations. Third, the extent to which a household followed the dictates of a given
gender ideology was influenced by its position in the developing class structure. Finally,
the materiality of domestic reform, equal rights feminism, and other alternative gender
systems occurred in Deerfield at a level beyond the home: that is, at the level of the
Street or village. These results mean that the advances in the study of gender by
historical archaeologists can be productively supplemented by considering a wider range of
gender systems, observing their articulation with developing class systems, and
considering the many spatial scales influenced by gender. -
Widows and Orphans: Women's Education beyond the Domestic Ideal
While our modern assessment of the "cult of domesticity" prevalent in the early
republic assumes that ideology frowned upon women engaging in activities outside the home,
periodical literature on the subject of women's education shows that educational thought
considered at least the possibility that a woman might need to earn wages in support of
her family if her father or husband were unable or unwilling to provide. Popular
educational thinking adopted the domestic ideal, and most articles published in magazines
and journals focused on the need to educate girls to discharge their household and
familial duties. But given a woman's precarious economic status, as well the speed at
which she aged and lost her physical charms, educational thought accommodated the changing
woman by insisting she develop both the character and skills she would require in old age
and in adversity. - jfh.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/25/1/26
"The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860" (1966)
Barbara Welter, pinzler.com/ushistory/cultwo.html
Historian Barbara Welter looks at the antebellum decades of the nineteenth century and
describes an important stage in the expression of sexual stereotypes. The idea of
"The Cult of True Womanhood," or "the cult of domesticity," sought to
assert that womanly virtue resided in piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity. As
you read, consider why these characteristics were
seen as so crucial to promoting a woman╠s "proper role," and how such
assertions about the roles of women might have served as a response to the growth of
The nineteenth-century American man was a busy builder of bridges and railroads, at work
long hours in a materialistic society. The religious values of his forbears were neglected
in practice if not in intent, and he occasionally felt some guilt that he had turned this
new land, this temple of the chosen people, into one cast countinghouse. But he could
salve his conscience by reflecting that he had left behind a hostage, not only to fortune,
but to all the values which he held so dear and treated so lightly. Woman, in the cult of
True Womanhood presented by the women╠s magazines, gift annuals, and religious literature
of the nineteenth century, was the hostage in the home. In a society where values changed
frequently, where fortunes rose and fell with frightening rapidity, where social and
economic mobility provided instability as well as hope, one thing at least remained the
same - a true woman was a true woman, wherever she was found. If anyone, male or female,
dared to tamper with the complex of virtues that made up True Womanhood, he was damned
immediately as the enemy of God, of civilization, and of the Republic. It was the fearful
obligation, a solemn responsibility, which the nineteenth-century American woman had - to
uphold the pillars of the temple with her frail white hand.
The Cult of Domesticity & True Womanhood Defined:
Between 1820 and the Civil War, the growth of new industries, businesses, and professions
helped to create in America a new middle class. (The Middle class consisted of families
whose husbands worked as lawyers, office workers, factory managers, merchants, teachers,
physicians and others.)
Although the new middle-class family had its roots in preindustrial society, it differed
from the preindustrial family in three major ways:
I) A nineteenth-century middle-class family did not have to make what it needed in order
to survive. Men could work in jobs that produced goods or services while their wives and
children stayed at home.
2) When husbands went off to work, they helped create the view that men alone should
support the family. This belief held that the world of work, the public sphere, was a
rough world, where a man did what he had to in order to succeed, that it was full of
temptations, violence, and trouble. A woman who ventured out into such a world could
easily fall prey to it, for women were weak and delicate creatures. A woman's place was
therefore in the private sphere, in the home, where she took charge of all that went on.
3) The middle-class family came to look at itself, and at the nuclear family in general,
as the backbone of society. Kin and community remained important, but not nearly so much
as they had once been.
A new ideal of womanhood and a new ideology about the home arose out of the new attitudes
about work and family. Called the "cult of domesticity," it is found in women's
magazines, advice books, religious journals, newspapers, fiction--everywhere in popular
culture. This new ideal provided a new view of women's duty and role while cataloging the
cardinal virtues of true womanhood for a new age. (For an example of this, see the Godey's
Lady's Book Online.)
This ideal of womanhood had essentially four parts--four characteristics any good and
proper young woman should cultivate: piety, purity, domesticity, and submissiveness.
Ideal Number One: Piety:
Nineteenth-century Americans believed that women had a particular propensity for religion.
The modern young woman of the 1820s and 1830s was thought of as a new Eve working with God
to bring the world out of sin through her suffering, through her pure, and passionless
Religion was thought to be a good thing in women, a salve for a potentially restless mind,
an occupation which could be undertaken within woman's proper sphere--the home. The early
women's seminaries and academies, which were under attack for leading women astray from
their true purpose and task in life, promised that far from taking women away from
religion, they would make of young women handmaidens of God, efficient auxilliaries in the
great task of renovating the world. Irreligion in females was considered "the most
revolting human characteristic." Indeed, it was said that "godless, no woman,
mother tho she be."
Ideal Number Two: Purity:
Female purity was also highly reverred. Without sexual purity, a woman was no woman, but
rather a lower form of being, a "fallen woman," unworthy of the love of her sex
and unfit for their company.
To contemplate the loss of one's purity brought tears and hysteria to young women. This
made it a little difficult, and certainly a bit confusing, to contemplate one's marriage,
for in popular literature, the marriage night was advertised as the greatest night in a
woman's life, the night when she bestowed upon her husband her greatest treasure, her
virginity. From thence onward, she was dependent upon him, an empty vessel without legal
or emotional existence of her own. A woman must guard her treasure with her life. Despite
any male attempt to assault her, she must remain pure and chaste. She must not give in,
must not give her treasure into the wrong hands. The following is advice on how to protect
oneself and one's treasure given by Mrs. Eliza Farrar, author of The Young Woman's Friend:
"sit not with another in a place that is too narrow; read not out of the same book;
let not your eagerness to see anything induce you to place your head close to another
To ignore such advice was to court disaster. The consequences could be terrible--usually,
in popular literature, a woman who allowed herself to be seduced by a man attoned for her
sin by dying, most often in poverty, depravity, or intemperance. There were numerous
stories about unwed mothers punished by God for their sin by losing their babies and going
Female purity was also viewed as a weapon, to be used by good women to keep men in control
of their sexual needs and desires, all for their own good. A woman's only power was seen
as coming through her careful use of sexual virtue. Note the following quote from a
popular ladies magazine: "the man bears rule over his wife's person and conduct. She
bears rule over his inclinations: he governs by law; she by persuasion...The empire of
women is the empire of softness, her commands are caresses, her menaces are tears."
American culture of the early nineteenth century underwent a purity fetish, such that it
touched even the language of the day, popular decorating, and myths. This is when
Americans began to talk about limbs for legs (even when referring to the legs of chairs)
and white meat instead of breast meat (in fowl)--this is the language of repression. This
is when women began to decorate the limbs of chairs, pianos, tables, to cover them with
fabric so that one would not be reminded of legs. Proper women were admonished to separate
male and female authors on bookcases, unless, of course, they were married to each other.
This is also when myth of stork bringing babies emerges, and that babies came from cabbage
Ideal Number Three: Submissiveness
This was perhaps the most feminine of virtues. Men were supposed to be religious, although
not generally. Men were supposed to be pure, although one could really not expect it. But
men never supposed to be submissive. Men were to be movers, and doers--the actors in life.
Women were to be passive bystanders, submitting to fate, to duty, to God, and to men.
Women were warned that this was the order of things. The Young Ladies Book summarized for
the unknowledgable, the passive virtues necessary in women: "It is certain that in
whatever situation of life a woman is placed from her cradle to her grave, a spirit of
obedience and submission, pliability of temper, and humility of mind are required of
Just in case she might not get the point, female submissiveness and passivity were assured
for the nineteenth century woman by the clothing she was required to wear. Tight corset
lacing closed off her lungs and pinched her inner organs together. Large numbers of under
garments and the weight of over dresses limited her physical mobility.
A true woman knew her place, and knew what qualities were wanted in her opposite. Said
George Burnap, in The Sphere and Duties of Woman: "She feels herself weak and timid.
She needs a protector. She is in a measure dependent. She asks for wisdom, constancy,
firmness, perseveredness, and she is willing to repay it all by the surrender of the full
treasure of her affection. Women despise in men everything like themselves except a tender
heart. It is enough that she is effeminate and weak; she does not want another like
Such views were commonplace. A number of popular sayings reiterated: "A really
sensible woman feels her dependence. She does what she can, but she is conscious of her
inferiority and therefore grateful for support." "A woman has a head almost too
small for intellect but just big enough for love." "True feminine genius is ever
timid, doubtful, and clingingly dependent; a perpetual childhood."
Ideal Number Four: Domesticity:
Woman's place was in the home. Woman's role was to be busy at those morally uplifting
tasks aimed at maintaining and fulfilling her piety and purity.
Housework was deemed such an uplifting task. Godey's Ladies Book argued, "There is
more to be learned about pouring out tea and coffee than most young ladies are willing to
believe." Needlework and crafts were also approved activities which kept women in the
home, busy about her tasks of wifely duties and childcare, keeping the home a cheerful,
peaceful place which would attract men away from the evils of the outer world.
For the true woman, a woman's rights were as follows:
The right to love whom others scorn,
The right to comfort and to mourn,
The right to shed new joy on earth,
The right to feel the soul's high worth,
Such woman's rights a God will bless
And crown their champions with success.
The Cult of Domesticity developed as family lost its function as economic unit. Many of
links between family and community closed off as work left home. Emergence of market
economy and the devaluation of women's work. Increasingly, then, home became a
self-contained unit. Privacy was a crucial issue for nineteenth-century families, and can
see this concern in the spatial development of suburbs in urban areas as families sought
single family dwellings were they could be even more isolated from others. Women remained
in the home, as a kind of cultural hostage.
Women were expected to uphold the values of stability, morality, and democracy by making
the home a special place, a refuge from the world where her husband could escape from the
highly competitive, unstable, immoral world of business and industry. It was widely
expected that in order to succeed in the work world, men had to adopt certain values and
behaviors: materialism, aggression, vulgarity, hardness, rationality. But men also needed
to develop another side to their nature, a human side, an anticompetitive side. The home
was to be the place where they could do this. This was where they could express humanistic
values, asthetic values, love, honor, loyalty and faithfulness. The home was no longer a
unit valued for its function in the community (or its economic productiveness), but rather
for its isolation from the community and its service to its members.
Because the world of work was defined as male, the world of the home was defined as
female. Part of its value lay in its leisurely aspects. Women increasingly became a
complement to leisure, a kind of useless but beautiful object, set off by her special
setting. The nineteenth-century household was cluttered with beautiful, ornate
objects--elaborate patterns in cloth covering walls, ornate furniture, pianos, paintings,
and brick-abrack. Colors were muted--dark and velvety--all to surround, darken, and deepen
the quiet of the home, and to accentuate the softness, submissiveness, and leisure of the
woman within it, the angel of the house.
Scientific Sexism and Separate Spheres Ideology:
The characteristics of true manhood and womanhood and the separate spheres of male and
female activity were believed to have a biological basis. Female nurturance, intuitive
morality, domesticity, passivity, and delicacy, and male rationality, aggressiveness,
independence, and toughness were all due to their physical makeup.
It was assumed that women were different from men, both physically and mentally inferior.
Women's physical inferiority was based on three observations:
1) The visual evidence that women were generally physically smaller than men.
2) The belief that women had less physical stamina than men because they seemed to faint
so much more (not necessarily an innate difference but one based on the clothing worn by
the two sexes and the amount of exercise they got).
3) The knowledge that women menstruated, and therefore were believed physically
incapacitated every month. Menstruation was regarded as a periodic illness inflicted upon
women. It was believed that menstruation could bring on temporary insanity in women.
Clearly women were inferior to men who were not interrupted or incapacitated every month
4) Women were deemed more delicate and weak than men because the female nervous system was
finer, more irritable, and more prone to overstimulation and fatigue than the male nervous
system, because of the "unpredictable nature" of the female reproductive system.
Physicians saw women as both the product and the prisoner of her reproductive system. The
female uterus and ovaries provided the basis for her social role and her behavioral
characteristics. One doctor argued that, "It was as if the Almighty, in creating the
female sex, had taken the uterus and built up a woman around it." According to these
doctors, the female reproductive system was also responsible for all of the many ailments
which attacked women. The current model of disease followed by physicans was called
"reflex irritation," and assumed that any imbalance, any infection, any disorder
or fatigue would cause a reaction elsewhere in the body. If one, therefore, had a headache
or stomachache, or became irritable or faint, it was assumed that the problem was with the
reproductive system. Women were subject to only one disease, then. The male reproductive
system had no parallel degree of control over the male body. Men had headaches; women had
Women were deemed intellectually inferior to men as well as physically inferior. Again,
this was based on two kinds of observations.
1) Women had smaller brains than men. Natural scientists measured cranial capacity, and
brain weight and correlated these with intelligence. At first scientists developed ratios
based on size of brain to body weight. But they discovered that female brain size to
female body weight yielded a higher ratio that did male brain size to male body weight. So
they changed the correlation, and related brain weight to body height. This time they
found that the male brain produced .73 ounces of weight for each inch of height, while the
female brain produced only .70 ounces of weight for each inch of height. There are two
obvious problems with these asssumptions: in humans, brain size does not appear to
correlate with either body weight or height. Over time, the human brain has become smaller
although people are both taller and weigh more than in early times. And secondly, there is
no evidence that size, either relative or absolute correlates with intelligence. (By the
way, the same type of study was used in the nineteenth century to show racial superiority
and inferiority. One world's foremost authorities, Carl Vogt, professor of natural history
at University of Geneva said: "The grown up Negro partakes, as regards his
intellectual faculties, of the nature of the child, the female, and the senile
2) It was also said that the female brain was of an inferior and more primitive type than
the male brain. Much of this kind of interpretation came out of a pseudo science called
phrenology. Phrenology was the art of reading the bumps and curves and shape of the skull.
It was thought that the skull provided evidence of personality and character, because
different parts of the skull housed different characteristics. It was clear to
phrenologists who studied cranium that "woman is a constantly growing child, and in
the brain, as in so many other parts of her body, she conforms to her childish type."
In addition to beliefs about physical and mental inferiority, were certain
"scientific" views of human sexuality which governed nineteenth century men and
women. These come down to essentially three ideas:
1) The human body has only a limited amount of energy. It is a closed system. The
expenditure of energy must, therefore, be closely regulated, because one activity would
drain energy from another.
2) The sexual instinct is the most primitive instinct. Phrenologists located it at the
base of the brain.
3) Sexual feelings were strong in men, but absent in women (certainly in ladies). Actually
was conflicted opinion about female sexuality--passion in women was feared, because the
demands it would make on men were insatiable and like a vampire, it was feared she would
drain him of his life force). Men were seen in continual struggle with their passions. In
the interests of their own health, they must control them--but not expected always to
Given attitudes about sexuality, puberty was considered critical period for both men and
women, and therefore the subject of much advice. This was the time that men became strong
and vigorous and women became timid and weak.
The period was critical for women and the future of the human race, because if women did
not develop some equilibrium in their body, they would not only damage themselves, causing
untold pain, cancer, disease, a difficult menopause, and early death, but they would also
damage their children. For the nineteenth century believed that the traits of a child were
inherited from his or her parents, but the laws of heredity differed from those we now
recognize. They believed that men passed on to their children their outer frame, their
musculature, and their intellect. Women passed on the condition of their internal organs,
and their emotional stability or instability.
It was assumed that women had a lesser amount of energy, or "life force" than
men. Bodily fluids like blood were one measure of "life forces." Because the
female reproductive system was more complex than the male, it was considered important for
women to channel all their energies into reproduction. Therefore, women were discouraged
from intellectual activity because blood was needed for the development of the
reproductive organs. This was particularly important at puberty, when menstruation began
and physical development hastened. Woamen who diverted t heir energy would become weak,
nervous, sterile, or capable only of bearing sickly and neurotic children. It was
estimated that education took away about 20% of a woman's vital energy. Pregnant women too
must not strain their brains, because intellectual activity would divert blood from the
fetus, and result in the physical degeneration of the child, or their insanity.
Doctors advised women, from puberty to menopause, to direct their attention toward healthy
reproduction. Women must avoid strong emotions, like anger, because they might damage
their organs. Motherhood was a woman's normal function. Those who thwarted nature's plan
must expect to suffer for their action. Spinsters and celebates were thus fated to
experience a greater incidence of physical and emotional disease, a shorter life span, and
a reproductive system under constant pressure and therefore prone to cancer and
digenerative ills. A woman's reproductive organs must be bathed occasionally with a man's
vital force if she was to remain healthy.
Puberty was just as critical a time for men. This was the era of the self-made man, and
men must concentrate their energies, their life force on getting ahead in the world. Men
must, in particular, reserve their sexual energies, because semen was believed the most
potent of life forces. It was estimated that one ounce of semen carried as much energy as
four ounces of blood. There was some concern about too much continence, that is, too
little sexual expression in men, but for the most part, the concern was for excessive
sexual activity. Particularly at puberty, masturbation or frequent intercourse would
result in premature decay, and the exposure of the male to disease and early death.
Women's indifference to sex was upheld as a guard on men, helping them to protect
themselves, and prevent over-expenditure of their life force.
One reason why Freud so quickly accepted in America was that the idea of the sublimation
of sexual energies in work or play was deeply ingrained in American culture. Dr. Frederick
Hollic wrote: "I am fully persuaded that there is no case of precocious or excessive
sexual propensity, unless caused by disease, that cannot be easily subdued by muscular
exercise. No matter how vigorously the seminal glands may act, in a state of leisure, they
must become less active if the body be exhausted by active exertion, and to this rule
there is scarcely any limit."
The nineteenth century developed a whole vocabulary which demonstrates how closely sexual
and economic metaphors overlapped in their minds. Mining, railroad building, canal
digging, all held sexual overtones of male mastery over female nature. Economic
development was valued as an outlet for sexual needs. "ejaculation" =
"expenditure", "semen" = "thrift", "intercourse" =
"connubial commerce", "womb" = "treasure" "child
birth" = "labor". A man's work duplicated women's reproductive power. These
were the central factors in male/female identity and social role. The separate spheres of
men and women were determined by men's and women's different physical and mental makeup.