Cult of Domesticity
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 and Great Britain. This value system emphasized new ideas of femininity, the woman's role within the home and the dynamics of work and family. "True women" were supposed to possess four cardinal virtues: piety, purity, domesticity, and submissiveness. The women and men who most actively promoted these standards were generally white, Protestant, and lived in New England and the Northeastern United States. The cult of domesticity revolved around the women being the center of the family; they were considered "The light of the home".
The Cult of Domesticity was designed for the wives and daughters of the men who made up the white upper class power structure in the United States and Britain.
Part of the separate spheres ideology, the cult of domesticity identified the home as women's "proper sphere". Women were supposed to inhabit the private sphere, running the household, rearing children, and taking care of the husband.
"True women" were to hold the four cardinal virtues:
- 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.
- Purity – Virginity was seen as a woman's greatest treasure which she could not lose until her marriage night.
- 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".
- Domesticity – A woman's actual sphere was the home where a wife created a refuge for her husband and children; Needlework, cooking, making beds, and tending flowers were considered actual feminine activities whereas reading of anything other than religious biographies was discouraged.
Physically, "true women" were delicate, soft and weak. The characteristics of "true womanhood" were described in sermons and religious texts as well as women's magazines. In the United States, Peterson's Magazine and Godey's Lady's Book were the most widely circulated women's magazines and were popular among both women and men. Magazines which promoted the values of the Cult of Domesticity fared better financially than competing magazines which offered a more progressive view in terms of women's roles. With a circulation of 150,000 by 1860, Godey's reflected and supported the ideals of the Cult of True Womanhood. The magazine's paintings and pictures illustrated the four virtues, often showing women with children or behind husbands. It also equated womanhood with motherhood and being a wife, declaring that the "perfection of womanhood (...) is the wife and mother". The magazine presented motherhood as a woman's natural and most satisfying role, and encouraged women to find their fulfillment and their contributions to society strictly within the home. Reflecting the ideal of True Womanhood, Godey's considered mothers as crucial in preserving the memory of the American Revolution and in securing its legacy by raising the next generation of citizens. Prescriptive literature advised women on how to transform their homes into domestic sanctuaries for their husbands and children. 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.
The Cult of Domesticity affected married women's labor market participation in the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. 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. 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.
The legal implications of this ideology included the passage of protective labor laws which limited women's employment opportunities outside the home. These laws as well as subsequent Supreme Court rulings such as Muller v. Oregon were based on the assumption that women's primary role was that of mother and wife and that women's non-domestic work should not interfere with their primary function. As a result, women's working hours were limited and night work for women was prohibited, essentially costing many female workers their jobs and excluding them from many occupations.
The Cult of Domesticity “privatized” women’s options for work, for education, for voicing opinions, or for supporting reform. Arguments of biological inferiority led to pronouncements that women were incapable of effectively participating in the realms of politics, commerce, or public service. 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 women 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. People in 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.
Connection to the women's movement
Women who advocated for women's rights such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Frances Wright, and Harriet Martineau were accused of disrupting the natural order of things, and condemned as unfeminine. "They are only semi-women, mental hermaphrodites," wrote Henry F. Harrington in the Ladies' Companion. During the Progressive Era, the New Woman emerged as a response to the Cult of True Womanhood. The New Woman, frequently associated with the suffrage movement, represented an ideal of femininity which was diametrically opposed to the values of the Cult of True Womanhood.
Early feminist opposition to the values promoted by the Cult of Domesticity culminated in the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 and later influenced the second wave of feminism. 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. Beginning as early as the Declaration of Sentiments, written at the Seneca Falls convention of 1848, the right to vote was finally extended to women in 1920.
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.
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