Cult of Domesticity

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The culture of domesticity (often shortened to "cult of domesticity"[1]) 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[2] 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.[3][4] The women and men who most actively promoted these standards were generally white, Protestant, and lived in New England and the Northeastern United States.[5] The cult of domesticity revolved around the women being the center of the family; they were considered "The light of the home".

Although all women were supposed to emulate this ideal of femininity, black, working class, and immigrant women were often excluded from the definition of "true women" because of social prejudice.[6][7][8][9]


Godey's Lady's Book was a highly influential women's magazine which reinforced the values of the Cult of Domesticity.[10]

Part of the separate spheres ideology, the cult of domesticity identified the home as women's "proper sphere".[11] Women were supposed to inhabit the private sphere, running the household and production of food (including servants), rearing the children, and taking care of the husband.[12][13]

According to Welter (1966), "true women" were to hold and practice the four cardinal virtues:[3]

  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, a woman's greatest treasure, must not be lost until her marriage night, and married women had to remain committed only to their husbands.
  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 place was in the home and her role as a wife was to create a refuge for her husband and children. Cooking, needlework, making beds, and tending flowers were considered naturally feminine activities, whereas reading anything other than religious biographies was discouraged.

Physically, "true women" were described as delicate, soft and weak.[14] The characteristics of "true womanhood" were described in sermons and religious texts as well as women's magazines.[15] In the United States, Peterson's Magazine and Godey's Lady's Book were the most widely circulated women's magazines[10] and were popular among both women and men.[16] Magazines which promoted the values of the Cult of Domesticity fared better financially than those competing magazines which offered a more progressive view in terms of women's roles.[10] With a circulation of 150,000 by 1860,[17] Godey's reflected and supported the ideals of the Cult of True Womanhood.[10] 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".[18][19] 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.[20]

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.[21] Prescriptive literature advised women on how to transform their homes into domestic sanctuaries for their husbands and children.[22] 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.[23] 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.[24] This division between the domestic and public spheres had effects 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.[25]

The legal implications of this ideology included the passage of protective labor laws, which also limited women's employment opportunities outside the home.[26] 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.[26]

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."[citation needed] Also, because of the expected behaviors, women were assumed to make better teachers of younger children. One of the first public jobs for women was teaching. One estimate says that, with the growth of public education in the northern tier of states, one quarter of all native-born New England women in the years between 1825 and 1860 were schoolteachers at some point in their lives. In the nineteenth century, men and women generally considered women's activities as wives and mothers to be an expression of their feminine natures rather than work, a view that is still prevalent.[citation needed]

Connection to the women's movement[edit]

A New Court of Queen's Bench, an 1849 caricature by George Cruikshank, mocking the idea of women taking over the all-male world of court.

Women's rights advocates, 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.[27] During the Progressive Era,[28] The ideal of the New Woman emerged as a response to the Cult of True Womanhood.[29] The New Woman, frequently associated with the suffrage movement,[30] represented an ideal of femininity which was diametrically opposed to the values of the Cult of True Womanhood.[31]

Early feminist opposition to the values promoted by the Cult of Domesticity culminated in the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848. In the 20th century, it influenced the second wave of feminism.[32] After the Jacksonian Period (1812 to 1850) had granted universal white male suffrage, extending the right to vote to virtually all white males in the United States, many women believed it was their opportunity for civil liberty. With demands expressed in the Declaration of Sentiments, written at the Seneca Falls convention of 1848, women finally gained ratification of a constitutional amendment and the right to vote in 1920.

In the era after World War II, the cult of domesticity was stressed as American society sought to integrate veterans and emphasize the revival of family life. In the 1950s television shows often presented series that depicted fictional families in which the mother's primary work was to raise the children and run the household. Men's and women's spheres were increasingly separated as many families lived in suburban settings, from which men commuted to other cities for work. At the same time, women had independent lives during the day and were often active in volunteer and community activities, particularly around issues of education, health, children and welfare. The Cult of Domesticity shaped an idealized myth of the family and paved the way for the nuclear family.[33]

Susan M. Cruea on The Cult of True Womanhood[edit]

In her article “Changing Ideals of Womanhood During the Nineteenth-Century Woman Movement”, Susan M. Cruea explains the “Cult of True Womanhood,” an idea that arose in the early 19th century that marked the beginnings of the “ideal woman” and changed the idea of the woman forever. This idea restricted woman to many societal standards and defined how a woman look like and behave. It told woman what to wear, what to look like, how to act, and what jobs they could do, and women followed this Cult because it persuaded women to believe that the true woman was extremely important to the status of her family.

The Cult of True Womanhood, Cruea explains, described the society’s ideal woman and set forth many societal restrictions that took away working rights and freedom from women. It explained that “true women” should be bound to the kitchen and nursery, should be pious and pure, and should be subservient to men. She should always portray an image of delicacy and weakness, being prone to fainting and illness; she should not engage in strenuous physical activity because it would damage her “much more delicate nervous system.” The ideal woman needed a male to protect her and provided her with luxuries. Their roles in society were to act as a status symbol for men and reflect their husbands wealth and success and at home was to create babies and care for them so her husband’s legacy of success would continue. A woman was considered a “true woman” if she adhered to this strict religion. She was known as the “Angel in the House” and her primary purpose was to morally guide her family. Because the True Woman was so ideal, this ideology was imprinted on girls at a very young age; these girls were taught to value their virginity as the “‘pearl of great price’ which was her greatest asset” and the skills to manage a household and rear children.

Women, young and old, adhered to this ideology because they were taught to believe that the True woman was “a pillar of strength and virtue” and that she was key in providing her husband a proper image and raising boys who would later have a direct impact on the success of the nation. The True Woman had an important role, and to fulfill this role, she had to let go of her power, become a delicate body, and become this “Angel in the House.” [34]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The home and the idea of domesticity were so important in 19th century culture that historians speak of the "cult" of domesticity.[16] The phrase "True Womanhood" was used by mid-nineteenth century authors who wrote about the subject of women.[35]
  1. ^ Lisa A. Keister, Darby E. Southgate (2011). Inequality: A Contemporary Approach to Race, Class, and Gender. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 228. ISBN 978-0-521-68002-8. 
  2. ^ Keister 2011, p. 228.
  3. ^ a b Welter 1966, p. 152.
  4. ^ Lavender, Catherine. "Notes on The Cult of Domesticity and True Womanhood" (PDF). The College of Staten Island/CUNY. Retrieved 27 October 2014. 
  5. ^ Lindley, Susan Hill (1996). "The Ideal American Woman". In You have stept out of your place: a history of women and religion in America. Louisville, Kentucky.: Westminster John Knox Press, p. 56. ISBN 978-0-664-22081-5.
  6. ^ Patton, Venetria K. (2000). "The Cult of True Womanhood and its Revisions", In Women in Chains: The Legacy of Slavery in Black Women's Fiction. Albany: State University of New York Press, pp. 29–30. ISBN 978-0-7914-4343-9.
  7. ^ Yee, Shirley J. (1992). "Black Women and the Cult of True Womanhood", In Black Women Abolitionists: A Study in Activism, 1828–1860. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, p. 41. ISBN 978-0-87049-735-3.
  8. ^ Tyson, Lois (2001). Learning for a Diverse World: Using Critical Theory to Read and Write about Literature, New York: Routledge, pp. 88–89. ISBN 978-0-8153-3773-7.
  9. ^ O'Brien, Jodi A.; Newman, David M. (2010). Sociology: Exploring the Architecture of Everyday Life. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Pine Forge Press, an Imprint of Sage Publications, p. 294. ISBN 978-1-4129-7942-9.
  10. ^ a b c d Endres, Kathleen L.; Lueck; Therese L. (1995). Women's Periodicals in the United States: Consumer Magazines. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, p. xii. ISBN 978-0-313-28631-5.
  11. ^ Carroll, Bret E. (2003). American Masculinities: A Historical Encyclopedia. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: SAGE Publications. pp. 120–122. ISBN 978-0-7619-2540-8. 
  12. ^ Landry, Bart (2000). Black Working Wives: Pioneers of the American Family Revolution. Berkeley: University of California Press. pp. 22–23. ISBN 978-0-520-21826-0. 
  13. ^ Buillet, Richard W. (2005). The Earth and Its Peoples: A Global History (3rd ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin. p. 586. ISBN 978-0-618-40334-9. 
  14. ^ Mankiller 1998, p. 571.
  15. ^ Brannon, Linda (2005). Gender: Psychological Perspectives. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, pp. 154–155. ISBN 978-0-205-40457-5.
  16. ^ a b Matthews, Glenna (1987). "Just a Housewife": The Rise and Fall of Domesticity in America. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 6, 42. ISBN 978-0-19-503859-0.
  17. ^ Fackler, Mark; Lippy, Charles H. (1995). Popular Religious Magazines of the United States. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, p. 241. ISBN 978-0-313-28533-2.
  18. ^ Green, Harvey; Perry, Mary-Ellen (1983). The Light of the Home: An Intimate View of the Lives of Women in Victorian America. New York: Pantheon Books, p. 180. ISBN 978-0-394-52746-8.
  19. ^ Wayne, Tiffany K. (2007). Women's roles in nineteenth-century America. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, p. 1, ISBN 978-0-313-33547-1.
  20. ^ Mitchell, Sarah (2009). "A Wonderful Duty: A Study of Motherhood on Godey's Magazine". In: Sachsman, David B.; Rushing, S. Kittrell; Morris, Roy (eds). Seeking a Voice: Images of Race and Gender in the 19th Century Press. West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, pp. 171–178. ISBN 978-1-55753-505-4.
  21. ^ DuBois & Dumenil 2005, p. 188.
  22. ^ Fitts, Robert K. (1999). "The Archaeology of Middle-Class Domesticity and Gentility in Victorian Brooklyn". Historical Archaeology. Society for Historical Archaeology. 33 (1): 39–62. 
  23. ^ Bose, Christine E. (1987). "Dual Spheres". In Hess, Beth B.; Ferree, Myra Marx. Analyzing Gender: A Handbook of Social Science Research. Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage Publications, pp. 278–279. ISBN 978-0-8039-2719-3.
  24. ^ Mankiller 1998, pp. 263–266.
  25. ^ Rotman, Deborah L. Historical Archaeology of Gendered Lives. New York; London: Springer, 2009, p. 19. ISBN 978-0-387-89668-7.
  26. ^ a b Baron, Ava (1981). "Protective Labor Legislation and the Cult of Domesticity". Journal of Family Issues. SAGE Publications. 2 (1): 25–38. doi:10.1177/0192513X8100200103. 
  27. ^ Welter 1966, p. 173.
  28. ^ Lindenmeyer, Kriste (2000). Ordinary Women, Extraordinary Lives: Women in American History. Wilmington, Del.: SR Books, p. 134. ISBN 978-0-8420-2752-6.
  29. ^ "The Cult of Domesticity and the Reaction: From True Women to New Women". In Lorence, James J.; Boyerp, Paul S. (200). Enduring Voices: document sets to accompany The Enduring Vision, a History of the American People. Lexington, Mass.: D.C. Heath, p. 85, ISBN 978-0-395-96084-4.
  30. ^ Patterson, Martha H. (2008). The American New Woman Revisited: A Reader, 1894–1930. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, p. 6. ISBN 978-0-8135-4494-6.
  31. ^ Trites, Roberta Seelinger (2007). Twain, Alcott, and the Birth of the Adolescent Reform Novel. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, p. 92. ISBN 978-1-58729-622-2.
  32. ^ Ford, Lynne E. (2008). Encyclopedia of Women and American Politics. New York: Facts On File, pp. 136–37. ISBN 978-0-8160-5491-6.
  33. ^ Wegener 2005, p. 36.
  34. ^ Cruea, Susan (2005). "Changing Ideals of Womanhood During the Nineteenth-Century Woman Movement". American Transcendental Quarterly. 19 (3): 187–204. 
  35. ^ Welter 1966, p. 151.

External links[edit]