The Cult of Domesticity: Securing the 19th Century Woman in the Home During the Antebellum age of America, new values and ideals began to arise. These ideals were reflected in the households of middle class citizens and grouped together to create the “Cult of Domesticity. ” The cult helped form the foundation of female inferiority in the male dominated society. As “slaves” to the home, women were to uphold morals that were no longer relevant in the new industrialized world. The ideas that led to this treatment of women were drawn from religion, “scientific studies”, and the Industrial Revolution.
The Cult of Domesticity was created to work effortlessly with the middle class, and was also known as the “Perfect Family” (Myth). Prior to the Industrial Revolution, families were dependent on every family member to provide for the household. Men, women, and children alike, would cook, clean, and take care of the entire property (Cowan, 16). However, the Middle Class family after the Industrial Revolution consisted of a single wage earning father and a mother that stayed at home maintaining the household and the children, in a home isolated from the rest of society (Nussell, 1).
It was believed at the time that a man belonged in the working world, known as the “Public Sphere”, and a woman belonged at home, known as the “Private Sphere”. The Public Sphere was immoral, full of temptation, violence, and trouble, while the Private Sphere was moral, passive, a haven where man could be protected (Lavender, 1). A man’s worth was constructed around how hard he worked and his political function, while a woman’s virtue was determined by her ability to provide a comfortable home for the family (Welter, Cult, 152). This resulted in a change as to how the household would be maintained.
Cooking and cleaning would now be done by the woman, putting much time and effort into each task. The Industrial Revolution, however, produced more tools that served domesticity’s purpose, like the kitchen tools boom in the 1830’s, which created advancements like the stove and gave a sense of craft and mastery to the woman of the household (Cowan, 46). The stove, one of the many products produced, became affordable for almost every American family, because it could cook several things at once, and allowed for more varied dinners. (Cowan, 46). Decorating flourished now that women had more time on heir hands. The nineteenth-century household would be cluttered with beautiful, ornate objects, yet as compared to the woman of the home, they were beautiful but useless (Lavender, 4). In the Bible, Genesis, chapter 2, versus 22 to 25, states “The Lord God then built up into a woman the rib that he had taken from the man. ” This among other statements in the Bible, directly influenced the first of four virtues women were expected to uphold, piety. It was believed that religion belonged to woman by divine right, a gift of God and nature (Welter, Cult, 152).
For she was the new Eve, safeguarding herself from man’s greed in order to work with God and purge the world of sin with her love (Lavender, 1). Since woman belonged in the home, religion was a perfect fit for her domain; she could still pray and speak of Christian values without straying from the home or Church (Welter, Cult, 153). Women were also expected to teach religion to others in the home. By teaching her immoral husband of God’s great works he would be less likely to drink or gamble; this would eventually bring him to salvation (Nussell, 1).
Without religion women were thought of poorly, as not being a woman at all, and in extreme cases she would be whipped (Welter, Cult, 154). Caleb Atwater, Esq. states, “Religion is exactly what a woman needs, for it gives her that dignity that best suits her dependence (Welter, Cult, 153). ” Morality was a big element of being a “true woman” in the Antebellum Age, leading into the second of four virtues, purity. To be a “true woman” she had to be sexually pure, a standard not associated with men.
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. A woman who allowed herself to be seduced by a man atoned for her sins by dying, most often in poverty or depravity (Lavender, 2). To contemplate the loss of one’s purity brought tears; to be guilty of such a crime, brought madness or death (Welter, Cult, 154). This caused great uncertainty when it came to one’s marriage night. This night was when the woman would bestow her “treasure” upon her husband, making her solely dependent on him.
She was now an empty vessel without legal or emotional existence of her own (Lavender, 2). However, now that she had given her virginity away she had to monitor her husband’s needs. Too much sexual interaction would cause a decrease in both person’s “life forces” severely decreasing their life expectancy, however not enough would render the wife invalid. In this sense sex was for procreation only (Lavender, 5). This gave women the role of sexual moderators of society, and they were frequently blamed for a men’s infidelity; an unfaithful husband was frequently assumed to have wandered due to his wife’s inattention (Myth, 2).
Marriage also let women break away from the need of money that could clutter her small mind with greed; eventually ruining her pureness (Cott, 71). As a result of the nineteenth century, language became repressed. “Child birth” became “labor,” “limbs” became “legs,” along with other linguistic changes (Lavender). In order for men to forget about their sexual desires the bottoms of chairs, pianos, tables, and anything else that would remind him of the female body were covered with fabric. Male and female authors in the family’s library were separated, unless of course married.
Furthermore, the stork myth and cabbage patch reference about the origin of babies emerged during this time (Lavender). Many of these changes still exist today and will most likely endure in the foreseeable future. Submissiveness was perhaps the most feminine virtue expected of a woman. While a man could be religious or pure, a man could not be submissive. The Bible even states, “Wives submit yourselves unto your husbands as unto the lord (Eph 2: 22-33), (Welter, Cult, 159). Adding to her submissive state was her clothing; tight corset lacings closing off her lungs and pinching her inner organs together.
Large numbers of under garments and the weight of over dresses limited her physical mobility (Green, 130). In quite common cases the use of a corset would cause a prolapsed, or sagging, of the uterus. Physicians alleged that it was possible for the uterus to invert and protrude from the vagina. One of the most famous “remedies” of the time was to insert a pessaries, or mechanical supports, into the vaginal cavity to help support the uterus (Green, 122). Her clothing could be seen as a way to weaken her already delicate ways. True feminine genius is ever timid, doubtful, and clingingly dependent; a perpetual childhood,” (Lavender, 3). George Burnap describes a woman’s weakness in his novel, 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, perseverance, 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 herself (Welter, Cult, 159).
Such views at the time were commonplace and one popular saying reiterated: “A woman has a head almost too small for intellect but just big enough for love” (Lavender, 3). The final virtue of the Cult of Domesticity was domesticity itself. A “true woman” was expected to stay at home and provide an environment that encouraged stability, morality, and democracy. The harder outdoor labor was for the men and the lighter household work and childcare was for the women (Myth). Inside the home women performed “housework”, a term coined around 1871 in America (Cowan, 18).
A woman’s work would often consist of cooking, cleaning, and childcare, all of which were expected to keep the woman unthinkingly occupied. Writing in 1864, author and home-maker Lydia Child states: “In addition to daily cooking and cleaning, I had to also can fruit, care for numerous sick children, mend clothing, and sew linens for the home” (Myth). These statements gave way to other women thinking that in order to keep their husbands away from the evils of the outer world they would have to keep a beautiful, cheerful, peaceful home. For the “true woman,” a woman’s rights were as followed: 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 (Lavender, 3). As stated in her rights, one of a woman’s high worth was that of keeping the household clean and tidy. It was said that making beds was good exercise, and the repetitiveness of routine tasks created patience, perseverance, self-discipline and proper management of the home (Welter, Cult, 165). One of the most important functions of woman as comforter was her role as a nurse. The sickroom called for the exercise of her higher qualities of atience, mercy, and gentleness as well as her housewifery arts (Welter, Cult, 163). Nursing the sick, especially sick men, not only made a woman feel useful and accomplished, but increased her influences. As a use of humor in Godey’s “MY WIFE! A Whisper” a man confessed that some women were only happy when their husbands were ailing so that they might have the joy of nursing him to recovery (Welter, Cult, 164). Thus, the home was no longer a unit valued for its function in the community, but rather for its isolation from the community and service to its members (Lavender, 3).
Not unlike the “science” used to prove blacks inferior to whites, “science” was used to determine male superiority to females. Nineteenth Century medicine was far from understanding the human body as we do today; doctors agreed that the body only had a limited amount of “life force” that could not be increased, only expended (Lavender, 5). Entering womanhood, puberty took much of this “life force” from a woman; so in order to preserve the rest, women were allotted rest for longer periods of time than in their prepubescent years, and were told to avoid the taxing “brain work” of reading and education (Green, 117).
From now on all thought and energy would be focused on mother hood and childcare, a woman’s true calling. In a passage of Mary Wood-Allen’s What a Young Woman Ought to Know it states: I would like to call your attention to the great evil of romance-reading, both in the production of premature development and in the creation of morbid mental states which will tend to the production of physical evils, such as nervous hysteria, and a host of other maladies which depend upon disturbed nerves.
Romance-reading by young girls will, by this excitement of the bodily organs, tend to create their premature development, and the child becomes physically a woman months, or even years before she should (Green, 118). It was said that if a young girl reached the physical being of womanhood before her first menses, it would cause great pain in her future of childbearing; because if women did not form some sort of 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.
The knowledge that woman menstruated seemed to suggest that women were physically incapacitated during each month, and would, unless unchecked, draw a woman into periodical insanity. Clearly women were inferior to men who were not incapacitated every month by “illness” (Lavender, 4). Also, a science called Phrenology, the ability to read bumps, curves and shapes of skulls, was said to determine a person’s character, and came to the conclusion that sexual instinct was strong in men, but absent in women.
Phrenology also determined that women were very childlike and dependent. It was clear to phrenologists who studied cranium that “woman is a constantly growing child, and in the brain, as in many other parts of her body, she conforms to her childish type. ” (Lavender, 5) In addition to her cranial shape was her nervous system. Due to the fact that the female nervous system was finer and more irritable, it was prone to overstimulation and fatigue, in sync with her “unpredictable nature. ” Visible differences also contributed to the sense of female inadequacy.
A woman’s petit size, lack of obvious strength, and smooth skin also contributed to the male dominance (Welter, Dimity, 59). Doctors of this time also concluded that any illness that a woman suffered from was due to a “reflex irritation;” any ailment was originated from the female reproductive system (Lavender, 4). The reason for “reflex irritation” was due to the fact that it was the organ of love and maternity, the woman’s true calling, and if she was not loved enough it could cause damage (Welter, Dimity, 60). If one, therefore, had a headache or stomachache it was due to a problem in the reproductive system.
By this conclusion women were only susceptible to one illness; her gender (Green, 117). Women were also deemed intellectually inferior to men however, sufficient data for this inquiry was lacking. Even though when cranial capacity was calculated men had more capacity, when ratios were developed on the size of the brain to body weight, female ratios were revealed higher than males (Welter, Cult, 71). In order to fix this problem and make sure men were dominant in this category, the correlations were changed to related brain weight to body height.
The calculations came out so that the male brain produced . 73 ounces of weight per inch of height, while the female brain only produced . 70 ounces per inch of height (Lavender, 4). However we now know in today’s medical society that brain size to body weight and brain weight to body height have no correlation to each other what-so-ever. The attempt to scientifically prove women inferior to men was a reaction to the fear of the growing women’s movement which was made up of strong, independent women demanding their rights.
A debate over women’s education was questioned at this time. Many thought it would take away from “wifely duties,” (Welter, Cult, 166). However if a woman did go to school she was always taught by other women. This was partially due to the suspicion that if a woman was taught by a man, her brain wouldn’t be able to handle his supreme intellect (Cott, 115). Many men at the time had a fear of the “blue stockings,” a term used by men to describe an educated woman, losing her connection with the Lord (Welter, Cult, 167).
To prove the sentiment of men further, a young woman at the time, Susan Alden Bradford writes: I am acquainted with a sensible girl who is anxious to improve her mind, but her father, instead of commending her design, endeavors to convince her that all knowledge, except that of domestic affairs, appears unbecoming in a female. An acquaintance with domestic affairs is certainly of the highest importance, but is a female in general so totally engaged by the business of the family, as to find no time for cultivating the mind (Cott, 111)?
The female seminaries were quick to defend themselves against any suspicion of interfering with the role which nature’s God had assigned to women. So to satisfy both parties many female schools incorporated basic education skills along with “domestic skill” classes (Cott, 113). Catherine Beecher agreed that women should be educated, but only so that they could better perform their womanly duties (Cott, 115). Women would have a thorough education in religion, in how to be a cheerful wife, and in how to cope with poverty, and other useful domestic affairs (Welter, Cult, 169).
Lydia Maria Child, a pronounced female writer at the time, wrote in her novel The Frugal Housewife: Dedicated to Those Who Are Not Ashamed of Economy that: Young ladies should be taught that novelties like music and painting are useful for no more than parade and attraction. Extravagance was also greatly frowned upon. It was seen to encourage a frivolous lifestyle and leave young men and women unprepared when misfortune strikes (Welter, Cult, 168). Ms. Child also stressed that economy needs to be taught, like religion, early on so that men and women would not be desperate when in a poor financial situation.
The ideals expressed by these two women were established in order to try and form the prefect wife, accustomed to chores instead of science and frivolity (Cott, 108). Few people during the nineteenth century saw or supported female education, as it was a way for women to try and achieve independence and freedom from their proper sphere (Welter, Dimity, 71). The Cult of Domesticity truly provided a conservative view of the rights and capabilities of women. The Cult of Domesticity convinced numerous women that they were simply tools for a bigger picture designed by God, and were dependent on the strength of their men.
As the supporting of domestic education did increase literacy rates in women, the cult could never really produce truly educated women, only women that could make superior wives. Even in today’s society we can see remnants of this historical social trend, from TV shows like “Martha Stewart” and “Rachel Ray” to views on pregnant teenage girls. The Cult of Domesticity stressed and reinforced the ideals of female inferiority through religion, “scientific studies”, and the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century.