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The Cult of Domesticity or Cult of True Womanhood (named such by its detractors) was a prevailing view among upper and middle class white women during the nineteenth century, in Great Britain and the United States.
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 northeast, 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 Barbara Welter, author of the influential essay on this topic, "The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820–1860" (American Quarterly, Vol. 18, No. 2, Part i (Summer 1966), pp. 151–174), True Women were to hold the four cardinal virtues:
- Piety – believed to be more religious and spiritual than men
- Purity – pure in heart, mind, and body
- Submission – held in "perpetual childhood" where men dictated all actions and decisions
- Domesticity – a division between work and home, encouraged by the Industrial Revolution; men went out in the world to earn a living, home became the woman's domain where a wife created a "haven in a heartless world" for her husband and children.
The Cult of Domesticity identified the home as the "separate, proper sphere" for women, who 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.
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 womanhood...is 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."
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.
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.
- Welter 1966, 152.
- Welter, B (1966). "The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820–1860". American Quarterly 18 (no.2, part 1): 151–174.
- Welter, Barbara (1977). Dimity Convictions: The American Woman in the Nineteenth Century. Ohio University Press. ISBN 0-8214-0352-4.
- Dubois, Ellen Carol and Lynn Dumenil. Through Women's Eyes; An American History. Boston: Bedford/St.Martin's, 2005.
- Lavender, Catherine. "The Cult of Domesticity and True Womanhood". City University of New York. Archived from the original on 2010-06-13. http://www.webcitation.org/5qSpeC32T. Retrieved 2010-06-13.
- Ellis, Sarah Stickney (1843). The Women of England, their Social Duties and Domestic Habits. J. & H.G. Langley.