Cult of Domesticity for APUSH®
About the Author: Warren Hierl taught Advanced Placement U.S. History for twenty-eight years. He has conducted 250+ AP US History workshops for teachers. He was a member of the committee that wrote the original Advanced Placement Social Studies Vertical Teams Guide and the Advanced Placement U.S. History Teachers Guide. He has been a reader, a table leader, and, for the past eight years, the question leader on the DBQ at the AP U.S. History reading.
In other words- Mr. Hierl grades the essays you will write for the APUSH exam.
Cult of Domesticity
The Cult of Domesticity (also known as The Cult of True Womanhood) was a philosophy that sought to define gender roles in the nineteenth century. This philosophy took the position that there were “separate spheres” that regulated gender roles in American society; the philosophy was largely accepted by the middle and upper classes. Fundamentally, the cult held that a women’s place was in the home where her superior virtue was to create a strong morally uplifting environment for her children and husband, whereas a man’s place was in the more corrupting and violent world of work and public affairs where he alone should support the family.
War, Women, and Strength
Prior to the American Revolution, women were viewed by many as weaker and morally inferior to men. During the American Revolution, women undertook an expanded role of managing their homesteads and providing support for the Revolution. This expanded role for women represented a challenge to the traditional view of women. Slowly, the education of women became more important and the idea of “republican motherhood” emerged. It was believed that republican mothers should be educated in the values of republicanism and democracy so that the principles on which the American Revolution was based could be passed on to future generations. It was thought that as the primary educator of their children, women were in a unique position to ensure that their children would be raised with civic virtue instilled in them, thus becoming solid citizens.
This expanded role for women represented a challenge to the traditional view of women. Slowly, the education of women became more important and the idea of “republican motherhood” emerged.
Economics and Homemaking
The emergence of a national market economy in the nineteenth century led to the decline of home production as men took jobs in the manufacturing and commercial sectors. This meant that middle and upper-class women were no longer agents of production and could concentrate on creating a nurturing home environment. In this role, it was believed that women had superior moral virtue to men and this was demonstrated by domesticity, piety, purity, and submissiveness. If women moved outside this role, for instance by engaging in politics or public speaking, they were said by many to “unsex” themselves. Viewed from today’s perspective, the “cult of domesticity” seems condescending and chauvinistic. It should be remembered that the cult of domesticity was something that middle and upper-class women aspired to. Poor women, particularly poor immigrant women, worked long hours in dangerous conditions for low pay, and, they had nothing else to look forward to their entire life but dangerous jobs for low pay. Many lower-class women aspired to tend to a home, because it was a stable, safe, secure place for daily life, much to the contrary of working a dangerous factory.
It should be remembered that the cult of domesticity was something that middle and upper-class women aspired to. Poor women, particularly poor immigrant women, worked long hours in dangerous conditions for low pay.
The home environment envisioned by the cult of domesticity may have been what they aspired to and what they longed for, but it was clearly a pipe dream. The possibility of attaining that status was limited to the upper-middle class and above. Even working, native-born white women, such as the “Lowell girls”, viewed employment as temporary until marriage offered a chance at social mobility. As did many Victorian values, the idea of the cult of domesticity clearly offered class distinction designed to definitively elevate some above others. Many magazines of the time, such as Godey’s Ladies Book and Peterson’s Magazine, reinforced the notions of the cult and pictured idyllic portrayals of nurturing home environments.
As did many Victorian values, the idea of the cult of domesticity clearly offered class distinction designed to definitively elevate some above others.
No All Accept
However, the cult of domesticity was by no means accepted by all women. The experience of an expanded role for women during the American Revolution left many women unsatisfied with the confining role of republican mothers and housewives. As well, the emerging abolitionist movement offered an opportunity for women to exert their virtue and purity for a moral cause, lobbying, and speaking out in public. Activists, like Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, encountering gender discrimination as they attended the London Anti-Slavery Conference in 1840, determined to push for a breakdown of the notion of separate spheres that would allow women greater freedom. Ultimately this led to the Seneca Fall Convention in 1848 that pushed for equal rights, including suffrage, for women. Sentimental novels by women authors such as Catherine Sedgwick and Susan Warner (who Nathaniel Hawthorne described as among “…a damn mob of scribbling women…”) emphasized the problems women had coping with societal values while longing for greater personal autonomy.
The experience of an expanded role for women during the American Revolution left many women unsatisfied with the confining role of republican mothers and housewives.
Women in the Gilded Age
The cult of domesticity persisted into the Gilded Age as the elite sought to clearly distance themselves from lower social classes. However, as higher educational opportunities for women increased, many college-educated women sought to utilize their education by stepping outside of the traditional women’s sphere. Many of these women emerged highly trained and anxious to put their education to meaningful use only to find a set of societal values that squashed those hopes. Some, like Jane Addams and Charlotte Gilman, suffered from nervous illness with the remedy of “rest cure”.
The cult of domesticity persisted into the Gilded Age as the elite sought to clearly distance themselves from lower social classes.
The rest cure embodied the cult of domesticity’s belief that women were fragile, submissive, and ill-suited for intellectual pursuit. These women were put to bed, fed, and massaged, and prohibited from engaging in intellectual activities; in other words, they assumed the role traditionally expected of women as helpless creatures who needed nurturing. Relatively quickly these women challenged the traditional social mores and became passionately involved in social work. Furthermore, women were instrumental in their advocacy of progressive reform culminating in the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment granting women’s suffrage in 1920. As well, technological advancements in the late nineteenth century such as the telephone and typewriter also provided acceptable jobs for native-born white woman. This resulted in an erosion of the rigid walls of the separate spheres and opened up more opportunities for women.
Furthermore, women were instrumental in their advocacy of progressive reform culminating in the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment granting women’s suffrage in 1920.
Quiet… But Not Dead
However, the cult of domesticity was by no means dead. While the breakdown of the idea of separate spheres allowed a degree of choice for women that was not previously accessible, many women chose to remain within the confines of the domestic sphere. Periodically the notions of the traditional role of women became an acceptable societal stereotype in different eras. Particularly in the 1950s, society presented the notion that the role of the ideal women was very similar to what it had previously been during the heyday of the cult. These notions of domesticity, subordination, and passiveness were reinforced by magazines like Housekeeping Monthly (that published The Good Wife’s Guide) and sitcoms such as Leave It to Beaver. The reintroduction of the cult of domesticity triggered a reaction that led to the Second Feminist Movement of the 1960s spurred on by Betty Freidan’s The Feminine Mystique.
The reintroduction of the cult of domesticity triggered a reaction that led to the Second Feminist Movement of the 1960s spurred on by Betty Freidan’s The Feminine Mystique.
What emerged from this struggle represented a complete breakdown of the notion of separate spheres limiting the role of women in society. The breakdown allowed freedom of choice for women to accept the sphere of domesticity, to reject it and move into the economic and public sphere, or to opt for a combination of the two viewpoints.
The cult of domesticity attempted to define gender roles in the nineteenth century by limiting women to a domestic sphere. It served as an ideal to which middle and upper-class women could aspire and a means of class distinction. As the education of women and the acceptability of the employment of native-born white women outside of the home became more prominent, the notion of separate spheres began to unravel. While some women remained enthusiastic supporters of the traditional role of women, the shattering of definitive limits of the role of women in society provided significantly greater options for women.
The cult of domesticity attempted to define gender roles in the nineteenth century by limiting women to a domestic sphere.