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What is the role of women in society? This has been an important question throughout history. The Cult of Domesticity in 19th-century America was one attempt to answer to this question.

Definition of Cult of Domesticity

When we think of the word ‘cult,’ we might think of mysterious religious rituals and secretive societies. But the ‘cult’ we discuss in this lesson refers more to cultural beliefs about the way society should be structured. The Cult of Domesticity, also called the Cult of True Womanhood, is actually a set of beliefs about gender roles in 19th-century America. The middle and upper class men and women who ascribed to this set of values believed that since men were busy working, women should focus on cultivating a home that is supportive, warm, and virtuous. We will examine three main aspects of the Cult of Domesticity:

  1. The image of the ideal woman
  2. The woman’s proper place in society
  3. Writings that reinforced the Cult of Domesticity

The Ideal Woman – The True Woman

So who was the ideal woman, according to the Cult of Domesticity? According to scholars who have studied this time period, 19th-century Americans called this ideal woman the True Woman. The True Woman upheld four main principles: piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity.

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Combined, these virtues created a woman who could spiritually support her husband, raise good children, and protect the morals of 19th century America. As such, the True Woman was someone that both women and men could and should admire and respect. Here’s a sketch of the ideal True Woman, the British Queen Victoria.

Godeys Ladys Book, Sketch of the ideal True Woman, the British Queen Victoria
Godeys Ladys Book, Sketch of the ideal True Woman, the British Queen Victoria

A Woman’s Place – The Private Sphere

The True Woman was also expected to remain in her place. The Cult of Domesticity divided society into two main spheres: the private sphere and the public sphere. The private sphere was the home front, which was the True Woman’s domain.

The public sphere was the realm of commerce, business, and society. The public sphere is where men belonged. The True Woman belonged in the home where she could create a warm atmosphere to welcome and reinvigorate her husband as he came home from a stressful day in the public sphere. The man would provide financially for his family.

The woman would provide spiritual and moral guidance for the family.Why was separating the private sphere and the public sphere so important to 19th-century Americans? Well, 19th-century American society saw many changes, like advances in technology, increased commerce, and the Civil War. As a result, many people were worried that they would lose touch with their traditional values. They were worried that the modern secular world would distort the purity and integrity of the home. So, 19th-century Americans wanted to keep the private and the public sphere separate, and they believed that women were uniquely qualified to manage and protect the private sphere. This division between the private sphere and the public sphere was supposed to mirror nature, as women were thought to be less intelligent but more nurturing than men.

Significance of the Cult of Domesticity

The values of the Cult of Domesticity were reinforced in many of the popular writings of the time, including literature, sermons, and women’s magazines. Most notably, Godey’s Lady’s Book and Peterson’s Magazine were two popular 19th century women’s magazines that did much to support the Cult of Domesticity. These magazines contained articles on fashion, dance, health, and general ideas for keeping a good home. They also contained poems and short stories by popular writers of the day, like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe. Furthermore, these magazines upheld Queen Victoria from Britain as a True Woman and thus an inspiration to all women everywhere.

Godeys Ladys Book, fashion plate
Advertisement in Godeys Ladys Book
Advertisement in Godeys Ladys Book

Furthermore, some people believed that the qualities of the True Woman made her uniquely qualified to speak out about broader social issues, like slavery or politics. Many women argued that they should have a voice in society precisely because they were thought to be more pure and morally upright than men.

For example, some later supporters of the Cult of Domesticity argued that women should be given the right to vote, which they did not get until 1920, because this would allow them to better protect the interests of the private sphere. So, while modern Americans might rightly find the Cult of Domesticity old-fashioned and restrictive, it actually did improve the status of women to some extent.

Lesson Summary

The Cult of Domesticity was a 19th-century American ideal that defined and celebrated the role of a woman as a housewife and mother. While the man would work and earn money in the public sphere, the True Woman, as she was called, belonged in the private sphere, where she would raise children; run the home; and embody piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity. Many men and women enthusiastically embraced the Cult of Domesticity, which was also popularized by women’s magazines like Godey’s Lady’s Book and Peterson’s Magazine. The Cult of Domesticity restricted women’s role in society, certainly, but it also celebrated women in a way that, at least in part, was a step toward gender equality.

Learning Outcomes

As you finish the video, prepare to set a goal to:

  • Explain what is meant by the Cult of Domesticity
  • Define what was considered a True Woman in the 19th century
  • Distinguish between the private and public spheres and understand why the distinction was so important to 19th-century Americans
  • Recall some writings that helped reinforce the Cult of Domesticity
  • Recognize the significance and impact of the Cult of Domesticity on gender equality

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