From around 1820 until the American Civil War, the United States underwent rapid changes due in large part to the growth of mass industrialization. This era produced an unprecedented rise in the wealth and led the establishment of a firm and rather populous middle class. This class was made up of male breadwinners and women were left at home to tend to the children, take care of the home, and to perform related tasks–a set of roles that women have had a difficult time changing, even in modern times.
Around this home-based center of women’s lives arose the “Cult of Domesticity” which was a movement that was influenced almost exclusively by popular women’s magazines and the art and commentary they contained. Although the primary tenants of the cult of domesticity were wide-ranging and involved more general issues such as the proper way to raise children, conduct social events, and communicate with one’s husband, for instance, housework and women’s duty of upkeep is a constant presence. While women’s magazines were lighter fare and more dedicated to art, poetry, and prose in their exploration of themes related to domestic life, they nonetheless made it implicitly clear what a woman’s duty and sole purpose in life was. Other books that spawned from this moment approached a woman’s capacity for domestic life, child-rearing, and housework as a social science worthy of a female student’s academic focus.
Before addressing some of the texts that were widely read by women of the period in question, which was from the mid to late 1800s, it is necessary to provide some historical context. First of all, the woman as the “domestic goddess” who kept her home lovely, her husband happy, and her children well-raised with pious, strong values did not exist prior to industrialization. In fact, in their more economic take on women’s shifting relationship with domesticity, Ehrenreich and English suggest that market forces alone accounted for the shift in women’s perceptions of themselves as part of this emerging “cult of domesticity.”
“Before the industrial revolution, there had never been any question about what women should be doing in the home. Eighteenth and early-nineteenth century rural woman (and most women then were rural) weren’t just making apple pies and embroidered samplers; they were making bread, butter, cloth…and other things essential to their families’ survival” (Ehrenreich and English 142). With the arrival of a dominant market as opposed to rurally-based and home-centered “economy” which consisted of a family producing its own goods, women were free to use the money their husbands made to buy the same products that used to consume so much of their time at home previously.
These conditions created a situation altogether unique in American history for women—they were finally granted some free time. However, since industriousness was valued among the top traits in any potential wife, this free time was put to use beautifying the home, volunteering, or acting in accordance with values espoused by the Bible. It was within this timeframe that the cult of domesticity emerged. It was never a distinct movement with texts specifically devoted to it and this term “cult of domesticity” itself is one that has been applied by relatively modern scholars rather than the women participants. This was a loosely-defined movement that was both sustained and maintained by literature and art in women’s magazines and books.
One of the most prominent and widely-read of these was Godey’s Lady’s Book, which over the course of two decades, rather clearly spelled out women’s duties to her home, husband, children, and god. “At its height, Godey’s had a circulation of 150,000 with a growth paralleling the growth of the domestic novel. Unquestionably, Hale was one the two or three most influential American women of the nineteenth century” (Matthews 43). While one could argue with the assertion about the influence of Hale, it is clear that she had enormous sway with her publication and used it as a jumping-off point for many of her own ideas, which included the very distinct notion of women’s and men’s spheres as entirely separate. The sphere that women belonged to had complete emphasis on the domestic and is known as the “cult of domesticity.”
The main tenants of the cult of true womanhood were piety, sexual purity, submissiveness to the desires of men, and domesticity—an umbrella term that includes the widest number of related elements, such as housework, child care, and home arts such as crafts and general beautification of the home. Many of the same elements relating to a woman’s duty in her home spilled over into the mainstream and inspired many other writers to approach similar topics in an effort to coach women how to best serve their husbands and raise their children in line with these views.
One of the most revelatory passages in Godey’s Lady’s Book that best and most efficiently reveals many of the salient features of the importance of domesticity as the end goal of a woman’s life was written by the editor. Sarah J. Hale was the editor of the magazine and as such, had a feature that was present in every issue that generally addressed one or two issues for contemporary women. One particular break from that tradition appeared in her detailed list with the long title, “Twelve reasons why more attention should be given to the more general diffusion of physiological and hygienic knowledge among the present and prospective mothers of our country; and why ladies should be educated for the practice of medicine among their own sex and children.” In this list of twelve issues all women must understand, whether they are mothers or young unmarried girls, are contained the most salient features expressed within the cult of domesticity. While some of the matters discussed in her list have to do with proper medical education, through every item on the list, multiple implicit values such as piety, purity, value for domestic duty, the raising and nurture of children, are addressed. For the purposes of this paper, since a full exploration of this list would require a book-length discussion, only a few elements of the list will be used, one of which concerns the purpose of a young woman’s education when her true path and ultimate end is using none of the sciences or academic knowledge in her life as a caretaker of her home and children. To this, Hale puts as number two on her list; “Because the education of a woman is not generally conducted with regard to her natural disposition as a wife and mother” (Hale 1857).