In her book for women entitled, A Treatise on Domestic Economy: For the Use of Young Ladies at Home and at School, author Catherine Esther Beecher clearly defines what makes a good and capable wife and how women can best conform to these standards she sets forth. Interestingly, nearly every aspect of this instruction booklet is geared toward how women can help others and make them more comfortable and happy. Outside of a few discussions about a woman’s health (which must be protected so the woman can keep up with her housework) there are few elements that concern the woman as a whole person. In other words, this tract glorifies the woman’s position as the head housekeeper in addition to her tasks as a wife and mother—both of which can easily be seen as full-time jobs in themselves. Furthermore, throughout her Treatise, Beecher continually makes reference to the fact that her text is aimed at girls in school who are learning the sciences and other advanced topics, whether at all female schools or not. The message implicit then, is that these women are learning without seeing a culmination in their education; she is not anticipating them to ever move forward or realize benefits as a result of their education; what this suggests is that Beecher sees every woman’s end as in the home as a domestic servant to her husband and children. In other words, this book implicitly states that a woman’s ultimate end, regardless of her circumstances, education, or inclination, is in the home.

Unlike the more casual and lighthearted approach to preaching the virtues of domesticity, Beecher’s text is strict and offers little in the way of humor or ease. This is meant, as suggested by the secondary title “For the use of young ladies at home and at school" and provides stringent training that provides no sympathy for their aches, pains, and ailments, as typically these are the fault of the young wife who does not know how to keep her energy up between her many tasks. In an effort that seems to attempt to legitimize her text and separate it from the more good-natured ladies books of the time, Beecher terms the subject of this instruction book a science and suggests it should share “equality with the other sciences in female schools. This should be done because it can be properly and systematically taught, not practically, but as a science, as much so as political economy or moral science or any other branch of study because it embraces knowledge" (Beecher 6). By placing this scientific subject in the curriculum with “men’s" studies such as political studies, Beecher is attempting to create her own genre of women’s textbook in line with her views about what should be essential knowledge for all women. This is a much different approach than the ladies books, for instance, which preach their message in a more lilting, casual, and less direct manner that might be more appealing to women readers. As modern scholars note of this period, “it was the mission of domestic science to fill the domestic void and thus preserve the home" (Ehrenreich and English 156) and books such as Beecher’s did just that in their way of creating a legitimate science out of housework rather than treating it as a side issue among other duties.

Beecher takes her concept of domestic economy as a science and applies it to physical and medical reasons why women should keep busy with housework. At one point, when talking about the value of exercise to dispel any nervous conditions, Beecher suggests that young women should not be permitted to go outside and take a walk for exercise, but instead would experience better health benefits if they stayed indoors and got exercise through housework. As she suggests, “Young girls can seldom be made to realize the value of health, and the need of exercise to secure it, so as to feel much interest in walking abroad when they have no objective in mind. But, if they are brought up to minister to the comfort and enjoyment of themselves and others by performing domestic duties, they will constantly be interested and cheered in this feeling of usefulness" (Beecher 131). She puts ideas like these in the context of medical and scientific information about how exercise is vital for the body and essential for good health but she does not recommend any tasks outside of housework and staying indoors, making themselves useful to their children, husbands, and families. What this seems to suggest is that Beecher sees a woman as tied to the home only without reason to leave her house, except perhaps to perform religious or volunteer-related duties—acts of Christian charity.

In yet another domestic book extolling the virtues of a great housekeep (among other things, of course) by Lizzie Torrey entitled, The Ideal of Womanhood; Or, Words to the Women of America many of the same themes appear that did throughout Godey’s Lady’s Book and the many works by Beecher during this era. Torrey states in her preface that the aim of her book is to, “arouse some of her sex, to a sense of their true dignity, and the sublime and noble destiny they have it in their power to achieve" (Torrey 3). What is interesting about this opening is that it both suggests that is complete inevitability for women in that they have a destiny, but that it is a destiny that they should have to achieve. This suggests that women were not only confined by “destiny" to their role as housekeepers, among other roles, but that they had to work hard to do this perfectly. In this and other texts written for women aimed at helping them become master housekeepers, there is never a sense that women cannot, unless ill, manage to keep up with all that is required of them. Instead, they are supposed to strive for perfection—and Torrey’s book is a perfect example of this. Torrey repeatedly paints one tableau after another depicting scenes of the ideal domestic woman. In one instance she suggests, “there is no spectacle so beautiful and lovely as that which is presented by dutiful, loving, and obedient children. They make home a paradise. The father’s football, as he returns from his business, is hailed with exclamations of joy, and his approach is greeted with embraces and kisses as they regard the mater familias as a kind of Divinity at whose shrine they delight to offer the sweet worship of love" (Torrey 150).

In other words, when the husband comes home, as Torrey has suggests, to the haven of domesticity where the house is immaculate and well-decorated, the wife and children should literally “worship" at the feet of the father as the ruler of the home. Her choice of the word “mater families" harkens back to language used to define elements of the strictly patriarchal Roman home that Torrey uses in her text as a symbol of ideal gender relations, despite its heathen traditions.
While our modern era and its various movements and progression towards greater equality, as well as numerous other social forces, have done away with piety, sexual purity, and overt submissiveness in large part, the last part of the ideas of the cult of domesticity cling on tenaciously. Although the majority of women in America hold either full or part-time jobs, studies have shown repeatedly that at home, those with children and husbands are responsible for a disproportionately large share of that which falls under the heading of “the domestic." While there are exceptions, women are responsible for not only contributing financially through wage labor, when arriving home, they are also expected to handle the unpaid labor such as laundry, childcare, cleaning, “beautifying the home" and many of the same elements that tie in from the 1820s until the Civil War.

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References

Beecher, Catherine Esther. A Treatise on Domestic Economy: For the Use of Young Ladies at Home and at School. New York: Harper Brothers, 1856.

Ehrenreich, Barbara, and Deidre English. For Her Own Good: Two Centuries of the Experts’ Advice to Women. New York: Anchor, 2005.

Hale, Sarah J.. “Twelve Reasons.” Godey’s Lady’s Book Feb. 1857.

Matthews, Glenna. Just a Housewife: The Rise and Fall of Domesticity in America. Cambridge: Oxford University Press, 1989.