The Cult of Domesticity: Definition and History

Victorian woman with flowers
19th century women were expected to be feminine and pious.

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In the middle of the 19th century, the movement known as the Cult of Domesticity, or True Womanhood, took hold in the United States and Britain. It was a philosophy in which women's value was based upon their ability to stay home and perform their duties as wives and mothers, and their willingness to abide by a series of very specific virtues.

Did You Know?

  • The "cult of domesticity," or "true womanhood," was an idealized set of societal standards that became popular with middle- and upper-class women in the late 19th century.
  • Piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity were the mark of femininity during this period.
  • The early cult of domesticity led to the development of the women's movement, in direct response to the standards set upon women by society.

True Womanhood in the 19th Century

Although there was not a formal movement that was actually entitled Cult of Domesticity, scholars have come to use this term to refer to the social environment in which many middle- and upper-class 19th century women lived. The term itself was coined in the 1960s by historian Barbara Welter, who also referred to it by its contemporary name, True Womanhood.

Victorian Family
Victorian family life revolved around domestic pursuits. ilbusca / Getty Images

In this social system, gender ideologies of the time assigned women the role of the moral protector of home and family life; a woman's value was intrinsically tied to her success in domestic pursuits such as keeping a clean house, raising pious children, and being submissive and obedient to her husband. The idea that this was part of women's natural place in the family dynamic was emphasized by women's magazines, religious literature, and gift books, all of which stressed that the way to true femininity was by adhering to a series of specific virtues as guidelines: piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity.

The Virtues of Domestic Life

Religion, or piety, was the foundation upon which a woman's role in the cult of domesticity was built; women were seen as naturally more pious than men. It was believed that it was up to women to present the spiritual cornerstone of family life; she was to be strong in her faith, and raise her children with a strong Biblical education. She was to guide her husband and offspring in morality and virtue, and if they were to slip, the onus of responsibility fell to the wife or mother. More importantly, religion was a pursuit that could be followed from home, permitting women to stay out of the public sphere. Women were warned not to let intellectual pursuits, such as reading novels or newspapers, lead them astray from the word of God.

Purity was a woman's greatest virtue in the 19th century; the absence of it tarnished her as a fallen women, and marked her as unworthy of the comforts of good society. Virginity was to be protected at all costs, and death was considered preferable to the loss of virtue. The gift of a woman's chastity to her husband was something to be treasured on their wedding night; sex was to be endured as part of the sacred bond of marriage. By contrast, if women were expected to be pure and modest, men were expected to try to challenge that virtue at every possible opportunity. It was up to women to keep amorous suitors at bay.

A true woman was submissive to her husband, to whom she was completely dedicated. Because staying home with the family was an integral part of the cult of domesticity, women were wholly financially dependent upon their spouses. It was up to him to make the decisions for the entire household, while she remained passive and supportive. After all, God had made men superior, so it stood to reason that they were in charge. Young ladies were advised to respect their husband's wishes, even if they didn't agree with his opinions.

Finally, domesticity was the end goal of the cult of true womanhood. A woman who considered working outside the home was seen as a unfeminine and unnatural. Ladylike activities such as needlework and cooking were acceptable forms of labor, as long as it was done in one's own home and not for employment. Reading was frowned upon, other than religious texts, because it distracted women from important things like caring for their children and spouse. They provided comfort and happiness, often at the expense of their own silent suffering, so that their menfolk would have a pleasant home to return to each day; if a man strayed and wanted to be elsewhere, it was the fault of his wife for not meeting his domestic needs.

Although all women were expected to abide by the standards of true womanhood, in reality, it was predominantly white, Protestant, upper-class women who did so. Thanks to social prejudices of the period, women of color, working women, immigrants, and those who were lower on the socioeconomic ladder were excluded from the chance to ever be true paragons of domestic virtue.

The Women's Movement in Response to Cult of Domesticity

Victorian woman unpacking her basket in the kitchen
Victorian woman unpacking her basket in the kitchen.  Whitemay / DigitalVision Vectors / Getty Images

Some historians have argued that working-class women who were employed as servants, thus taking them into the private, domestic sphere, did in fact contribute to the cult of domesticity, unlike their peers who worked in factories or other public places. Teresa Valdez says,

[W]orking-class women were subsequently choosing to remain in the private realm. The same study shows that the majority of servants were young single women. This indicates that these women were preparing for their lives as wives and mothers by supporting their father’s household through work in a private home.

Regardless, this social construct of true womanhood led directly to the development of feminism, as the women's movement formed in direct response to the strict standards set out by the cult of domesticity. White women who had to work found themselves excluded from the concept of true womanhood, and so consciously rejected its guidelines. Women of color, both enslaved and free, did not have the luxury of the protections afforded to true women, no matter how pious or pure they might have been.

In 1848, the first women's movement convention was held in Seneca Falls, NY, and many women felt that it was time for them to begin fighting for equal rights. During the second half of the 19th century, when the right to vote was extended to all white men, women who advocated for suffrage were seen as unfeminine and unnatural. By the time the Progressive Era began, around 1890, women were vocally advocating for the right to pursue educational, professional, and intellectual pursuits of their own, outside of the sphere of home and family. This ideal that emerged of the "New Woman" was a direct contrast to the cult of domesticity, and women began taking on jobs in the public sector, smoking cigarettes, using birth control methods, and making their own financial decisions. In 1920, women finally gained the right to vote.

In the years following World War II, there was a slight resurgence of the cult of domesticity, as Americans in particular sought a return to the idealized family life that they'd known before the war years. Popular films and television shows portrayed women as the foundation of the home, domestic life, and childrearing. However, because many women not only maintained their family life but also held down jobs, there was once again resistance. Soon, feminism reappeared, in what historians call the second wave, and women began fighting in earnest for equality once again, in direct response to the oppressive standards laid upon them by the cult of domesticity.

Sources

  • Lavender, Catherine. “ʺNotes on The Cult of Domesticity and True Womanhood.” The College of Staten Island/CUNY, 1998, csivc.csi.cuny.edu/history/files/lavender/386/truewoman.pdf. Prepared for Students in HST 386: Women in the City, Department of History
  • Valdez, Teresa. “The British Working Class Participation In The Cult Of Domesticity.” StMU History Media - Featuring Historical Research, Writing, and Media at St. Mary's University, 26 Mar. 2019, stmuhistorymedia.org/the-british-working-class-participation-in-the-cult-of-domesticity/.
  • Welter, Barbara. “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860.” American Quarterly, The Johns Hopkins University Press, www.csun.edu/~sa54649/355/Womanhood.pdf. Vol. 18, No. 2, Part 1 (Summer, 1966), pp. 151-174