Cult of Domesticity: Definition & Significance

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  • 0:00 Definition Of Cult Of…
  • 0:50 The Ideal Woman - The…
  • 1:30 A Woman's Place - The…
  • 2:55 Significance Of The…
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Erica Cummings

Erica teaches college Humanities, Literature, and Writing classes and has a Master's degree in Humanities.

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. 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
Godeys Ladys Book, fashion plate

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