True Womanhood/Cult of Domesticity

An Excerpt from ‘Angels and Monsters in the House. Essays on Womanhood in 19th Century America’ by Simona Porro

1. True Womanhood/Cult of Domesticity

In a manual entitled Female Piety, or a Young Woman’s Friend and Guide Through Life to Immortality, published in New York in 1853, Congregationalist preacher John Angell James wrote that

‘woman was the finishing grace of the creation. Woman was the completeness of man’s bliss in Paradise. Woman was the cause of sin and death to our world. The world was redeemed by the seed of the woman. Woman is the mother of the human race; our companion, counselor, and comforter in the pilgrimage of life; our tempter, scourge, and destroyer. Our sweetest cup of earthly happiness, or our bitterest draught of sorrow is mixed and administered by her hand. She not only renders smooth or rough our path to the grave, but helps or hinders our progress to immortality. In heaven we shall bless God for her aid in assisting us to reach that blissful state; or amidst the torments of unutterable woe in another region, we shall deplore the fatality of her influence. (1)

This text was among the numerous edifying publications, which rolled off American presses in the mid-to-late nineteenth century, urging female readers to cultivate the virtues of piety, purity, submission, and domesticity. (2 ) These four attributes became the cornerstone of an ideology first conceptualized by historian Barbara Welter as ‘True Womanhood’ in her seminal monographic study Dimity Convictions (1976). (3 )
‘True Womanhood’ provided a narrative through which women could invest their existence and their role in the world with meaning and purpose. In Victorian America, in fact, middle- and upper-middle-class women were not admitted to centers of public power; being relegated to the private sphere, namely, the domestic milieu, they had only one socially respectable function (4) – that of a wife and mother – while the masculine sphere of action was the public one, the realm of business and politics.
This rigid role differentiation, which affirmed the social supremacy of men over women, was allegedly sanctioned by God and by nature as well. Being divinely ordained, it would tolerate no refutation. From a sociopolitical viewpoint, this ethos, which has been referred to also as ‘The Cult of Domesticity’(5), can be construed a unifying ideological force, which was instrumental in providing order and stability in the country at a time of massive social, political, and economic transformations.

2. The Republican mother

Barbara Welter, who employs the manuals of conduct published in the mid-nineteenth century to show how the ideology of ‘True Womanhood’ was purveyed, observes that the wifely role was not only about subservience and compliance. Marriage, in fact, was also deemed an opportunity for women to rise in status. (6)
In The Sphere and Duties of Woman: A Course of Lectures, Unitarian minister George Washington Burnap states that marriage elevates the female character not only because ‘it puts her under the best possible tuition, that of the affections, and affords scope to her active energies, but because it gives her higher aims, and a more dignified position’. (7) As a consequence, it was in middle- class women’s best interest to promote and secure the Cult of Domesticity, as it was the only way for them to gain some power, even if it was limited to the private sphere.
The natural consequence of marriage was motherhood, which was regarded as an additional source of social prestige. From the 1790s to the first decades of the 1800s, a new emphasis was, in fact, placed on women’s responsibility for the moral and religious training of children in the domestic environment. This phenomenon invested motherhood with a new political meaning, thus giving rise to the concept of ‘Republican Motherhood’.
Historian Mary Beth Norton states that citizens of the new Republic sincerely believed that the success of the newly formed country was firmly based on the collective and personal virtues of the population. What is more, she concurs (8) with Linda K. Kerber’s claim that women expressed their political voice within the homes as nurturers and supporters of patriotic values, which they went on to instill in their children.(9)
Given that the future of the Republican society was entrusted to mothers, a failure in this supremely important function might have serious, if not downright catastrophic consequences.

1 John Angell James, Female Piety, or a Young Woman’s Friend and Guide Through Life to Immortality (Whitefish: Kessinger Publishings, 1853; repr. 2007), p. 7.
2 Barbara Welter, ‘The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860’, American Quarterly, 18.2 (1966), 151–174 (p. 152).
3 Barbara Welter, Dimity Convictions: The American Woman in the Nineteenth Century (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1976).
4 Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America (New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), p. 23.
5 Mary Ryan, The Empire of the Mother: American Writing about Domesticity, 1830-1860 (New York: Haworth Press, 1982), p. 41.
6 Welter, Dimity Convictions: The American Woman in the Nineteenth Century, p. 6.
7 George Washington Burnap, The Sphere and Duties of Woman: A Course of Lectures (Baltimore: J. Murphy, 1848), quoted in Welter, Dimity Convictions: The American Woman in the Nineteenth Century, p. 6.
8 Mary Beth Norton, Liberty’s Daughters (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1980), pp. 243, 248.
9 Linda K. Kerber, Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980), p. 11.

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