I’m reading Rebecca Traister’s book, All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation, and stumbled upon a historical movement called the cult of domesticity, or the cult of true womanhood (“cult” meaning “culture”).
I was hooked.
Barbara Welter’s well-known essay, “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860,” defines “true womanhood” like this:
The attributes of True Womanhood, by which a woman judged herself and was judged by her husband, her neighbors and society could be divided into four cardinal virtues — piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity. Put them all together and they spelled mother, daughter, sister, wife — woman. Without them, no matter whether there was fame achievement or wealth, all was ashes. With them she was promised happiness and power.
This sounds precisely like the patriarchal and complementarian rhetoric of my teenage years, but it comes not from today’s “back to the Bible, back to the family” movement but from the American cult of domesticity. In “Notes on The Cult of Domesticity and True Womanhood,” Prof. Catherine Lavender explains:
When husbands went off to work, they helped create the view that men alone should support the family. This belief held that the world of work, the public sphere, was a rough world, where a man did what he had to in order to succeed, that it was full of temptations, violence, and trouble. A woman who ventured out into such a world could easily fall prey to it, for women were weak and delicate creatures. A womanʹs place was therefore in the private sphere, in the home, where she took charge of all that went on.
Sounds familiar? This is the grandmammy of patriarchy and complementarianism — the separation of the “masculine” sphere and the “feminine” sphere. The woman dare not work outside the home because that placed upon her the burden of Adam’s curse. Her sphere was creating a home, a haven from the world for a work-weary husband and guests, made more beautiful and refreshing by her homemaking talents like bread-baking and crocheting.
I ought to know. I wrote for a site called Raising Homemakers as a stay-at-home daughter.
Speaking of which, do you remember patriarchy’s odd emphasis on feminine handicrafts? As a teenager, I went through a program called Keepers at Home, which was like a patriarchal version of Girl Scouts complete with sash and badges. We learned skills like baking (from scratch), quilting, and basketweaving. Other badges included macrame, crewel embroidery, and paper piercing — obscure handcrafts in need of Googling.
There’s nothing wrong with obscure handcrafts, of course, but it seems fishy to me that such obscure handcrafts are part of a young ladies’ homemaking program subsumed under a larger organization called Keepers of the Faith. For the longest time, I wondered why anybody would link homemade bread (homemade bread, mind) with ultimate feminine virtue.
Answer? The cult of domesticity. Women taught other women more elaborate feminine arts to occupy the free time afforded by modern appliances and conveniences:
Everyday tasks were made more time-consuming and taxing, so as to better fill the days of women who might otherwise grow restive and attempt to leave the house. As Godey’s Lady’s Book helpfully informed readers, “There is more to be learned about pouring out tea and coffee than most young ladies are willing to believe” (Traister, 45).
I felt that restiveness myself. Homemaking bored me to tears. I was far more interested in working with the abstract concept of stay-at-home daughters, the theology behind it and the apologetics of it, than with actually making a quilt or baking cookies. I never wanted to live in Jane Austen’s world like the majority of my stay-at-home acquaintances, because her life of chatting, walking, pouring tea, dancing, repeat, repeat, repeat seemed so meaningless.
I wasn’t alone. The second-wave feminists felt the exact same thing. Laura Turner, in “The Good Wife: How the Cult of Domesticity Still Reigns in the 21st Century,” quotes Betty Friedan on this kind of homemaking devoid of options for intellectual growth, work, or hobbies outside of the feminine arts: “What kind of a woman was she if she did not feel this mysterious fulfillment waxing the kitchen floor? She was so ashamed to admit her dissatisfaction that she never knew how many other women shared it.”
(I remember puzzling over one woman’s comment of how she identified herself as the “Queen of the Home” — which is equivalent to the cult of domesticity’s “Angel of the Home” — and felt the height of success whenever she gets her home in order. Now, I resonate with the sense of satisfaction that comes from crossing off a to-do list and making a stinky bathroom smell like citrus, but I wouldn’t publicly, proudly identify that as one of my personal successes. But then again, I see housework only as a necessary evil, not as part of my womanhood.)
Ironically, only wealthier women achieved this “true womanhood” of leisurely homemaking. As Jeanne Boydston points out in “Cult of True Womanhood,” the majority of women, even middle-class women who bought into the cult of domesticity, did just as much back-breaking dirty work as their husbands:
…wives cooked, cleaned, laundered, sewed, nursed sick family members, took care of their children, and performed a host of other labors. … But nineteenth-century Americans were eager to represent the “home” as distinct from the increasingly exploitative “work place.” With economic value calculated more and more exclusively in terms of cash and men increasingly basing their claims to “manhood” on their role as “breadwinners,” women’s unpaid household labor went largely unacknowledged.
There’s some truth to patriarchal homemakers’ claims: running a home is no small feat. Even in my own little apartment, I find myself constantly picking up, washing dishes, prepping meals, figuring out finances, and doing a host of mind-numbing necessities — and I do wonder how Erich and I will get it all done once both of us start working full-time. So yes, homemaking is hard work deserving of praise.
But the lie in patriarchal homemaking is that this work is, for women, somehow easier than Adam’s curse of labor outside the home — hard enough that nobody can replace a homemaker, of course, but leisurely enough that women find time to put on a fresh face of makeup, tidy up the house, and have supper and a happy countenance on once hubby walks through the doors.
Fact or fiction aside, the cult of domesticity found this sort of leisurely homemaking suitable for the fragile female sex: “It certainly cannot be affirmed, as a historical fact, that [the right to choose one’s profession] has ever been established as one of the fundamental privileges and immunities of the sex,” Justice Joseph Bradley argued against a married woman seeking to practice law apart from her husband on the basis of the Fourteenth Amendment (Traister, 53). “The paramount destiny and mission of women are to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother.”
His rule, no doubt, followed the practice of English common law called coverture, where “a woman’s legal, economic, and social identity was ‘covered’ by the legal, economic, and social identity of the man she married,” Traister explains (41). She quotes William Blackstone’s chilling interpretation of coverture here:
…the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband: under whose wing, protection, and cover, she performs every thing. … A man cannot grant any thing to his wife, or enter into covenant with her: for the grant would suppose her separate existence; and to covenant with her, would be only to covenant with himself” (41).
It’s just too coincidental that complementarianism and patriarchalism emphasize the headship of husbands over their wives and the necessity of “covering” women, married and single, with male protection and guidance throughout their everyday life and spirituality. Some patriarchal voices (I’ve forgotten who, but the Botkin girls are suspect) took this so far that they encouraged single women without a husband or father to take cover under their own brother’s protection. Yikes.
I give them props for following their beliefs to their logical conclusion, at least. Many patriarchalists and complementarians get stumped while figuring out how to apply a middle-class, married, white women’s paradigm onto single women.
The cult of domesticity had a familiar answer for that too — the cult of single blessedness: “The ‘singly blessed’ were presumed to be pious vessels whose commitment to service, undiluted by the needs of husbands or children, made them perfect servants of god, family, and community” (45).
Of course, their services were limited to the “feminine” tasks of teaching, nursing, and the like — which is ironic, considering in 1800, men made up 90% of teachers, even for young children (47). Even as unmarried, women’s destinies and occupations were wrapped around benefiting the family and aligning with a pre-determined definition of “feminine nature.”
As part of that “feminine nature,” the cult of domesticity encouraged a fixation on female purity uncannily similar to today’s purity culture. Welter notes that “the marriage night was the single great event of a woman’s life, when she bestowed her greatest treasure upon her husband.”
To protect this treasure, the cult of domesticity catastrophized the consequences of extramarital sex; in literature, loose women were shamed, punished, and portrayed as less-than-women. Anyone who has witnessed a youth pastor describing foregone purity as “chewed-up gum,” a “crumpled paper heart,” or a “defiled rose” knows exactly what I’m talking about.
Of course, women then, as they do now,
assured young ladies that although they were separate, they were equal. This difference of the sexes did not imply inferiority, for it was part of that same order of Nature established by Him “who bides the oak brave the fury of the tempest, and the alpine flower lean its cheek on the bosom of eternal snows” (Welter).
In no way, then, are today’s complementarianism and patriarchalism returns to culturally unbiased Biblical principles. They’re a defense of a white, middle-class, American concept of femininity, masculinity, and family. Much of Christianity’s complementarianism and patriarchalism seems almost identical to this cult of domesticity, from marriage advice to flower arranging. (Read Welter’s full article if you don’t believe me.)
As Lavender summarizes,
The middle‐class family came to look at itself, and at the nuclear family in general, as the backbone of society. Kin and community remained important, but not nearly so much as they had once been. A new ideal of womanhood and a new ideology about the home arose out of the new attitudes about work and family.
Focus on the Family, the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, the Family Integrated Church movement — all zero in on the importance of the nuclear family and the roles men and women must fulfill in order to maintain it.
This explains the hysteria often surrounding the egalitarian and complementarian debates. To many complementarians and patriarchalists, egalitarianism breaks down the roles underpinning the nuclear family, thus destroying society and the church.
As Rev. Mr. Stearns put it back then, “Yours is to determine whether the beautiful order of society…shall continue as it has been” or whether “society shall break up and become a chaos of disjointed and unsightly elements.” Today, John MacArthur argues in “On the Subordination and Equality of Women,” “I think Satan is feverishly involved in upsetting the divine order any way he possibly can.”
That’s why Christianity resists egalitarianism, and that’s why women themselves, though their desires and skills may lend themselves to something other than being a wife, mother, and 24/7 homemaker, cling to even the most abusive forms of patriarchalism.
“Who Can Find a Valiant Woman?” was asked frequently from the pulpit and the editorial pages. There was only one place to look for her — at home. Clearly and confidently these authorities proclaimed the True Woman of the nineteenth century to be the Valiant Woman of the Bible, in whom the heart of her husband rejoiced and whose price was above rubies.
With this historical perspective, we get the opportunity of taking a good hard look at American Christianity’s teachings on gender and home life. Did they really come straight from the Bible — or were they ripped right out of a nineteenth century women’s magazine?