Christianity and the Cult of Domesticity

nineteenth century woman

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.

Welter concludes,

“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?

17 thoughts on “Christianity and the Cult of Domesticity

  1. Frannie Duncan

    Hi, Bailey,

    I’m so curious … I would consider myself a traditionalist who follows (what I believe) the Bible speaks (which often makes me quite modern and non-traditional). I don’t consider myself a complementarian or patriarchal though I probably share similar opinions.

    I’m a mixture of so many things. I’m non-denominational, embrace Catholics as Christians, share many beliefs of the Anabaptist, believe women have the same calling as men (namely, to glorify God with whatever passions, skills, or paths He gives), yet fully believe married women serve best when they follow their husband’s lead (which may mean one staying home or working full-time depending on the situation).

    So, why is it that women cannot be both keepers of their home *and* continue to use their talents, gifts, and passions? Why does there have to be a separation? To me, it seems patriarchal thought says a woman shouldn’t do outside things while egalitarianism says a woman should never be required to be at home despite Scripture encouraging and exhorting woman to do so.

    A married woman isn’t required to love mopping floors yet she is required to keep her home which requires some mopping. Similarly, a man does not need to find his work exhilarating and satisfying; he simply needs to provide. (As well as other responsibilities.)

    It seems there is an imbalance both sides cling to. But maybe my understanding is off?


    • Bailey Steger

      Great questions! I think the reality, for everybody, man or woman, is that it’s hard to “have it all.” It’s hard to be a parent, take care of the home, and have any outside interests or jobs. Patriarchalists solve that problem by insisting that the emphasis should be on women exclusively staying home to take care of the house while men exclusively provide; egalitarians solve that problem by emphasizing that each spouse, regardless of gender, ought to do whatever housework, hobby, and career suits their personalities, interests, and needs of the couple. Both ideologies try to split the workload in different ways.

      Many less-extreme complementarian women work outside the home and/or pursue other interests as well as taking care of the home, and many egalitarian women stay home with children and tend to the house, so while the ideologies seem polarized, actual people tend to do whatever works best for their family.

      I think your disconnect with egalitarianism is that egalitarians don’t see anything in Scripture (keeping in mind the cultural limitations placed on women) that *requires* women to be the “keepers of the home” while men must be the breadwinners. So that’s not even something they’re trying to factor in when it comes to figuring out how to “have it all.”

      In other words, yes, your solution of “take care of the house AND do your own thing!” seems the most sensible one between two extremes if we’re trying to balance work/hobbies with women’s role as housewife. But egalitarians don’t even play that game. We don’t believe in gender roles, so to us, it’s not a matter of figuring out how to balance Biblical roles with our own interests; it’s just a matter of doing whatever you feel called to do.

      Does any of this make sense?? haha


      • Allison Caylor

        Bailey, I’d like t to offer a quick suggestion since something in your comment piqued my interest. You’ve mentioned before your belief that some instructions in the Bible are merely cultural, not meant to endure for the church universal. I would love to see a post explaining more in depth how you reached that conclusion. Or if you’ve already done that and I missed it, I’d appreciate a link.

        I do enjoy your blog. Your posts always set me thinking. :)


  2. authenticvirtue

    Thank you — that does seem to make more sense to me.

    It’s an interesting thought, that egalitarians choose not to see gender roles as well as Scriptural prompts for said roles. What do egalitarians do with the Scriptures which (perhaps culturally) promote men being responsible for the financial well-being of the family and wives responsible for keeping the home?

    I wonder if personality types have more to do with this than theological worldview or beliefs on gender roles? For example, I am an ISFJ (according to the Myers-Briggs testing) and need tradition; I crave roles, traditions, and the stop lights. I need boundaries — it helps me understand and view the world around me (even if I disagree).

    Yet, there are personalities who disdain such things.


    • Bailey Steger

      Here’s an egalitarian response to Titus 2: I’m not familiar with any Scriptures making men solely responsible for the financial well-being of the family. :)

      I would definitely agree that certain personality types can make people more prone to exploring and accepting other beliefs, though I personally base my egalitarian beliefs on primarily theological reasons. I’m a J too, so I typically like traditions and boundaries! But my theological beliefs monitor which traditions, roles, and rules I follow.


      • authenticvirtue

        Do not patriarchals and such believe the same thing? That the Proverbs 31 woman was to be imitated in both her active, skilled labor and homemaking skills?

        It seems that all these labels just slow things down. Why can’t women follow Scriptural principals as well as glorify and enjoy God with their talents and personalities?

        I’m so confused. ;)


      • Bailey Steger

        Stop making things so simple! haha No, seriously, I like the way you think. God’s commands are not burdensome. Technically, patriarchalism agrees with you — but then only encourages the cultivation of the feminine arts, self-employment like running an etsy shop or a farmer’s market booth, and intellectual pursuits rooted in making you a better helpmate to your husband (if any intellectual pursuits at all). If a woman’s hobbies, interests, or work takes her away from the home (beyond something like selling her homemade merchandise at a fair), it’s not seen as something a godly woman should pursue. So yes, they would agree that women should be allowed to glorify and enjoy God with their talents and personalities, like you said, but it’s expected that those talents, personalities, and interests align with a predetermined idea of godly womanhood. A true godly woman wouldn’t go off to college like I did or work full-time as a schoolteacher like I am, for instance, though some forms of patriarchalism wouldn’t have a problem with women taking college classes from home or maybe a couple community college classes, or volunteering as a teacher’s aid a few times a week.

        Sadly, many people do not think like you, who seem to have a firm grasp on your own personhood as well as a desire to honor God. Many people live by rules, ideologies, and stereotypes because they can’t conceive of any other way of living. That’s the sad reality of why things have labels and why I feel compelled to talk about them as such — because people define themselves according to these labels, rules, and ideologies and don’t know how to break free.


  3. korie

    This is fascinating. I read it twice.

    I have a question about this quote: “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.”

    This is stating that, previously, kin and community were important, but a shift occurred, and the nuclear family was valued, rather than family/community in general?

    On an unrelated note, I would love to hear your thoughts on purity culture, and what an appropriate alternative is.


    • Bailey Steger

      That’s what I interpreted it as saying — the nuclear family over community. I think it has to do with the fact that the middle-class home became more privatized even as the workplace became more publicized. Instead of multi-generational farms or close-knit village communities, there were now suburbs. The nuclear family became more isolated. But that’s just how I understood the quote.

      Purity culture. Ugh. It makes sex out to be dirty and singles out women to preserve their virginity as a treasure for their future husbands. There’s rarely (if ever) any talk about consent, sex education, and the sexual abuse prevalent even in Christian homes and communities. This is what I’ve said elsewhere of what I’m teaching any future children:

      (1) Sex and genitals are not shameful. We won’t use euphemisms. We’ll say “sex,” “penis,” and “vagina” without shame and without blushing.

      (2) The reason the Bible warns against sexual promiscuity is because it can be damaging to *oneself* and to *others* — not because sex is wrong or because we need to arbitrarily maintain an abstract purity. Rape, assault, adultery, and otherwise cheating your partner with fake sexual intimacy is what’s wrong. Having sex isn’t the sin; wounding yourselves and others is.

      (3) Physical affection is a necessary part of intimacy, and it’s appropriate to show the physical affection corresponding to the intimacy of your relationship. If you’re not dating, express physical affection like you would any friend. If you’re dating, some flirtatious physical contact is normal. If you’re seriously dating/engaged, kissing and cuddling is normal. And if you’re married, sex is the physical expression, reserved for marriage lest you defraud your partner and/or get pregnant and are unable to provide a stable family for the baby.

      Perhaps this seems too loose, but the purity culture didn’t keep me and my now-husband from breaking the myriad of boundaries it suggested, either. We were serious about not having sex before marriage; we were serious about showing physical affection corresponding to our level of relationship, even if they broke evangelical purity rules; we achieved both goals; and we don’t regret any of it. :)


      • korie

        Thanks for the detailed reply!

        I’m right there with you on the issues with purity culture. The emphasis on virginity and purity can cause people bring so much shame into marriage.


  4. Rebekah

    I find a lot of satisfaction in doing housework, although I don’t always love it. Yet I think it’s obviously absurd for the cult of domesticity and the patriarchal movement to basically demand that women find it fulfilling. When I was growing up, both of my parents were deeply invested in keeping our house clean, tidy, and welcoming, and, of the two of them, my dad clearly is the one with more of an inborn tendency to keep up the house. My mom does it as more of a necessity, while my dad is by personality and upbringing a worker (he is from a farming community in Northwest Ohio). I am incredibly thankful to have spent my childhood watching my father do dishes, clean bathrooms, dust, straighten and organize items, and more, and to have never been told that the burden of domestic tasks should entirely or mostly fall on women.

    And thanks for the Godey’s Lady Book quotation and the Betty Friedan quotation. As a person who loves Jane Austen and crafts that are nonessential to life (I spend hours cross stitching), I know that pouring out of a teapot does actually require a lot of practice, and I think that it’s very fun to learn. But saying that such tasks are practically biblically proscribed duties for women (or that they’re somehow reflecting God’s design for women by doing such things)? Silly.

    I’ve loved that Friedan quotation for a while because, although I am a person with a growing sense of fulfillment in making my house neat and inviting, it seems clear that not every woman is going to feel that way. And how can I talk about my own sense of purpose in doing housework without sounding stupidly sentimental? There should be a way to talk about the beauty of housework that addresses Friedan’s critique while avoiding the excesses of the cult of domesticity and the patriarchal movement.


    • Bailey Steger

      I think you found a way to talk about “domesticity” in a beautiful way — by emphasizing the joy *you* find in it. This is actually a problem across the board with people: we tend to make our interests and talents the Objectively Most Awesome and Important Ones, which makes others feel terrible and presents an unhealthy view of our own interests. But you emphasized *what you love* and put it in the context not of being a “Biblical woman” or a “feminist” or a “modern woman” or a “sane person” or whatever labels women want to claim to make their interests superior, but in the context of *being you.* In the context of *being you*, I’m far more interested in learning the art of tea pouring. All that to say, you didn’t sound stupidly sentimental or oppressively patriarchal: you sounded like you, an intelligent, thoughtful person who happens to enjoy doing housework and “nonessential” crafts that are important to *you*! I appreciate your perspective on this. :)


  5. Courtney

    I don’t think my upbringing was quite as complimentarian as you describe your teenage years in this post (My parents are actually more egalitarian) but I had to chuckle a little at the Keepers Of Faith comment. I was literally in that Exact program with a group of other girls in late elementary school/early middle school.

    Overall, I actually enjoyed most of the projects (And hey, I learned how to make bread in the process!), but it did have a very odd and noticeable focus on homemaking in retrospect.

    Kind of a random comment, but It’s always neat finding fellow bloggers with similar life experiences. Blogging is the place to share stories – right?😂😂👊


    • Bailey Steger

      Really? I’ve never met anyone else who went through that program! I too enjoyed learning all the new things. I’m not artsy-crafty or domestic by any means naturally, so it was good to stretch myself. Yes! Blogging has been my favorite place of validation: “Wait, you did/felt/experienced this too?? Phew. I thought I was crazy!” :)

      Liked by 1 person

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