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The Good Wife: How the Cult of Domesticity Still Reigns in the 21st Century

On the cost—and subtle persistence—of the cult of domesticity.
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(Photo: ipag/Shutterstock)

Thomas Day just wanted to find a wife. He had tried all the usual ways—Day had been educated at Oxford and met plenty of eligible young women, sisters of his peers, including one to whom he became engaged. But Day was not a charming man, and his demand for perfection in a companion combined with his disdain for personal hygiene quickly ended that affair. He moved on to other women who also showed no promise, although he needn’t have waited long. Day was living in an era—the mid-18th century—that was in the process of setting up a structure that would turn every woman into the domestic goddess he sought, both submissive and good in the kitchen.

Before we had drones and personal computers and vacuuming robots, America had the spinning jenny. And the cotton gin. And steam power. The Industrial Revolution saw the creation of all kinds of gadgets that made it easier for people to do quick, repetitive work, and moved the locus of production from the home to the factory, and from the farm to the city. Along with its newfangled inventions and urban emphasis, the Industrial Revolution ushered in a new era in gender relations in America and Europe, an era in which men became the ones who left the house to make money and the women stayed behind to care for it. Men had historically been the earners of their families, but this time they were paid not in favors or food but in cash, which was newly tied to the gold standard. This further stratified society into those who made money and those who didn’t. This was the beginning of one of the longest-lasting, furthest-reaching, and most terrifying cults in American history: the cult of domesticity.

Thwarted in his search for the perfect woman, Day decided he would create his ideal wife by adopting two young orphans and molding them into submissive, virtuous, and meek young women, selecting one of them to become his wife. The two girls—Ann Kingston and Dorcas Car—were renamed Sabrina and Lucretia and trained by Day in the ways that a woman should be. Day prized female virtue and purity, inspired by the work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who wrote in his novel Emile, or On Education that women should be weak and passive, and “early learn to submit to injustice and to suffer the wrongs inflicted on her by her husband without complaint.”

Day and Rousseau lived in the 18th century, at the very beginning of the school of thought (and practice) that would come to be known as the cult of domesticity. In Emile, Rousseau argued that “The search for abstract and speculative truths, for principles and axioms in science, for all that tends to wide generalization, is beyond a woman's grasp; their studies should be thoroughly practical.” In other words, women should stay home and attend to the demands of her household—laundry, cooking, children—avoiding more lofty, intellectual pursuits. Rousseau was encouraging the virtue of domesticity, one of four virtues that comprised the cult of domesticity (or the cult of true womanhood, if you were really sold on it). The other three virtues, according to historian Barbara Welter, were piety, purity, and submission.

Henry F. Harrington called the suffragettes “semi-women, mental hermaphrodites.” The message was clear: Reject the role of submissive wife and you can never be truly a woman.

Women’s magazines and religious literature were two of the primary ways the cult of domesticity was promulgated; kitsch aimed at wives was a third way the message got across. (The female-centric kitsch we see today—coffee mugs and T-shirts and magnets proclaiming that it’s “wine o’clock!” and “don’t talk to me until I’ve had my coffee!” are descendants of this way of thinking: Women are still in charge of the home, only now it stresses them out.) Magazines like Ladies’ Companion and Godey’s Lady’s Book established in the public conscience the idea that women ought to care primarily about the care of their homes for the sake of their families. Religious literature turned the words of progressive feminists against them, as in the poem “The Rights of Women:”

The rights of woman! What are they?
The right to labour, love and pray,
The right to weep with those who weep,
The right to wake when others sleep.

In her 1850 letter to the Ohio Convention, Elizabeth Cady Stanton railed against the cult of domesticity when she suggested that women’s involvement in politics could have kept America out of its “aggressive warfare” with Native Americans and put an end to the slave trade. Stanton’s underlying premise was that men were the sole benefactors of the American Revolution, which had given them autonomy. Women, meanwhile, were frozen in time with little autonomy of their own, as the cult of domesticity only formalized what had been true for decades already.

Along with Stanton, other women resisted the cult’s strictures and, in so doing, incurred the wrath of its gatekeepers. In an 1838 article in the Ladies’ Companion, the Reverend Henry F. Harrington called such rabble-rousers “semi-women, mental hermaphrodites.” The message was clear: Reject the role of submissive wife and you can never be truly a woman. That rhetoric isn’t unlike some of what we hear today, when feminists are called oppressive or ugly as a way of reminding them that, with their views, they can never be “real” women.

The literature of the day reflected the dividing line between public and private, male and female, office and home. “Ah! There is nothing like staying at home for real comfort,” Jane Austen’s Emma Woodhouse declared. One of the most famous texts of this era was a poem called the "Angel in the House," written in 1854 by Coventry Patmore. Patmore extolled the virtues of a woman called Honoria, believed to be based on his wife Emily, and offered general commentary on the gender roles dictated by the cult of domesticity: “Man must be pleased; but him to please / Is woman's pleasure.” The wifely Angel was pure, devout, and, above all, knew her role.

The cult of domesticity encouraged women to envision the home as their place of industry: The kitchen their factory; their children their test subjects; quiet efficiency their ultimate goal.

The development of the cult of domesticity also leaned heavily on religious principles. It drew especially from a chapter of the Bible at the end of the book of Proverbs, which reads in part:

A capable wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels.The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain.

She does him good, and not harm, all the days of her life.

Both Proverbs 31 and the "Angel in the House" decry the vice of “unthrift” in wasteful women, and both extol the virtues of resourcefulness and fear of the Lord. The chapter in Proverbs also praises the capable wife for her strength, service to the poor, and wisdom—virtues that weren’t exactly considered Angelic at the time, and weren’t included in the poem.

Stanton eviscerated the notion of the angel in the house: “Men like to call her an angel, [and suggest she] needs their care and protection. Care and protection? Such as the wolf gives to the lamb.” Coventry Patmore’s view of women—indeed, the popular view of women throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries—is what led Virginia Woolf in a 1931 address to say, “Killing the Angel in the House was part of the occupation of a woman writer.”

More than one historian has pointed out the importance of the timelessness of female virtue in an age when society was rapidly changing. The Industrial Revolution thrust society into an advanced and confusing state. Men weren’t quite sure whether their jobs would exist the next day, but they could take some comfort in knowing they would always come home to a patient, gentle, submissive wife. The cult of domesticity encouraged women to envision the home as their place of industry: The kitchen their factory; their children their test subjects; quiet efficiency their ultimate goal. In times of national turmoil, one could take comfort in the fact that the angel would always be in the house.

Of course, different groups of women had different experiences with the cult of domesticity. Women of color, immigrants, and poor women were largely ignored by the movement. “[T]he cult of domesticity was simply not feasible for many poor women, especially immigrants and women of color, who had few opportunities to enjoy the private sphere and relative leisure assumed to be available for the ideal True Woman for domestic duties," wrote Susan Hill Lindley in You Have Stept Our of Your Place: A History of Women and Religion in America. Women who were the first or second in their families to live in America also brought with them traditions inherited from their country of origin, which may or may not have involved purity, submission, piety, and domesticity. In her autobiography Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs writes: “I wanted to keep myself pure; and, under the most adverse circumstances, I tried hard to preserve my self-respect; but I was struggling alone in the powerful grasp of the demon Slavery.” Inasmuch as the cult leaders thought of the individual women who made up their adherents, they were mostly white, Protestant, and wealthy.

The pressures of the Industrial Revolution and 1950s America have been recycled for our modern area. The notion of the home as the domain of the feminine persists to this day.

Jacobs ends her book with an account of her freedom, “not in the usual way, with marriage.” Marriage, for a slave girl, was not associated with freedom; her actual freedom was at stake. So while getting married might have been the pinnacle of a well-off white woman’s life, the arc of the life of a slave girl looked different This was Jacobs’ implicit critique of true womanhood: It wasn’t for everyone. In many regards, feminism itself has suffered from a blinkered focus on the advancement of white women, often at the expense of immigrants and women of color. In 2013, black feminist writer Mikki Kendall created the hashtag #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen on Twitter after observing how “mainstream feminism sideline[s] the concerns and safety of marginalized women.” Leaving women of color out of the conversation about true womanhood has had lasting effects, both in terms of its initial narrow scope and its legacy of exclusion.

The principles behind the cult of domesticity were so far-reaching that in 1890, only 4.5 percent of married women were employed—and only 40.5 percent of single women. (The numbers were especially low among European-Americans; 30 years later, when the numbers were measured again, fully 18.5 percent of married Asian-American women and 32.5 percent of African-American women were employed outside the home, compared with 6.5 percent of European-American women.) Domesticity wasn’t just a sensibility or a vocation; it was an obstacle to female economic participation. Curt Muller, an Oregon laundry owner, was convicted of violating state labor laws when he made a female employee work more than 10 hours in one day. The 1908 Supreme Court decision in the case of Muller v. Oregon found that Oregon’s labor laws, which prohibited women from working more than 10 hours a day, were constitutional, citing public interest in women’s childbearing ability to enforce gender discrimination in the workplace: “[A]s healthy mothers are essential to vigorous offspring,” wrote Justice David Josiah Brewer, “the physical well-being of woman becomes an object of public interest.”

Eighteen years earlier, in 1890, the average annual wage for female workers across all industries was $268. According to that year’s census, there were 17,661,009 women between the ages of 15 and 60 in the United States, the vast majority of whom would have been married (or about to be). If only 50 percent of them had gone to work that year, their collective earnings would have been $2,366,575,206. (And $2.3 trillion in 1890 money is, well, a lot of money.) There are women who, given the choice, would have worked outside the home in the 18th and early-19th centuries. Their wages are lost to time, and to men.


National nostalgia for pre-war days, combined with a return of women from the workplace to the home, conspired to rejuvenate the American cult of domesticity after World War II. Never mind that some women had enjoyed working outside the home while Johnny was overseas; the national threshhold for social progress had been exhausted, and women were encouraged to become more like June Cleaver than Eleanor Roosevelt. It was a version of the cult of domesticity that Betty Friedan was addressing when she wrote about “the problem that has no name” in the Feminine Mystique. “What kind of a woman was she if she did not feel this mysterious fulfillment waxing the kitchen floor?” Friedan asked, responding to the notion that women should not aspire to more than their domestic duties require of them. “She was so ashamed to admit her dissatisfaction that she never knew how many other women shared it.”

Some women would choose to stay, and some would choose to leave, but the place of choice came, paradoxically, from a place of constraint.

In our ever-more interconnected world, women are sharing more and more of their feelings—but it isn’t always dissatisfaction with their role at home. In some ways, websites like Pinterest have become shrines in the new cult of domesticity. Over 80 percent of Pinterest users are female, and boards filled with pristine Restoration Hardware rugs and immaculate floral arrangements can be more tyrannical than inspirational, continuing to exert pressure on women to make their homes a perfect place of rest and repose in this hectic world. The pressures of the Industrial Revolution and 1950s America have been recycled for our modern area. The notion of the home as the domain of the feminine persists to this day.

Another, ironic hardship of life after the cult of domesticity is that women today who choose to stay home and raise children often get hassled for their decision. During the 2012 election season, Democratic pundit Hilary Rosen said that Ann Romney, a stay-at-home-mother, “has never actually worked a day in her whole life.” Quicker than Rosen could say, “I’m sorry,” editorials popped up defending her comments. Rosen's words came at a time when the “mommy wars” have replaced arguments over the doctrine of the separate spheres, but this evolution may be more semantic than significant. The question of whether women can “have it all” is, in many ways, no different from the central question being asked by the cult of domesticity: What is a woman’s role? Now we ask what kind of mommy is best rather than what kind of china we should buy, but the underlying conflict remains, and it pits women against each other.

We can also see this battle being waged in contemporary religious circles. Complementarianism—the notion that men and women occupy different but complementary roles in marriage and society—was a direct antecedent of 19th-century thinking about women. That doctrine still has a foothold among conservative Christians, in local churches and organizations like the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. It is rooted in verses like Ephesians 5:23 (“For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church...”), and gained prominence with the rise of domesticity as a virtue. Complementarianism often looks like a return to 1950s gender roles, and continues to insist in its most extreme forms that women remain at home to raise as many children as they can bear.

The cult of domesticity created a box that stifled women, and continues to do so. But if it relegated women to a restricted area, it also gave them the gift of being able to have their own space. Together, they could share housekeeping tips, parenting advice, and begin to foment a revolution against the patriarchy that had sought to draw the lines for them. Some women would choose to stay, and some would choose to leave, but the place of choice came, paradoxically, from a place of constraint.

Thomas Day never did create the perfect wife. He gave up on Sabrina and Lucretia and eventually married Esther Milnes, an heiress who wrote bad poetry. Day also wrote, mostly children’s books, and died in 1789 when he was thrown from a horse he was trying to train. The horse would have none of it.

Cults and (Sub)cultures is Pacific Standard's series of reported essays on all things cult, from religion to pop culture.