Cult of Domesticity
In her study of the evolution and development of the construct of womanhood in the period from 1820-1860, historian Barbara Walter describes the cult of true womanhood as an extremely important aspect of the cultural environment of the early nineteenth century. During this period, the notion that the world was divided into two separate “spheres” belonging to men and women respectively was enormously influential. Although these two spheres may overlap minutely at times, they served to differentiate the type of activities that were socially sanctioned for each gender.
In other words, men could increase their perceived masculinity by engaging in activities and behaviors popularly assigned to the sphere of men, while women’s femininity was bolstered by their involvement within their own socially-defined “sphere.” Conversely, men or women who did not appear to be committed to or interested in those activities and behaviors defined as belonging to their sphere were deemed to be unmasculine or unfeminine, and such deviation from the prescribed norms could not be tolerated during this era. For women, failing to display the characteristics identified with the women’s sphere meant being classified as a social pariah.
Through this cultivation of domesticity, women were to form the moral foundation of their family. During this era, increased attention was paid to tasks that previously had not been thought to merit mention in the moral sphere. Daily functions such as rearing children, nursing ill family members, and even cleaning began to be regarded as means of engendering a nurturing, comforting, morally uplifting environment in the home, and cultivating a positive home environment became a highly important part of the social expectations placed upon women in the nineteenth century.
Although Welter focused her discussion on the forty-year period of 1820-1860, the ramifications of the cult of true womanhood and the cult of domesticity were by no means limited to this brief span. To the contrary, the specter of the cult of true womanhood remains a persistent force in the way that femininity is defined today. While a much wider range of female behaviors are tolerated within the current sociocultural context, the ideal characteristics ascribed to feminine women fit to serve as a wife and mother are still largely informed by the nineteenth century virtues of piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity.
Reconciling with this value system would prove to be a particular challenge for the massive influx of female immigrants that would arrive in this country in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. The daughters of immigrant families were often forced into the precarious position of trying to achieve an American femininity that could be harmonized with the traditional gender roles of their native cultures. This conflict was directly addressed in Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, as the author contrasts the differences between Chinese and American femininity and her efforts to adopt the appropriate mode of behavior in various situations.
Further, in The Joy Luck Club and Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers, the female protagonists seek to carefully negotiate the concepts of femininity espoused by their native cultures and America, trying in vain to satisfy the expectations of both simultaneously by appeasing their families while seeking wider social acceptance.
The nineteenth-century social and cultural factors that coalesced to equate the cultivation of domesticity with true womanhood have had a longstanding influence on the way that gender roles are constructed in America, even today. Although many of the specific historical events that Welter described no longer exist, the equation of domesticity and femininity persists, in slightly modified form, nearly 200 years later.