The Cult of True Womanhood or Cult of Domesticity came into existence at a time when the US’ social structure was transforming from a two-tiered hierarchy (lower and upper) into a three-tiered (lower, middle, and upper) model. This transformation began in the early 1980s and lasted up to the American Civil War. The cult of true womanhood was a system of beliefs that outlined how a woman should be like and behave. It stated that women should remain at home and take care of the family while their husbands go out to work. In essence, it constrained the women to their homesteads whereby they were expected to carry out all domestic functions and let their men focus on earning an income for the family. This cult also advocated beliefs that women should be perfect wives and mothers. They were also labeled as the moral guardians of society. The church and printed media were the primary proponents of this line of thought. Contrary to the expectations of supporters, the cult of womanhood actually motivated women to engage in the social reform movement of the 19th century.
Impact of the Cult of True Womanhood on Social Reform
The ideal of womanhood had four essential characteristics: piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity. All ‘good’ women were expected to cultivate and practice these values.
- Piety: Americans of the 19th century believed that women should have a particular propensity for religion. Therefore, the modern woman of the 1820s was considered as a certain kind of Eve (Bible’s first woman), working with God to take the world out of sin through her passionless, pure love and suffering. Religion was promoted as a very good thing to all women, a relief for a potentially fidgety mind, a kind of occupation to them.
- Purity: Americans, especially men, highly revered female purity. In the absence of sexual purity, a woman was no ordinary. Instead, she was considered a lower form of human being, unworthy of their love and definitely undeserving of their company. To weigh up the loss of purity brought not only hysteria but also tears to young women at the time.
- Domesticity: A woman’s place was confined to her home and household chores. She was supposed to be active at those tasks that will maintain and fulfill her piety and purity. All other tasks outside her home were left to be left to the men.
- Submissiveness: This was probably the most feminine out of the four virtues. While men were encouraged to be religious, only a few of them actually were. While they were persuaded to be pure, not many people expected them to do so. However, men were never encouraged or expected to be submissive. They were supposed to be movers and actors in life. Meanwhile, women were expected to be passive bystanders and submit to men. Their fate lay in the hands of their men. They were warned that these were God-ordered things to be (Welter 152).
While women’s magazines and books, as well as churches, encouraged this belief of the ideal woman in the 19th century, other social forces were at work that impelled women to change so that to play a more central role in society. Contrary to the proponents, the very perfection of the domesticity movement carried within itself the roots of its own destruction. Some women came to understand that if they were considered little less than angels, then they should play a more creative role in running the society. The motivation to participate in events was fuelled by the chaos that was being caused by men.
Out of the four characteristics, the virtue of purity appears to have remained throughout much of the 19th century. As such, it was perhaps the least important in transforming the history of women in the United States. The other three were dynamic, thereby giving women ideas that allowed them to activate manipulate their visions and, thus, their history and fate. One use women made of the cult was to broaden their domesticity through relief work and charity. The number of charitable groups expanded significantly in the 1820s and 1830s. Involvement in these activities ensured that women could not be tethered exclusively to their private homes.
Another way that the gender ideology encouraged women to participate in social reform was that it compelled them to bond in women-only settings. The belief system, by limiting the sphere of women, had meant that women could only meet in family, social, church, and group settings. However, this only motivated them to bond with one another. During the 1830s, they were centrally involved in religious work and charitable endeavors. Some of them assumed the role of missionaries. In the 1840s, their meetings went beyond discussing the religious agenda. Most of them engaged in social issues at the time such as the abolition of slavery and women’s education. Some feminists at the time formed study clubs to educate women. This would later inform their social reform efforts (Thomas 1).
As it would be expected, many privileged women were bothered by the restrictions placed on them by the gender ideology. Nevertheless, this ideology was not challenged extensively until the late 1940s. Still, women found within the ideology’s boundaries some openings for confidence building and action, especially through its emphasis on their responsibility to serve others and educate children. For instance, successful women writers used literature to raise awareness on public issues even as they used the platform to convey their opinions on important social issues at the time. Even though the women’s suffrage movement of the mid 19th century did not gain adequate traction for several decades, women who contributed to sanctioned publications or became members of acceptable church and women organizations started to make a difference (Stansell 326). Such women would play a central role in the abolitionist movement and the fight for women’s education.
One woman who used her influence to mobilize women to fight for equal rights was Elizabeth Candy Stanton. Just like other privileged women, Elizabeth was against the ideology that barred women from professions and prevented them from attending college. She also did not approve of the perception that women who went against the cult of true women were chastised since they were considered indecent. In the 1830s, Elizabeth went to Troy Female Seminary, the only place she could receive the best education specifically tailored for women. After marrying Henry Stanton, she moved to the small town of Seneca Falls. While there, she was starved of intellectual companionship. Even though she was a successful writer, she was never given the respect that her talents deserved. Elizabeth was dissatisfied with the role that women like her had been assigned within the community. As a result, she was determined on expanding women’s rights and enhancing their position in society (Accessible Archives 1).
Through her activism, Elizabeth was able to unite women to stand against male oppression. Alongside Lucretia Mott, she successfully organized the first-ever meeting for women’s rights in the United States. The gathering was held in 1848, at Seneca Falls. Just like the Declaration of Independence, this women’s rights movement came up with the Declaration of Sentiments, which essentially demonized oppression by men. Even though it took decades before women could be granted equal rights to women, the seeds for women’s activism had been sowed at this meeting.
The cult of true womanhood had extensively promoted the idea that women are supposed to be religious. This notion had far-reaching consequences for the fight against slavery in the mid 19th century. While feminists were quick to point out that the gender ideology had curtailed their rights, a significant portion compared their plight to that of African American slaves. Consequently, the women’s rights movement at the time also doubled up as the abolitionist movement. Most of the early women abolitionists were Quakers (Christians). While men had formed abolitionist movements prior to the 1820s, women were barred from joining such groups. During the 1830s, Lucretia Mott tried to join the Quaker movement but she received stiff opposition from men. Her experience demonstrated how oppressive the male dominant society was. Thus, other feminists used her plight to draw parallels between the treatment of women to that of slaves. To advance their advocacy, these women used religious teachings.
The end of the American Civil War marked the end of slavery within the United States. Even though women did not fight in the front line, their activism and efforts played a crucial role in the victory of the Northern forces. Even though this victory did not bring gender equality, it paved the way for more activism by women that expanded their rights considerably. For example, they were able to attend colleges in the later decades.
While the cult had restricted the role of women in their homes, some important events meant that they had to participate in economic development. For example, the United States (especially the North) underwent rapid industrialization in the 19th century. This compelled free women in working-class households to get into labor. Some of them worked as street vendors, garment workers, tavern keepers, etc. Starting in the 1820s, young women provided the labor force for textile factories. Some women even became breadwinners of their families. For instance, the women’s rights crusader was a very successful editor and supported her family financially. Harriet Beecher Stowe earned more than her professor husband. This turn of events is not what supporters of the cult of true womanhood had envisioned.
The cult of true womanhood had placed firm restrictions on women. For example, they were supposed to be submissive to their husbands and accept their fate. They were also expected to remain at home to nurture their families. However, this gender ideology did not completely silence them. Instead, it motivated them to engage in social reform. Through religious gatherings and charity events, women educated each other found a common voice, and fought against male oppression. Comparing their plight to that of slaves, they also stood against this practice. Other events such as industrialization meant that they could not simply depend on their husbands. Thus, while the cult of true womanhood was aimed at pulling women down, it ended up giving them a platform to cause a revolution in society.