“The profession of ladies, to which the bent of their instruction should be turned, is that of daughters, wives, mothers, and mistresses of families.”
– Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1830
The Cult of Domesticity was a value system popular among the upper and middle classes in the 19th Century.
While it had many tenets, the movement focused in part on the evils of materialism. Proponents saw a home life led by women as the best way to teach classical republican virtues, including moderation and simplicity.
You might wonder how this became the job of mothers. Fathers had long been the primary religious instructors, but they no longer had time as they began working away from the home for 60 hours a week.
Plus, mothers had fewer obligations than in the past. They tended to have fewer children and bought factory-made goods. Also, due to increased immigration, households were more likely to have servants.
“Let us not inoculate [children] with the love of money. It is the prevailing evil of our country.”
– Lydia Sigourney, 1838
Cult of Domesticity advocates believed that society must return to the virtues of classical republicanism, including a focus on morality, not material goods.
Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, reminded readers that “there are objects more elevated, more worthy of pursuits than wealth.” She claimed, “We shall show the various economical and intellectual benefits of a just simplicity.”
It turned out that most women were more interested in finery and high society than in teaching and practicing simplicity, however.
If you’ve read my other posts on Minimalists on History, this will sound familiar. Time and again, efforts to build a society focused on virtue – rather than – materialism have failed.
Other tenets of the Cult of Domesticity
Many readers will cringe at some of the teachings of Cult of Domesticity. All women were to have 4 cardinal virtues: piety, purity, submission and domesticity.
Society expected them to focus only on running their households, rearing their children and caring for their husbands, not on their own happiness or careers.
In fact, some believe the real purpose of the Cult of Domesticity movement was to keep women at home so they wouldn’t take part in the women’s rights movement.
The Cult of Domesticity is also known as the Cult of True Womanhood. I didn’t find any books about it at my library, but it is mentioned in The Simple Life: Plain Living and High Thinking in American Culture by David Shi.
The Cult of Domesticity Today
I’ve not read it, but in my research for this post I came across a book about domesticity today, Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity.
It’s an interesting topic to me since I enjoy many of the domestic activities listed in the book, such as crafting, baking bread and making soap. I make time for friends and family and try to live more sustainably. I’m also a professional (a lawyer).
I wonder how many of the women living during the Cult of Domesticity were happy to spend their time on domestic pursuits and how many felt forced into the lifestyle. If you’re a history buff knowledgeable about this era, please chime in with a comment.
For purposes of this discussion, let’s ignore all the tenets of the Cult of Domesticity except domesticity and simplicity. I don’t want this to turn into a heated political discussion.