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The Cult of Domesticity has its roots in the pre-industrial Victorian Era and the rising middle class. It was the woman's role to keep the home fires burning, care for and socialize the children and civilize the man by being the Christian light of the home. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cult_of_Domesticity)
The man (and the man alone) went out in the world to "work" and provide a living for his family. This implied that women were too fragile for the rigors and roughness of the world of work. They were better suited to housekeeping and child-rearing. The nuclear family became the backbone of post-Civil War society in the United States.
The good and proper young woman should cultivate piety, purity, domesticity and submissiveness. As an example, I will refer to Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. Scarlett O'Hara was not a very good example of the good and proper young woman. However, Melanie Hamilton Wilkes has a backbone of steel and is a prime example of a good and proper woman of this time period. Melanie volunteers at the hospital and cares for the confederate wounded maintaining her composure at even the worst war wounds. This amazes her sister-in-law Scarlett who at times is revolted by the unsanitary conditions.
The Cult of Domesticity or Republican motherhood refers to the idealization of women in their roles as wives and mothers. It suggested that women would be responsible for rearing their children to be virtuous citizens of the new American republic. Women could have a positive moral influence on the American political character.
Women must not be loud. Women must conduct themselves with reserve. Women must be celibate prior to marriage. Women must never allow themselves to be raped. Women must not overexert their intellect. Women must set an example of supreme piety. Women must serve their fathers, husbands, and brothers. Women must be docile, and they must remain in their naturally designated space, for if they wander, they are no longer considered a True Woman.
The Cult of True Womanhood, or Cult of Domesticity, is a Victorian gender ideology under the broader and older marque of the Separate Spheres dogma. Its philosophical premise holds that men are predestined, by biology, anatomy, and God to occupy the public spheres of politics, economics, commerce, and law, while women were intended to inhabit the private sphere of domesticity, child-rearing, religious education, and leisure. At the epicenter of this thought, feminine virtue was conceptualized as an embodiment of four gendered values: piety, sexual purity, submissiveness, and domesticity. The Cult of True Womanhood was didactic by nature and became an unofficial component of Protestant doctrine. Its set of principles was most strongly distributed and enforced by upper and upper-middle class white Protestants in 19th century England, and was broadcasted by women’s magazines such as Godey’s Handbook and Peterson’s Magazine.
Problematized by exclusivity, which is epiphenomenal to its overt sexism, the Cult of True Womanhood creates a glut of women in liminal positions. It is focused on a feminine ideal reserved for a privileged demographic, and neglects to account for orphaned girls, women of low socioeconomic station, or women of color. A substantial portion of England’s female population was somewhat freed by their otherness, being removed from the sphere which claimed ownership to the ideology, but was still beneath its imposing pressures. Many of those who did not measure up to the contrived ideal were categorized as ‘redundant women,’ a term coined in the later half of the 19th century to describe unmarriageable women. After the 1851 United Kingdom Census, Victorian thinkers became aware of the state’s rapidly growing population and saw issue in the disproportionately large number of females compared to males. Redundant women were the superfluous members of their sex who would be left unmarried as a consequence of the scarcity of men. This created a social climate of heightened competition among women, who were expected to compete for ‘desirability’, or ‘mariageability’, and avoid becoming redundant women at all cost.
Regardless of its exclusivity, the Cult of True Womanhood became a dominant norm in Victorian culture at large and affected what constituted propriety, even for women it never intended to consider. It became what all English women were expected to strive for, but naturally did not reign supreme without opposition. In early pockets of feminist social criticism, women often disguised their cries of rebellion in crafting symbolically intricate works of fiction. Women writers like Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George Eliot, Jane Austen, and Charlotte Bronte created heroines who conflict with the patriarchal dominance of a gendered dichotomy which suppressed them. Their opposition was not always manifested as radical actions, but was commonly woven into subtext and semiotics.
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