The Cult of Domesticity Directions

Download 26.25 Kb.
Size26.25 Kb.
The Cult of Domesticity

  1. Write answers to the discussion questions for the entry corresponding to your last name. Explain your responses in full sentences.

  1. Last names

A to E—“The Angel over the Right Shoulder”
F- J—Chapter 35 of “The Planter’s Bride

K-S-- Chapter 1 of "Peculiar Responsibilities of American Women"
T-Z-- "Of the Public Function of Woman"

  1. Answer the Topic Framing Questions in complete sentences. Use information from your reading

Topic Framing Questions

  1. How did women of this period define themselves? What stories did they choose to tell?

  2. In what ways did these women exercise—and define—power and influence?

  3. How did the “cult of domesticity” shape the debate over woman’s place in antebellum American society?

  4. In what ways did this debate reflect the prevailing tensions of race, class, region, and religion in American society?

Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, "The Angel over the Right Shoulder," 1852


Online Archive of 19th-Century U.S. Women's Writings Site creator: Glynis Carr, Dept. of English, Bucknell University


This short story about a northern urban woman is the following exchange:

   --Husband: "Don't you wish you had never been married?"

   --Wife, after suppressing a "yes" response: "I should like the good, without the evil, if I could have it."

From this evolves an experiment in which the wife strives to create a life more fulfilling than merely keeping her "house and family in order." After her experiment fails, she has a dream in which the worth of her role as a wife and mother is revealed to her. Phelps, a well-known author of the time who addressed social issues, leads her story to a conclusion that is quintessentially nineteenth-century . . . or is it?
Discussion questions

  1. How does Mrs. James define a "fulfilling life" before and after her dream?

  2. Who is the judge of a woman's success or failure in fulfilling her role? Who or what bestows dignity on her daily duties?

  3. Is Mrs. James reassured or distressed by the message of her dream?

  4. Refer to the discussion questions for Gilman's "The Planter's Bride" to compare these two pieces.

Caroline Gilman, Recollections of a Southern Matron, 1838, Ch. 35, "The Planter's Bride"

Note: "The Planter's Bride" (Ch. XXXV, pp. 250-257) is near the bottom of this web page.

Documenting the American South Site creator: The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Libraries


Bostonian Caroline Gilman moved to South Carolina in 1819 with her minister husband, and twenty years later she wrote two books to contrast the domestic lives of northern and southern women (the first entitled Recollections of a Housekeeper). In this chapter, Cornelia Wilton is the new and as-yet childless wife of her beloved Arthur, filling her days with longing and distractions after her husband returns to his duties as plantation owner.

Discussion questions

1. How does Cornelia define a "fulfilling life" before and after her husband returns to his duties as plantation owner?

  1. How much influence does Cornelia exert in her own life? In the life of the plantation?

  2. Note Cornelia's interchanges with the plantation slaves. What insight do we gain from her reaction to Dinah's bearing? To her successful intercession for Dick, the runaway?

  3. What is Cornelia's advice to single young women considering marriage?


  1. Compare Cornelia's "moody discontent" with Mary James's "unsatisfied longings" (in Phelps's "The Angel over the Right Shoulder"). How do the two women judge themselves for having these frustrations?

  2. How do these two stories reflect the place and self-image of white women in antebellum America?

Reading highlights

  ·  Note the significance of Gilman's introducing the chapter by describing the motley furnishings of Bellevue.

Catharine E. Beecher, A Treatise on Domestic Economy for the Use of Young Ladies at Home and at School, 1841, Ch. 1, "Peculiar Responsibilities of American Women"
Note: From this page, select Ch. 1.

Uncle Tom's Cabin and American Culture

Site creator: Stephen Railton; Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities; Electronic Text Center and the University of Virginia


Here in one text are intermingled the themes of gender, religion, and emerging American identity, as Catharine Beecher (sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe and a crusader for women's education) offers a brief political treatise to introduce her book on homemaking, childrearing, and healthful living. Quoting abundantly from Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America (1835/1840), she argues that woman's subordinate place in American society is the ultimate fulfillment of democratic and Christian principles, that women are happy in their place (and that Europe has it all wrong).

Discussion questions

  1. How is the "Golden Rule" the ultimate principle of both Christianity and democracy?

  2. By accepting a subordinate role, how does a woman fulfill her roles as Christian and citizen?

  3. How are women subordinate and yet superior to men, according to Beecher? At the same time, how are women of equal value as men?

  4. Does Beecher agree with de Tocqueville that American women "attach a sort of pride to the voluntary surrender of their own will"?

  5. To Beecher, what is the challenge assigned by God to America, and what is women's role in meeting this challenge?

  6. What does democracy offer to women?

Fanny Fern (Sara Payton Willis Parton), Fern Leaves from Fanny's Portfolio, 1853
Definitely appeal to students. Titles range from 1/2 - 2 pages.
Read 3-5 of these recommended "Leaves" Note: On this page, scroll to the Table of Contents (halfway down the page).

Voices from 19th-Century America

Site creator: Pat Pfleiger, Dept. of English, West Chester University


Vignettes written for the Boston True Flag, the New York Musical World and Times, and other periodicals, these pieces lure the reader with their witty style into the waiting fangs of Sara Parton, who bemoans the condition of American womanhood at mid-century. The predicaments of woman in all her roles—wife, bride, mother, mother-in-law, spinster, widow,—are illuminated in these short pieces that range from mournful tragedy to bristly satire. "I've a perfect horror of satirical women," announces one of her male characters. "There's no such thing as repose in their presence." Prepare to enter the presence of Fanny Fern.

"Look on This Picture . . . ," p. 16 "Comfort to the Widow," p. 47
"How Husbands May Rule," p. 116 "Woman," p. 133
"The Passionate Father," p. 135 "The Ball-room and the Nursery," p. 141
"A Chapter on Literary Women," p. 175 "Children's Rights," p. 188   

"Sorrow's Teachings," p. 192 "A Word to Mothers," p. 234

"The Model Step-Mother," p. 301 "Advice to Ladies," p. 317
"A Little Bunker Hill," p. 346 "Important for Married Men," p. 352
"Aunt Hetty on Matrimony," p. 377

Discussion questions

  1. How does Parton view the situation of white women in mid-nineteenth-century America?

  2. How does she view the situation of children, both girls and boys?

  3. What earns Parton's wrath in these pieces?

  4. How does Parton's view of Christian faith, especially as a source of strength to women?

  5. In one vignette, a character bemoans that women are fools and men idiots. What do women do that is foolish? What do men do that is idiotic?

  6. Overall, what is Parton's message to women? What should they change, and what must they accept?

  7. How would Parton characterize the "cult of domesticity" of the 19th century?

Godey's Lady's Book, 1850 (six issues)

Godey's Lady's Book Site creator: Morris Pierce, Dept. of History, Rochester University


"There is a beautiful parallelism between the condition of woman in her domestic life and the character of a nation," writes the editor of Godey's Lady's Book in 1850—Sara Josepha Hale, who prepared the monthly with a primarily female staff (Louis Godey was the publisher). With this "parallelism" in mind, consider adding GLB to your readings, especially to contrast with the singular voices of the women authors included in this menu.

Published from 1830 to 1898, Godey's was the Good Housekeeping of its day, providing fiction, essays, fashion spreads, crafts projects, house plans, mail-order opportunities, and, yes, gossip about the British royals. Perusing these six issues from 1850 will reset your mental gauge as you consider the lives of middle-class American women of the time. Would appeal to students.

Recommended Selections
January, 1850: "The Flight of Time," "Ideals Husbands, or School Girls' Fancies," "Song" (by Francis S. Osgood), "Editor's Table" (on woman's rights and the education of women).
February, 1850: "The Elopement," "Woman's Power," "Woman's Best Ornament," "Fashions for February," "Editor's Table" (on comparisons of men and women).


March, 1850: "The Sphere of Women," "Bridal Costumes," "Editor's Table" (on pursuing learning after formal education, equal access to women's education, men's views of marriage, and more).


April, 1850: "Woman's Rights," Editor's Table" (on the devotion of the "heathen mother").


November, 1850: "Remarks on Four of the Languages of Europe [first paragraph]," "The Fine Arts Applicable for Useful Purposes," "Fashionable Winter Dresses," "Editor's Table" (on diaries for single young women).

Discussion questions

  1. Does the "condition of woman in her domestic life" parallel "the character of a nation," as the GLB editor asserts? If so, how?

  2. For what purposes should women develop a "cultivated intellect"?

  3. What is the proper influence for women to exert in the family and society?

  4. In what ways does GLB reflect its times? Was it ahead of its time in any way?

  5. How do GLB and Fanny Fern's Leaves contrast as popular media for white women at the time?

Reading highlights

  · Note how editor Sara Hale, in the "Editor's Table" commentaries, moderates her support for women's education and "equality."

  ·  View an assortment of GLB offerings, from fiction to fashion spreads, to absorb its vision of ideal domestic life.

Rev. Theodore Parker, "Of the Public Function of Woman," sermon delivered in Boston, 1853 (concluding section)
From: The Worcester Women's History Project, from Assumption College et al.


Here is a unique voice in this resource menu—that of a man. One who understands that isolating women in their domestic role squanders a natural resource that society should nourish. And one who can argue this point to men. Theodore Parker, a liberal Unitarian minister in Boston, was well-known as a social reformer, abolitionist, and scholar; additionally, he was an early member of the Transcendental Club. Social justice was his cause, yet he knew to base his arguments for "the public function of women" on grounds that would resonate with a wide audience—efficiency, honest government, natural law, the progress of Christendom. It takes a while for Parker to warm up in this sermon, but by page six he is forging ahead with his challenge to make woman's "human nature human history."

Discussion questions

  1. What is the "public function of women" that Parker espouses? What can women offer society that men cannot?

  2. In addition, how will society benefit from the "excellence of man and woman both united"?

  3. How does he employ the notion of women's "natural rights?"

  4. How does he employ the notion of duty?

  5. In what ways does Parker's characterization of women epitomize mid-19th century attitudes? In what ways is he modern, even radical, for his time?

  6. How would the women authors in this Topic respond to Parker's call for women's rights?

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Address known as "Seneca Falls Address," 1848
Note: From this page, continue to pp. 2-5.

Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony Papers Project Online

Site creator: Ann D. Gordon, Dept. of English, Rutgers University


This text represents a culmination of all the readings in this section. Neither the keynote address at the Seneca Falls Conference, nor the well-known "Declaration of Sentiments" issued by its delegates, this speech was delivered by Elizabeth Cady Stanton at several occasions after the famed conference. It stands as an extended argument for women's rights as (1) the logical application of history's lessons and of Christian faith, and (2) as a path to greatness for the American nation. (Of interest, she does not argue from the standpoint of justice.) She is insistent, strident, and uncompromising. "The right is ours," she declares: "have it we must—use it we will."

Discussion questions

  1. What inspires Stanton's firmest convictions, and her deepest fury?

  2. How does Stanton refute men's assumption that women are inferior?

  3. How does her view of woman's burdens in married life compare with those of Gilman, Phelps, Beecher, or Parton (Fanny Fern)?

  4. Why does she firmly mark a difference between the issue of rights and the issue of equality?

  5. How does she use the language of bondage to connect the concerns of the abolitionist movement with those of the women's suffrage movement?

  6. How does Stanton use Christian tenets to underscore her position? How would Catharine Beecher and Fanny Fern respond to her interpretation of Christianity?

  7. To Stanton, how does the subjugation of women keep America from achieving true greatness? How would Catharine Beecher argue in opposition?

Share with your friends:

The database is protected by copyright © 2020
send message

    Main page