Housewife Guides and the Cult of True Womanhood

October 2, 2014

Housewife guides during the nineteenth century provided women with written scripts to follow in organizing daily household tasks as well as their roles in society. First written by men, housewife guides written by women reveal the intellectual thinking of women over the centuries. Within popular culture, even as changing societal attitudes loosened the some of the restrictions on younger women — virtue, humility, and purity remained prized in American women, and women worked within these parameters to run households as they began to organize grassroots reform.

Barbara Welter wrote about the “cult of true womanhood” a sensibility held between 1820 and 1860 that American women were expected to pursue lives of sheltered passivity and ennobled domesticity. In a separate “private” sphere, women had authority over moral and family issues. Women created an “anti-materialistic” world in the home that balanced the “sordid world of men and public life.” In the cult of true womanhood women were encouraged to be pious, pure, domestic and submissive. Mrs. Hester Chapone (1727-1801) in her epistolary book, Letters on the Improvement of the Mind Addressed to a Young Lady (1797) asserted, “A worthy woman is never destitute of valuable friends, who in a great measure supply to her the want of nearer connections.”

Lydia Maria Child (1802-1880) wrote from experience when The American Frugal Housewife (1829) offered practical knowledge for women with husbands who could not provide for families. Child had a prescient mind seeing that one of the great challenges within the American home was the economic and emotional consequences of slavery. Child’s popular compendium, The Little Girl’s Own Book (1833) included maxims for a girl’s health and gracefulness suggesting that girls wake up early and wash frequently in pure cold water and that girls get a lot of outdoor exercise. Beyond offering household advice, she was instrumental in the publication of Harriet Jacobs’ account Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) and An Appeal for the Indians (1868), and her views were seen as radical by the mainstream press.

The efficiency with which women ran their households enabled them to organize and network and accomplish substantive reforms. Catherine Beecher (1800-1896) who organized women’s schools and colleges intellectually reconciled, through her writing, how existing patterns of female subordination attributed to the “cult of true womanhood” was necessary to sustain American democratic sensibilities in antebellum America. In her Treatise on Domestic Economy (1841), she illustrated the consistency of Christian ideals of democracy to American social hierarchies. Beecher proposed a new schema for professionalizing domestic work and schooling. She utilized Lockean theory to substantiate her argument that women’s activities required the same autonomous and practical critical thinking skills for domestic tasks in the private sector as were required of men in experiencing success in careers in the public sector. In the wake of the post-Civil War boom, Beecher and sister Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) in their American Woman’s Home (1869), attempted to direct women to prudently acquire and use the plethora of new consumer products available. The sisters advised, “The chief cause of woman’s disabilities and sufferings, that women are not trained, as men are, for their peculiar duties – the aim of this volume to the honor and remuneration of domestic employment.”

With coverture, the legal sensibility was that wives and children needed to be treated in the same way, and therefore needed to be malleable. Reverend Daniel Smith in his book The Parent’s Friend, or Letters on the Government and Education of Children and Youth (1845) taught that female subordination within the family led to subordination to civil law and divine government: “Let your child understand that your commands must be obeyed. Parental government does not consist in so many whippings, or corrections of this or the other kind, but in fixing in the mind of the child this impression, ‘I must and ought to obey.’” Smith supported the patriarchal hierarchy of coverture that asserted, “Influence by reason when you can, by authority when you must.”

Julia McNair Wright (1840-1903), the wife of a clergyman, was a prolific writer of women’s novels, didactic literature, poems, cookbooks, and scientific works on botany. She carried on in the tradition of Rev. Smith, and was published by the Presbyterian Board of Publication as well as the National Temperance Society. Wright’s 584-page tome The Complete Home: An Encyclopedia of Domestic Life and Affairs (1879) was a text on domestic economy that reflected her influence and popularity with American female readers throughout her forty-year career.

Moving into the twentieth century, women’s voices in regards to domestic work shifted radically as they fought for and obtained the vote. Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902) was seventy-seven years old when she wrote The Solitude of Self (1892) after stepping down from the presidency of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Stanton recognized the political ramifications and psychological resources of “self” or of a woman having an individual life, ”Whatever theories may be on woman’s dependence on man, in the supreme moments of her life, he cannot bear her burdens.” Later, Betty Friedan (1921-2006), a journalist writing for popular women’s magazines, in The Feminine Mystique (1963) called on women to seek satisfying and intellectually stimulating careers in public life without renouncing their roles within the home.

Detail of twentieth century stitching from Happy Hands Studio (Pendelton, Oregon) from unique artist book by Roberta Lavadour called "Happy Hands"

Detail of twentieth century stitching from Happy Hands Studio (Pendelton, Oregon) from unique artist book by Roberta Lavadour called “Happy Hands”

Further Reading

Hemphill, C. Dollett. Bowing to Necessities: A History of Manners in America, 1620-1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

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