The Cult of Domesticity was a movement in the 19th century which held women to a strict honor code. The society that Gilman, Stowe and Fern lived in held these standards of etiquette for women, essentially defining what the perfect woman should be in the midst of their changing society. Some women, like Stowe, found the solace of the home empowering, while others, such as Fern and Gilman, saw these societal rules as problematic and asphyxiating: women were not allowed to venture past the sphere of the home and were made subservient to men through these standards.
The honor code associated with the Cult of Domesticity consists of a number of rules all falling under four basic “ideals”: piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity. Piety, something that Stowe stresses in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was the belief that all women should have a strong background in religion, namely Christianity. Religion was thought to be the cure for a restless mind, considered a bad attribute in women. It was also meant to remind women of their “calling in life”.
Purity was an overemphasized standard of the time; if a woman was not chaste and could be seduced by men, she was often publicly ostracized. This zeal for chastity became a sexual repression on a societal level. According to an article about the Cult of Domesticity on the College of Staten Island library website, even the legs of chairs were referred to as “limbs” and covered in fabric to keep any sort of sensual connotation out of the home.
Submissiveness was made out to be the purpose of a woman’s life. Men were held to lower standards regarding purity and piety than women were, and were allowed more freedom, with the understanding that women would be passive and submit to the fate designed for them by God and men. Submissiveness was further emphasized by the attire of the time: tight corsets and heavy garments designed to limit mobility. Like a child, a woman was supposed to be meek and defenseless, in need of protection by a man.
Domesticity, the last ideal, held that the former three standards could be maintained through homemaking and rearing children. The home was meant to be the safe haven for women as well as men; the only difference was that women were supposed to always be kept within the safety of the home while men were supposed to operate outside of the home, turning to the home as an escape from the evils of the outside world. This marked the growing divide between the community and the family, as the home was viewed as a private, separate unit from the rest of the world. Essentially, this closed women off to the rest of the world as well.
(Video Slideshow about the Cult of Domesticity in Canada)
By Catherine Lavender
College of Staten Island