Fanny Fern

Fanny Fern, (pseudonym for Sarah Willis Parton), was a social satirist, novelist and children’s author in the mid 19th century. She used sarcasm and light humor to touch on relevant and pressing issues such as gender inequality and divorce law. However, her work was not well received at first, especially by her own family. She struggled with poverty in her first marriage and with an overbearing husband in her second marriage. However, after the publication of Leaves from Fanny’s Portfolio, which sold an impressive 100,00 copies, Fanny Fern became a name synonymous with feminism, despite the restrictive and misogynistic society she lived in.

O, girls! set your affections on cats, poodles, parrots or lap-dogs; but let matrimony alone. It’s the hardest way on earth of getting a living. You never know when your work is done. Think of carrying eight or nine children through the measles, chicken-pox, rash, mumps, and scarlet fever,—some of them twice over. It makes my head ache to think of it. O, you may scrimp and save, and twist and turn, and dig and delve, and economize and die; and your husband will marry again, and take what you have saved to dress his second wife with; and she’ll take your portrait for a fire-board!

Fanny Fern, “Aunt Hetty on Matrimony”, from Fern Leaves from Fanny’s Portfolio

Fanny Fern rashly devalues the “ideals” of the Cult of Domesticity in this quote. By pointing out that women have no right to the money that their husbands make, and that women are discouraged to make their own money, Fern exposes the system that not only encourages women to be subservient to men, but forces them to be subservient as well. In this particular piece, Fern puts two of the Cult of Domesticity’s ideals, submissiveness and domesticity, in a bad light. The other two ideals, piety and purity, are not explicitly mentioned but are implied as the reason women are naive and fall into the trap of being the husband’s servant–society idealized these traits for the specific purpose of giving men more power. Because men do not have to be as sexually pure or pious by societies standards, they have the right to live their life as they please without scrutiny, while the women do not have this option. In this quote, Fern even goes as far as to tell women that they are seen as expendable to men– they can put up with the many chores of the house and the frequent hardships of raising children but when they die, their efforts will hardly be appreciated, and a man can move onto the next woman quickly. Although not explicitly stated, Fern expresses that there is too much stress on women being subservient and separate from the world of men that essentially that marriages are based solely on this and not compatibility. This is shown in her example of the wife wanting to take a walk with the husband, but he never asks her to take a walk, showing that he does not see her as a companion or a friend, just as someone to do the housework for him.

Further reading:

“The Cult of Domesticity” by Lucinda MacKethan

National Humanities Center- Cult of Domesticity (PDF)

Cult of Domesticity website

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