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American Intellectual History 101: the Cult of Domesticity in American Society

Foreword

The American Intellectual History 101 series explores major public intellectuals and their contributions to the developmental process of American intellectual history from the American Revolution to the Civil War through the discussion of significant texts that adds to the public issues of the moment. This article series aims to provide an in-depth analysis of the establishment of the new republic and its institutions of individualism, transcendentalism, civil disobedience, women’s rights and the cult of domesticity and slavery by diving into the core values that have shaped the United States. Aiming to present the ideologies and worldviews of the United States of America, this analysis includes many thinkers and cultural pioneers to demonstrate the roots of some notions which made the U.S. a unique nation with distinct goals and ideals that have influenced the world.


This series will be divided into seven articles:



The Cult of Domesticity in American Society


The Cult of Domesticity, shaped by the idea of “separate spheres” for women and men, is an idea that has its roots in the antebellum era. It suggests that men are naturally aggressive and competitive providers, which are traits appropriate to the public sphere, while women are suited to home life or the domestic sphere (Winter, 2004, p. 120). While the Cult of Domesticity allows men to be included in society as individuals, it restricts women’s ability to exercise their individual lives in the public sphere. Debated for years, this notion has been both challenged and accepted by many female writers such as Sarah Moore Grimké, Judith Sargent Murray, Catharine Beecher, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. While Grimké, Murray, and Gilman attempt to challenge the lifestyles and behaviors imposed on women, Beecher does not aim to do so, even though she voices some of the surrounding issues.



Grimké on the Condition of Women in the U.S

Figure 1: Sarah Moore Grimké (1792-1873)

Sarah Moore Grimké (1792-1873) was an active writer and abolitionist. She gave numerous speeches as a representative of the American Anti-Slavery Society. Grimke’s writings were burned by angry mobs in the streets because their ideas challenged society’s rooted norms; however, this never stopped her from fighting in favor of disadvantaged individuals, such as women and enslaved people (Alexander, 2018).


Grimké begins her letters on the "Equality of Sexes and the Condition of Women" by arguing that incorrect interpretations of the Bible are the reason why society functions as guilt-inducing towards women and considers them inferior (1838). According to the translation of the biblical story, Eve caused the fall of Adam and herself from heaven because she had eaten the forbidden apple and seduced Adam to do so as well, which led society to consider women as inferior to men and subject to punishment. However, Grimké proposes an unconventional idea:

“We next find Adam involved in the same sin, not through the instrumentality of a supernatural agent, but through that of his equal, a being whom he must have known was liable to transgress the divine command, because he must have felt that he was himself a free agent…” (1838, p. 5-6).

Grimké argues that Adam should not be excluded from the sin. Furthermore, she argues it should be considered that Eve was seduced by the devil himself, “a supernatural agent,” contrary to Adam, who chose to be included in the same sin through an equal agent. Grimké thinks that Adam should have used his free agency, given to him by God, instead of succumbing to Eve’s. Grimké opposes the demonization of all women through Eve’s sin while completely acquitting Adam, and she demonstrates that “they both fell from innocence, but not from equality” (1838, p. 7). Another aspect she highlights is that women are only subject to God. Grimké believes that God will never give the power of authority to govern the creatures whom he created, and history proves that men subjectified and blamed women for their will, lust, and selfishness:

“But so far from it, we find the commands of God invariably the same to man and woman; and not the slightest intimation is given in a single passage of the Bible, that God designed to point woman to man as her instructor… All history attests that man has subjected woman to his will, used her as a means to promote his selfish gratification, to minister to his sensual pleasures, to be instrumental in promoting his comfort; but never has he desired to elevate her to that rank she was created to fill” (1838, p. 10-11).


Murray Addresses Women’s Oppression

Figure 2: Portrait of Mrs. John Stevens (Judith Sargent, later Mrs. John Murray)

Challenging the Cult of Domesticity, Judith Sargent Murray is another key character in women’s history in the United States. Murray is one of the essayists of the early American republic (Michals, 2015). In her essay "On the Equality of Sexes," she challenged women’s exclusion from higher education because they were assumed to be deprived of creative faculty and increased intelligence, as opposed to men. J.S Murray defends the idea that women and men are equal by nature (1790, p. 164). However, women are not given the opportunity to cultivate their minds, which has several negative outcomes. For instance, women are unable to accompany their partners because men are able to educate themselves as much as they choose while women are not provided with the same favorable circumstances. Murray thinks that this deprivation makes women unhappy regardless of their marital status:

“Is she single, she in vain seeks to fill up time from sexual employments or amusements. Is she united to a person whose soul nature made equal to her own, education hath set him so far above her, that in those entertainments which are productive of such rational felicity, she is not qualified to accompany him” (1790, p. 164).

Additionally, the open-minded essayist opposes the idea that women are naturally inferior in reasoning abilities. She claims that “we can only reason from what we know, and if an opportunity of acquiring knowledge hath been denied us, the inferiority of our sex, cannot fairly deduced from thence” (Murray, 1790, p. 163). Murray states that women should not be expected to use their reason when they are not allowed to cultivate their minds, because reason is dependent on the knowledge the mind has. Therefore, if women are inferior to men in terms of reasoning, it solely stems from the deprivation women experiences for years; if women appear to be less intelligent, it is because of the effects of nurture or environment, rather than nature.



Gilman on Women’s Natural Habitat

Figure 3: Photograph of Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935) was an influential American author, feminist, and social reformer. In her essay "Women and Economics," she challenges the notion of women's "natural habitat" as solely being the domestic sphere. She argues that the idea of women being naturally suited only for housekeeping and child-rearing is a social construct imposed on them, limiting their potential and denying them opportunities for personal and intellectual growth. Gilman contends that this notion is not inherent but rather a result of social conditioning and historical circumstances. She argues that women should have the freedom to pursue their passions, engage in intellectual pursuits, and participate in public life on equal terms with men. “...In migratory species the female is free to acquire the same knowledge as the male by the same means, the same development by the same experiences. The human female has been restricted in range from the earliest beginning. Even among savages, she has a much more restricted knowledge of the land she lives in. She moves with the camp, of course, and follows her primitive industries in its vicinity; but the war-path and the hunt are the man's. He has a far larger habitat... ” (Gilman, 1898). Gilman discusses how the changed environment has affected women throughout history. She argues that women have been immediately restricted in their range due to their passive surroundings, and this has had significant implications in their lives and development. Gilman emphasizes that an environment characterized by uniformity would render life stagnant and devoid of progress. As the environment becomes more diverse and complex, the development of living beings must adapt accordingly, acquiring knowledge and power as the need arises. However, the author observes that women, even in primitive societies, have had their range of movement and experiences restricted. While men have had the opportunity to explore and engage with a wider habitat, women have been confined to more limited spaces. Gilman argues that, as civilization advanced, customs and societal expectations increasingly constricted women, akin to an iron torture chamber. Women's range of movement and experiences became severely limited, and they were expected to remain within the confines of their homes.


Catharine Beecher and the Idea of Separate Spheres

Figure 4: Catharine Beecher

Catharine Beecher was born into a religious family. As a self-taught woman, she became a writer and teacher advocating for women’s equal access to education and their roles as mothers and teachers in her famous work "A Treatise on Domestic Economy" (Michals, 2015). Like other female writers, she also advocated for an expansion of women's roles in society, yet she supported the idea that hierarchy is needed throughout society because it promotes societal harmony. By stressing hierarchical relationships, Beecher defends the need for someone at the top:

“For this purpose, it is needful that certain relations be sustained, which involve the duties of subordination. There must be the magistrate and the subject, one of whom is the superior, and the other the inferior. There must be the relations of husband and wife, parent and child, teacher and pupil, employer and employed, each involving the relative duties of subordination. The superior, in certain particulars, is to direct, and the inferior is to yield obedience. Society could never go forward, harmoniously, nor could any craft or profession be successfully pursued, unless these superior and subordinate relations be instituted and sustained” (1841).

In this regard, it seems that she favors men’s domination over women as divine beings created such a relationship. For example, she talks about a female institution which is a model school that she personally attended. Beecher argues that this model school's principal should be a man while the teachers should be women. Beecher claims that women’s most special responsibility is “forming the character of the future generations”; therefore, “women should be virtuous and intelligent” to secure the future of the family (1841). Instead of being occupied with active politics, Beecher offers a passive political agenda by raising the ideal Republican citizens and their moral and intellectual characters:

“The woman, who is rearing a family of children; the woman, who labors in the schoolroom; the woman, who, in her retired chamber, earns, with her needle, the mite, which contributes to the intellectual and moral elevation of her Country; even the humble domestic, whose example and influence may be moulding and forming young minds, while her faithful services sustain a prosperous domestic state;—each and all may be animated by the consciousness, that they are agents in accomplishing the greatest work that ever was committed to human responsibility” (1841).

Beecher favors the idea of separate spheres by maintaining gender norms imposed on women by society, since she defends that women have certain domestic responsibilities such as raising children and taking care of the house, as men are expected to be busy with jobs in the public sphere. Beecher views the domestic sphere as much more significant compared to the public sphere because the moral core of individuals and their sense of selfhood develop at home, and this is crucial for the new republic. According to Catharine Beecher, both women and men should work for the good of the country; however, she notes that workplaces and types of work differ in accordance with the responsibilities assigned to women and men.


These four women writers who called for women's equal opportunities and rights in various ways contributed greatly to women's need to be heard in the political and public spheres. While Grimké, Murray, and Gilman openly challenge societal norms and voice the inequalities stemming from incorrect assumptions about women and misinterpretations of religious texts, Beecher defends women's subordinate role while emphasizing that women and men are born equal and women should be respected. On this subject, it seems that Beecher contradicts herself while supporting women's equal rights since she frankly draws a line between women's and men's responsibilities by placing women after men in the hierarchical order she describes.


In conclusion, the writings of Sarah Moore Grimké, Judith Sargent Murray, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Catharine Beecher provide a diverse range of perspectives on the Cult of Domesticity and the idea of separate spheres for women and men in the United States. While Grimké, Murray, and Gilman challenge the imposed lifestyles and restrictions on women, Beecher takes a more nuanced approach by advocating for equal opportunities while still emphasizing hierarchical relationships. These women writers courageously questioned and criticized the societal norms of their time, striving to dismantle the limitations placed on women and promote their intellectual, social, and political empowerment.



Bibliography

Alexander, K. L. (2018). Biography: Sarah Moore Grimké. National Women’s History Museum. Retrieved July 8, 2023, from https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/sarah-moore-grimke


Gilman, C. P. (1898). Women and Economics. Digital Library Upenn. Retrieved July 8, 2023, from https://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/gilman/economics/economics.html


Grimke, S. M. (1838). Letters on the equality of the sexes and the condition of woman. American History 1493-1945 - Adam Matthew Digital.

http://www.americanhistory.amdigital.co.uk/Documents/Details/GLC06552?SessionExpired=True


Hollinger, D. A., & Capper, C. (2016). Judith Sargent Murray “On the Equality of” J.S , Murray, The American Intellectual Tradition (5th ed., Vol. 1, pp. 270–285). Oxford University Press, USA. (Original work published 1790)


Michals, D. (2015). Biography: Judith Sargent Murray. National Women’s History Museum. Retrieved July 8, 2023, from https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/judith-sargent-murray


Michals, D. (2015a). Biography: Catharine Esther Beecher. National Women’s History Museum. Retrieved July 8, 2023, from https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/catharine-esther-beecher


The Project Gutenberg eBook of A Treatise on Domestic Economy, by Catherine Esther Beecher. (1841). https://www.gutenberg.org/files/21829/21829-h/21829-h.htm


Winter, T. (2004). Cult of domesticity. In American masculinities: A historical encyclopedia (pp. 120-122). SAGE Publications, Inc.

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