Domestic Goddesses to Suffragists: The Story of Women Told
on Bookbindings, 1820-1920
Fifty Famous Women
(Ward, Lock and Tyler, 1876)
Women often are marginalized or neglected
in histories of the United States. However, women–both
individually and in groups–have played an
integral role in shaping the country as we know
it. In addition, the history of women in American
society reads slightly different than the history
Cult of Domesticity
Media, including books, long have projected a
stereotyped image of women. In the 19th century,
that image was of a pious, pure lady whose occupation
was to raise her children and serve her husband.
of Domesticity,” or “Cult
of True Womanhood,” came about with the rise
of the middle class in the 1820s. The family no
longer had to make or grow all that they needed
to survive, so the man went off to
work at a job outside the home while the woman
and children stayed home. Two spheres developed:
one appropriate for men and the other, for women.
Popular culture of the time–including women’s
magazines, advice books, religious journals, newspapers,
and fiction–perpetuated the idea that the
man alone could support the family, and only the
woman could properly raise it. This idea about
the woman’s “place” evolved into
a list of characteristics by which true womanhood
(Harper & Brothers, 1876)
Criteria for "True Womanhood"
Piety. A true woman would be deeply religious.
In addition to serving as the spiritual leader
of her family, taking them to church and reading
the Bible to them, a true woman would consider
herself a soldier in Christ’s army against
lechery and sin. Many women thus were involved
in the Moral
Reform movement of the 1830s and
1840s, promoting abstinence and seeking the abolition
Purity. Related to piety, a true woman
believed sex was sinful and chose to be chaste,
fashions of the Victorian
era reflected this chastity. Dresses were conservative,
featuring high necklines, long sleeves, and ankle-length
skirts. Women often wore gloves and hats as well,
ensuring that her entire body was hidden. Thus,
a true woman was thought to dress like a “lady.”
(Hurst & Co., 1891)
Domesticity. The home was seen as the
separate, proper sphere for a true woman. Because
piety and chastity, she would be seen as morally
superior to and purer than her husband, and thus
better suited for child-rearing. Therefore, the “normal” profession
for a true woman was motherhood.
Fashions of the time also contributed to home confinement,
restrictive nature of women’s clothing prevented
women from wandering far or doing much other than
embroidery (as the woman on the left is doing in
Legends example, above).
Submissiveness. Despite his moral inferiority,
a true woman would be tender toward her husband.
She would sacrifice her happiness for his and be
subservient to him. In fact, women would be subservient
to all men, allowing them to do all the work outside
the home and make all political decisions.
The Cult of True Womanhood excluded African-American
women (most of whom were slaves), as well as
immigrants and others whose poverty forced them
to work. Because they did not meet the four standards,
women were considered unnatural.
Northwood by Sarah Josepha Buell
Long and Brother, 1852)
Women Writers of the 19th Century
To avoid the stigma of failure to meet the cult’s
criteria, many young women relied on magazines
and books for advice. Sarah
Josepha Buell Hale founded
Ladies’ Magazine in 1827 to better
acquaint young women with their duties. She continued
purpose as editor of Godey’s Lady’s
Book for 40 years, beginning in 1837. Both
magazines educated women on appropriate dress,
cooking, and they provided quality literature for women
to read to pass the time. Isabella
British books on household management made their
way into American women’s hands, as did a
number of cookbooks and manuals covering everything
from dance etiquette to needlework.
Popular fiction sprung from the pens of “domestic
goddesses”–women who wrote novels,
poetry, and other types of literature. Their work
discussed home life, children, relationships between
women, and women’s issues such as religion,
voting, and slavery. Some of these writers did
not fit the mold of true womanhood, writing instead
of marrying and having children. Others were torn
between their work and their families. As a whole,
novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne called these authors
of scribbling women,” and their
writings “trash.” However, the books
of many of these women–such as Louisa
May Alcott and Harriet
are widely read today.
Jo's Boys by
Louisa May Alcott
A second movement of American literature in the
early to mid-19th century was Transcendentalism.
A uniquely American form of literature based in
spirituality, Transcendentalism, emerged in the
1830s with the publication of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s
Nature. This group of writers was interested
in advancing the rights of women, and many famous
women writers, including
Fuller and Emily
The 19th century also was a formative period in
women’s literature, particularly
following the Civil War. Among the most famous
African-American woman writer of the time was former
Continue to Women's Rights Movement
Searching the Collection
for Related Materials
Try using keywords such as
"women," "domestic life," "clothing," and individual authors'
names to explore the PBO
database, or browse the subject headings.
Women's History Teaching
Resources based on Publishers Bindings Online
Women's History K-5 lesson
document or PDF
Women's History 6-12 lesson
document or PDF
Women Writers of the 19th
Century lesson plan: Word
document or PDF
Related Online Resources
Women's History: A Research Guide, Middle Tennessee State
Cairns Collection of American
Women Writers, University of Wisconsin-Madison:
Women's History Project:
of the Century, Discovery School:
Women's History Month,
The History Channel:
Bald, Marjory A. Women
Writers of the Nineteenth Century. New York: Russell & Russell,
Beddoe, Deirdre. Discovering
A Practical Manual. Boston: Pandora Press, 1983.
Catherine. The Other Civil War: American Women in
the Nineteenth Century. New York: Hill and Wang, 1984.
Jane. Before the Vote was Won: Arguments for and against
Women’s Suffrage. New York : Routledge & K.
Matthews, Glenna. “Just a Housewife”:
The Rise and Fall of Domesticity in America. New York:
University Press, 1987.
Norquay, Glenda, ed. Voices
and Votes: A Literary Anthology of the Women’s Suffrage Campaign. New York: St. Martin’s
Scott, Joan Wallach. Gender
and the Politics of History. New York: Columbia University
Warren, Joyce W., ed. The
(Other) American Traditions: Nineteenth-century Women Writers.
Rutgers University Press, 1993.
Women and Literature:
An Annotated Bibliography of Women Writers. Cambridge, Mass.: Women and Literature Collective,