From 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 of men.

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.

The “Cult 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 was judged


Farm Legends
(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 of prostitution.

Purity. Related to piety, a true woman believed sex was sinful and chose to be chaste, except to procreate. Women’s 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.”


Schultz's Deutsch-Amerikanisches kock-buch
(Hurst & Co., 1891)

Domesticity. The home was seen as the separate, proper sphere for a true woman. Because of her 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, as the 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 the Farm 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, these women were considered unnatural.


Northwood by Sarah Josepha Buell Hale
(H. 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 that purpose as editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book for 40 years, beginning in 1837. Both magazines educated women on appropriate dress, health, and cooking, and they provided quality literature for women to read to pass the time. Isabella Beeton’s 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 a “mob of scribbling women,” and their writings “trash.” However, the books of many of these women–such as Louisa May Alcott and Harriet Beecher Stowe–still are widely read today.


Jo's Boys by Louisa May Alcott
(Roberts Brothers, 1886)

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 Margaret Fuller and Emily Dickinson,are considered Transcendentalists.

The 19th century also was a formative period in African-American women’s literature, particularly following the Civil War. Among the most famous African-American woman writer of the time was former slave Sojourner Truth.

Continue to Women's Rights Movement

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Women's History Teaching Resources based on Publishers Bindings Online

Women's History K-5 lesson plan: Word document or PDF file

Women's History 6-12 lesson plan: Word document or PDF file

Women Writers of the 19th Century lesson plan: Word document or PDF file

Related Online Resources

American Women's History: A Research Guide, Middle Tennessee State University:

Cairns Collection of American Women Writers, University of Wisconsin-Madison:

National Women's History Project:

Women 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, 1963.

Beddoe, Deirdre. Discovering Women’s History: A Practical Manual. Boston: Pandora Press, 1983.

Clinton, Catherine. The Other Civil War: American Women in the Nineteenth Century. New York: Hill and Wang, 1984.

Lewis, Jane. Before the Vote was Won: Arguments for and against Women’s Suffrage. New York : Routledge & K. Paul, 1987.

Matthews, Glenna. “Just a Housewife”: The Rise and Fall of Domesticity in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Norquay, Glenda, ed. Voices and Votes: A Literary Anthology of the Women’s Suffrage Campaign. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995.

Scott, Joan Wallach. Gender and the Politics of History. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

Warren, Joyce W., ed. The (Other) American Traditions: Nineteenth-century Women Writers. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1993.

Women and Literature: An Annotated Bibliography of Women Writers. Cambridge, Mass.: Women and Literature Collective, 1976.

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