Tuesday, February 8, 2011

True Womanhood

As an English major I was required to write a senior thesis to graduate. Most of my friends and peers chose to write about a literary work they'd read in their four years (or so) of college. Not me. Of course, I have to be unique. I wanted to write about something we hadn't covered...or hadn't covered well. I had a list of ideas--everything from Peter Pan to the songs in the Bible (like Mary's song)--but what I ended up with was Sarah Josepha Hale and the Cult of Domesticity. I will award ten bonus points to anyone who knows who Sarah Josepha Hale is before reading this post. :) No cheating!

Not a popular figure in our time, it was definitely an unusual choice for an undergraduate English thesis. But I love her, and I love the cult of domesticity. In college we read a feminist piece degrading the historical notion of a woman's sphere. But I feel passionately about true womanhood and domesiticty. Maybe this is from living part of my life in the nineteenth century (I worked at a living history museum as a teenager where we did first person) but more like is the tradition of domesticity in my family. I come from a family where the women don't just cook to eat or clean to not be dirty. It's an art form, an expression of their womanhood. Which is precisely what nineteenth century author, editor, and woman Sarah Josepha Hale said of true womanhood. She was the Martha Stewart of her day...but better. No jail. And exponentially more awesome.

I won't bore you with all the details...but the premise of  true womanhood, cult of domesticity, and the woman's sphere (buzzwords in this feminism/femininity debate) is that an authentic woman is one who is a homemaker and a nurturer as that is in keeping with the nature of woman. Now, before you start firing off comments correcting me, allow me to say that I am all for women working if they want to or need to. What I am against is the modenr belief that a woman who is able to stay at home is less of a woman. As if being a strong woman is defined by a career or paycheck. You want to see a strong woman--read any diary of a historical woman. That was strength. They didn't even have Windex, people.

I admire those women and it was an honor to defend their way of life in my thesis. And it is personal for me. For countless generations back the women in my family have been domestic goddesses, the truest of true women. My grandmother never earned a paycheck, nor her mother nor her mother's mother. But they were incredible women. My grandmother told me recently that she remembers her mother making dinner, doing the dishes after dinner, laying down to rest a bit and then getting up to clean until 2 or 3am. I'm sure my great-grandmother then got up around 6am to start her day. Make a fire in the stove, get breakfast ready and kids off to school. Mending, cleaning, baking. A never ending cycle of to-dos.

My mom, Amy, as a child. So excited about that iron!

The Dayton women: Great-Aunt Annis, Great-Aunt Ruth,
my Grandmother (Betty) and my mom

And this mantle has been passed from mother to daughter. Recipes have been passed down the generations. Cleaning methods and habits persist. I'm no longer the youngest girl in the family--my three month old niece holds that distinction now. And I am now a full fledged member of our own little cult of domesticity. I have a house to keep and a husband to care for. As my niece grows she will be indoctrinated into true womanhood. She'll be taught how to make cookies from scratch and roll dough paper thin. Like me she'll learn what is used to take out stains and the value of pre-soaking. Our Pennsylvania heritage will teach her the difference between 'cleaning' and just 'reading up'. And when she's all grown up like me, she'll be one of us.

I'm not a domestic goddess. I have a long way to go before I earn that distinction. But I feel continuity with the generations long before me by taking part in this True Womanhood. The actions of domesticity--cooking, cleaning, and the like--become rituals connecting me with the past. There's something affirming in washing a dish by hand as every generation before me as done. Although, I must admit, I would kill for a dishwasher.

Much has changed. It is far easier for me to be domestic than it was for them. Every generation since the Industrial Revolution has had an easier time than the one before. But even though the accouterments of domesticity has changed, true womanhood has stayed the same. And I hope someday to be as domestically accomplished as my mother and grandmother. After all, we've been doing this for so many generations, I don't want to be the one to break with the past. And I would never want to let down my domestic idol, Sarah Josepha Hale.

I'll leave you with some of my favorite Sarah Josepha Hale quotes so you can see why I love her.

"Is it a disparagement to the rose that it differs from the acorn? Would the peach choose to be identical with the potato? Nature gives the kindly 'fruits of the earth' their uses and virtues, all different and good. With mankind it is similar. Men and women differ as essentially in their minds of modes of thoughts as in their forms."
“On the wife, especially, devolves the privilege and pleasure of rendering home happy.”
“A young bride, first making her own home, should think of this, and remember that much of her future enjoyment may depend upon the halo her hand shall throw around the domestic sanctuary.”

And these make me laugh out loud with appreciation...her advice to men (so true)

“Most women are naturally amiable, gentle, and complying; and if a wife becomes perverse, or indifferent to her home, it is usually her husband’s fault.”

“And even now, happy homes may be made, it the husband and wife would lovingly work for this sweet enjoyment.  Why should all the responsibilities be laid on woman? Would it not be well to give men a lesson or two on their home-duties? Why should not the husband be advised to bring home ‘smiles and sunshine’ for the wife, which she is admonished always to ‘have only smiles and sunshine for the husband when he comes home wearied with his day’s labor’?

My great-great-Grandmother
Vera Gertrude Nearhoof
On her honeymoon with her 2nd husband

My great-Grandmother
Florence Dayton (right) with her sister.
My great-great-great-Grandmother
Elizabeth Boger (Nearhoof)


  1. Sarah J was an inspiration on many levels. I believe she truly loved to write - look at her volume of works - but entered the profession to provide for her family. A single-mother when opportunities had to be made, doors had to be opened for her and she had to have the courage to walk through them. Quite a lady. She was one of my top 3 19th c. ladies who impacted their world to better mine.

  2. I agree... just because a woman is a homemaker doesn't make her less of a woman or weak. In fact, quite the opposite. I once read a children's story in an old book where the husband says he does all the hard work, and 'woman's work' is nothing. They trade places for a day and by the end of the story let's just say he's begging to go back to working in the field ;)


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