The Influence of Women

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The Influence of Women

Book excerpt

By: Sarah Stickney Ellis

Date: 1839

Source: Ellis, Sarah Stickney. "The Influence of Women." In The Women of England: Their Social Duties and Domestic Habits. London: Fisher, Son, & Co., 1839.

About the Author: Sarah Stickney Ellis was a wife and mother of the middle class in England. Ellis published more than thirty poems, histories, and other documents during her lifetime to contribute to her family's income.


In the late 1820s and early 1830s, as industrialization increased in both England and the northern United States, new opportunities for middle-class families emerged. A "living wage" for middle managers and supervisors in some factory settings, as well as those men who worked as lawyers, physicians, government clerks, merchants, and teachers, allowed middle-class families to have a father who worked full time while the mother tended to the home and children. Such an arrangement had always been possible for the upper classes, with servants assisting the mother, and for rural women who wove childcare into the ebb and flow of the day's work on farms. This new sector of the middle class, however, gave rise to the modern notion of a "stay at home mother," or a woman whose sole responsibility was the management of the home and children.

In the United States, this trend emerged during President Andrew Jackson's administration; the "Era of the Common Man" had ushered in a new sense of common good, and the voting populace had tripled in just four years as property requirements dropped and new states were added to the nation. The middle-class woman who ruled the home, the so-called "Republican" motherhood ideal, was responsible for a wide range of personal and social tasks. In addition to managing housework and cooking, either on her own or with her servant or children's help, the ideal middle-class mother and wife, according to Catharine Beecher, the author of the 1842 book A Treatise on Domestic Economy, was a "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." By controlling the home and hearth, and training young male minds for work and politics, the ideal mother and wife filled her role in society in complement to that of the males in her life.

Writers on both sides of the Atlantic spoke of the merits of what came to be called the "cult of domesticity." By divorcing women from the workplace, or even the need to bring in an income to help support the family, this change in women's roles separated them from the world of work, politics, and society. Many women focused on children, church, and the house; by the late 1830s and early 1840s, magazines such as Godey's Lady's Book reinforced the primacy of women in the home. Sarah Stickney Ellis, a middle-class mother from England, wrote about the ideal of "true womanhood" in her book The Women of England: Their Social Duties and Domestic Habits. Ellis and other such writers argued that women did not need education beyond moral, religious, and domestic teachings; the ideal wife and mother would be a shepherd for her family, leading them down a moral path, keeping a clean and industrious home, and teaching her children proper moral and social lessons. This excerpt from her book discusses her view of the inherent differences between men and women, and the impact of these differences on gender roles.


It is not to be presumed that women possess more power than men; but happily for them, such are their early impressions, associations, and general position in the world, that their moral feelings are less liable to be impaired by pecuniary objects which too often constitute the chief end of man, and which, even under the limitations of better principle, necessarily engage a large portion of his thoughts. There are many humble-minded women, not remarkable for any particular intellectual endowments, who yet possess so clear a sense of the right and wrong of individual actions, as to be of essential service in aiding the judgments of their husbands, brothers, or sons, in those intricate affairs in which it is sometimes difficult to dissever worldly wisdom from religious duty.

And surely they now need more than ever all the assistance which Providence has kindly provided, to win them away from this warfare, to remind them that they hare hastening on towards a world into which none of the treasures they are amassing can be admitted; and next to those holier influences which operate through the medium of revelation, or through the mysterious instrumentality of Divine love, I have little hesitation in saying, that the society of woman in her highest moral capacity, is best calculated to effect this purpose.

How often has man returned to his home with a mind confused by the many voices, which in the mart, the exchange, or the public assembly, have addressed themselves to his inborn selfishness, or his worldly pride; and while his integrity was shaken, and his resolution gave way beneath the pressure of apparent necessity, or the insidious pretences of expediency, he has stood corrected before the clear eye of woman, as it looked directly to the naked truth, and detected the lurking evil of the specious act he was about to commit. Nay, so potent may have become this secret influence, that he may have borne it about with him like a kind of second conscience, for mental reference, and spiritual counsel, in moments of trial; and when the snares of the world were around him, and temptations from within and without have bribed over the witness in his own bosom, he has thought of the humble monitress who sat alone, guarding the fireside comforts of his distant home; and the remembrance of her character, clothed in moral beauty, has scattered the clouds before his mental vision, and sent him back to that beloved home, a wiser and a better man.


A "pure" woman exhibited four key traits: piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity. As Ellis notes, the world outside the home was viewed as a source of temptation. The emergence of the cult of domesticity coincided with the Moral Reform or Purity Movement, an effort to abolish prostitution and to encourage abstinence for all sexual relations aside from procreation. Syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases were on the rise, brought home by straying husbands; the focus on purity was not an entirely selfless act on the part of the Republican mother. Through the Purity Movement women gained some political experience; the paradox that women were uniquely suited to campaign against vice using public lectures, protests, and publications helped to foster future political involvement in issues outside of moral questions.

A pure woman was, under this philosophy, to embody piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity to such a degree that when her husband faced vice directly, he would immediately think of "the humble monitress … clothed in moral beauty." This placed the burden of the husband's vice on the wife; if only she were pure enough, he would not seek out prostitutes or the company of drinkers or gamblers, according to articles and books preaching domesticity as an answer to venereal disease, alcoholism, and other social problems.

A vocal opposition to the cult of domesticity emerged in the mid-1840s and early 1850s. Women who had learned to organize politically during purity crusades used those skills to argue for greater rights for women in the United States and England. The 1848 Seneca Falls Convention for women's rights and the formation of the National Woman Suffrage Association by Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony set the stage for the next seventy-two years, as social norms changed regarding gender identity, women's intellectual abilities, and women's civil rights. On the cusp of the passage of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote in 1920, supporters of the more traditional ideal of pure womanhood argued against the amendment on the grounds that husbands represented wives' interests with their vote; politics would morally corrupt women.

In the late twentieth century echoes of the cult of domesticity could be found in the book Fascinating Womanhood, by Helen Andelin. The book focuses on the "submissive wife," who hands over all decisions to her husband. According to Andelin, "It is the woman's role to stay home to care for the needs of the household and among other things to nurture, train, teach and discipline the children. When the man is gone all day earning the living, in a very challenging world, he needs and deserves to have peace, rest, quiet and well-behaved children." Like the cult of domesticity in the middle of the nineteenth century, this concept of women acting as a moral compass, deferential to the husband, retains a role in some sectors of modern U.S. society.



Andelin, Helen. Fascinating Womanhood. New York: Bantam, 1992.

Beecher, Catharine. A Treatise on Domestic Economy. Boston: T.H. Webb, 1842.

Dubois, Ellen Carol. Feminism and Suffrage: The Emergence of an Independent Women's Movement in America, 1848–1869. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1999.

Matthews, Glenna. "Just a Housewife": The Rise and Fall of Domesticity in America. New York: Oxford University Press USA, 1989.

Robertson, Una A. The Illustrated History of the Housewife, 1650–1950. London: Palgrave MacMillan, 1999.

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The Influence of Women

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