The Family Sphere: The Changing Role of Women in the Home
HIS 310 American Women's History
Instructor: Dr. Cheryl Lemus
April 18, 2016
Dr. Barbara Welter penned an influential article in 1966 titled “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820–1860” which shed light on the often restrictive family sphere of existence within which, most American women throughout history had dwelt. According to Welter, true womanhood held that women were designed exclusively for the roles of wife and mother and were expected to cultivate Piety, Purity, Submissiveness, and Domesticity in all their relations (para.2). The Cult of True Womanhood, the idealized sainted mother, unconditional devotee of her husband and ...view middle of the document...
Their existence was devoted to preparing meals for her family, cleaning their residence, cleaning and mending their clothing, whilst taking full charge of the well-being and education of her many children. However, married women of the era were expected to be devoted to not only housewifery but also provide free labor for their husbands: “…if married to craftsmen or shopkeepers, they also helped out in shops and workshops or, if on the land, managed some aspects of family enterprise, such as poultry or dairy” (Woloch, 2006, p. 16). Then, as now the day-to-day life of a Colonial era married woman was dependent on her wealth. Those that could afford servants lived relatively carefree lives when compared with women of lower socioeconomic classes.
Married women of the Colonial era felt it was their duty to provide their husbands with large numbers of children: “In those days larger families were not a liability but a positive asset…” (Holliday, 1968) In a world where every hand was put to a task, more children in a family meant more work that could be done. However, this expectation for larger and larger families carried with it psychological burdens heaped onto mothers in this age of limited medical knowledge who experienced the agony of high fetal and childhood death rates, and went into labor in fear of their own death from complications while giving birth. The change in the expectation that women bear as many children as possible from the Colonial era to today has been dramatic. In the twenty-first century, most families are made up of fewer than four children. Indeed, in the late twentieth Century it was estimated, based on random surveys that: “…one-fifth of married women did not ever want to have children” (Woloch, 2006, p. 555).
In a departure from the family sphere of existence, modern women have become just as important to a family’s financial status as they have always been to their health and well-being. In 2006, social critic and essayist Barbara Ehrenreich wrote an article for the Women's Policy Journal Of Harvard which stated that: “The big impact of women’s work outside the home is that it pays or at least helps pay the bills. For better or worse, it is no longer optional for most American women to work…” (Ehrenreich & Schlafly, 2006, p. 53). Regardless of their role in the labor force and their importance to the familial income, most women are still expected to fit into the sphere of women and family, still expected to fulfill her role as good wife and mother, praised when she leaves the public sphere and returns to the cult of true womanhood (Clavan, 1970, p.320).
The modern woman is also not defined by her marriage status, as she was in the past. The: “New Woman of the ‘postfeminist’ generation might well be the working wife in an upwardly mobile two-career family, but she might also be a single mother, deserted spouse, impoverished family head, or by choice or circumstance, a woman living alone” (Woloch, 2006, p. 554)....