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The Cult of Domesticity: A System of Middle-Class Values and Social Duties
Sara Stickney Ellis

In this selection, Sarah Stickney Ellis (1812-1872), a typical middle-class Englishwoman, presents a thorough defense of the social order in Great Britain in the first half of the nineteenth century, especially the role of middle-class women in that order. Ellis wrote eloquently of both familial and social duties of women of her class. Reflective of her age, Mrs. Ellis stated that women must also maintain a strong moral stance and pursue lofty causes to which they could devote themselves. It is important to remember that Ellis is representative of the privileged elite of Britain; her attitudes and behavior would scarcely be found among the popular classes.

Questions to Consider
  • According to Ellis, what are the basic duties of middle-class women?

  • How can one characterize the role of the middle-class woman in her family?

One of the noblest features in her national character is the domestic character of England--the home comforts, and fireside virtues for which she is so justly celebrated. These I hope to be able to speak of without presumption, as intimately associated with, and dependent upon, the moral feelings and habits of the women of this favored country.

In looking around, then, upon our "nation of shop-keepers," we readily perceive that by dividing society into three classes, as regards what is commonly called rank, the middle class must include so vast a portion of the intelligence and moral power of the country at large, that it may not improperly be designated the pillar of our nation's strength, its base being the important class of the laborious poor, and its rich and highly ornamental capital, the ancient nobility of the land. In no other country is society thus beautifully proportioned, and England should beware of any deviation from the order and symmetry of her national column.

Perhaps it may be necessary to be more specific in describing the class of women to which this work relates. It is, then, strictly speaking, to those who belong to that great mass of the population of England which is connected with trade and manufactures; or, in order to make the application more direct, to that portion of it who are restricted to the services of from one to four domestics,--who, on the one hand, enjoy the advantages of a liberal education, and, on the other, have no pretension to family rank.

It is from the class of females above described, that we naturally look for the highest tone of moral feeling, because they are at the same time removed from the pressing necessities of absolute poverty, and admitted to the intellectual privileges of the great: and thus, while they enjoy every facility in the way of acquiring knowledge, it is their still higher privilege not to be exempt from the domestic duties which call forth the best energies of the female character.

"What shall I do to gratify myself--to be admired--or to vary the tenor of my existence?" are not the questions which a woman of right feelings asks on first awaking to the avocations of the day. Much more congenial to the highest attributes of woman's character, are inquiries such as these: "How shall I endeavor through this day to turn the time, the health, and the means permitted me to enjoy, to the best account? Is any one sick, I must visit their chamber without delay, and try to give their apartment an air of comfort, by arranging such things as the wearied nurse may not have thought of. Is any one about to set off on a journey, I must see that the early meal is spread, to prepare it with my own hands, in order that the servant, who was working late last night, may profit by unbroken rest. Did I fail in what was kind or considerate to any of the family yesterday; I will meet her this morning with a cordial welcome, and show, in the most delicate way I can, that I am anxious to atone for the past. Was any one exhausted by the last day's exertion, I will be an hour before them this morning, and let them see that their labor is so much in advance. Or, if nothing extraordinary occurs to claim my attention, I will meet the family with a consciousness that, being the least engaged of any member of it, I am consequently the most at liberty to devote myself to the general good of the whole, by cultivating cheerful conversation, adapting myself to the prevailing tone of feeling, and leading those who are least happy, to think and speak of what will make them more so."

Above all other characteristics of the women of England, the strong moral feeling pervading even their most trifling and familiar actions, ought to be mentioned as most conducive to the maintenance of that high place which they so justly claim in the society of their native land. The women of England are not surpassed by those of any other country for their clear perception of the right and the wrong of common and familiar things, for their reference to principle in the ordinary affairs of life, and for their united maintenance of that social order, sound integrity, and domestic peace, which constitute the foundation of all that is most valuable in the society of our native land. Much as I have said of the influence of the domestic habits of my country-women, it is, after all, to the prevalence of religious instruction, and the operation of religious principle upon the heart, that the consistent maintenance of their high tone of moral character is to be attributed. Women are said to be more easily brought under this influence than men; and we consequently see, in places of public worship, and on all occasions in which a religious object is the motive for exertion, a greater proportion of women than of men.

If all was confusion and neglect at home--filial appeals unanswered--domestic comforts uncalculated--husbands, sons, and brothers referred to servants for all the little offices of social kindness, in order that the ladies of the family might hurry away at the appointed time to some committee-room, scientific lecture, or public assembly: however laudable the object for which they met, there would be sufficient cause why their cheeks should be mantled with the blush of burning shamewhich those whose charity has not begun at home, ought never to appropriate to themselves.

It is a widely mistaken notion to suppose that the sphere of usefulness recommended here, is a humiliating and degraded one. With [some women] it is a favorite plea, brought forward in extenuation of their own uselessness, that they have no influence--that they are not leading women--that society takes no note of them.

It is not to be presumed that women possess more moral 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 the 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.

Source: Sarah Stickney Ellis, "The Women of England: Their Social Duties and Domestic Habits," in Walter Arnstein, ed., The Past Speaks, 2d ed. (Lexington, Mass.: D. C. Heath, 1993), 2:172-175.