The British Working Class Participation in the Cult of Domesticity

The Dining Room by Peter Illsted (1887) | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The Industrial Revolution changed the world in many ways. It brought capitalism and consumerism into being, changing the world’s outlook on wealth creation. It revolutionized technology, allowing the innovation of mass production to expand exponentially. Jobs in factories shifted labor from farming to factories. With this came the migration of people from countrysides into cities as the economy shifted from an agrarian society into an industrialized society. This shift altered the social structure of the family. Beginning in the early nineteenth century, as the effects of the Industrial Revolution began to settle, a pattern became visible. With the rise of industrial labor, men transformed their function from director of work to provider of income, developing their role in the public sphere as laborers and professionals. Meanwhile, women took on the role of educating the children and keeping the home in order, forming the private sphere within the household.1

Historians argue over how we should understand these separate spheres. Some argue that working-class women had to participate in the public sphere out of necessity for earning a living, and therefore they were denied the choice of participating in the cult of domesticity.2 They argue that although these women’s position in society was marginal, they created an identity for themselves in the public sphere.3 While these historians claim that participation in the cult of domesticity was restricted to middle-class women, I argue that working-class women, when they had the choice, often chose to work in the private sphere, thereby choosing to participate in the cult of domesticity to the best of their abilities.

A Family in a Drawing Room (19th century) | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

As the Industrial Revolution changed the mold of society, the public sector and the private home became two isolated and separate worlds. The private sphere of influence that women were associated with in the nineteenth century refers to the realm in which a woman’s role was as the head of the domestic household. In contrast, men participated in the public sphere, which included the worlds of labor, politics, and association.4 In her role in the private sphere, a woman determined the social reproduction aspect of the family, as opposed to the economic production. Social reproduction is defined by feminists as the labor involved in the maintenance of a lifestyle as well as producing the next generation.5 This work goes beyond bearing children, including activities such as making food, clothing, and shelter immediately available; teaching and caring for children; caring for the elderly; and providing a good moral example within her home.6 From an early age, girls’ education centered around making good wives and mothers with programs that guaranteed gentility and femininity. By participating in such activities, women helped to form the organization of society through their families. While the class of their families contributed to the flexibility of their appearance in the public sphere, there is a clear distinction between public and private worlds.

The newly formed middle class of the nineteenth century is the most overwhelming indication of the separation of spheres. With industrialization on the rise, clear gender roles emerged as the social structure of the family changed.7 Whereas in the working class both women and men contributed to the family income, in middle-class families the men worked for wages while their wives stayed home to manage the household.8 This gave women of the middle class little opportunity to participate in the public sphere. A clear indicator of middle-class status was the ability to keep any number of servants. Most families had only one servant.9 Nevertheless, it was the women of the household that directed their work in their homes. This was the contribution they made to their household. The occupation of homemaker, though valuable to the family, cemented their lives in the private sphere. Mothers were expected to provide for the education of their children. It was because of this ideology that middle-class women were able to be educated in math, literature, history, and foreign language, and to teach their children in turn.10 As daughters grew up, the limited education they received was the basis for wives and mothers to properly fulfill their roles, teaching their children as the cycle of domesticity repeated itself.

The Sinews of Old England (1857) by George Elgar Hicks | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Due to their economic need to work, working-class women had more of an opportunity to be in the public sphere. In order to survive, these women, as laborers, interacted with employers, landlords, police, and other public institutions such as schools.11 This blurred the line between the private and public spheres. It was for this reason that working-class women were seen as hostile and aggressive. Although they did have interactions in the public sphere, this conflicted with their assigned role as caretakers. In order to do what was necessary to provide for their families, they were perceived as risking their moral virtue by entering the public sphere. With this morality at stake, it was easy for society to question these women’s ability to care for a household when the private and public spheres were viewed as being so isolated from each other. Thus, being employed in a factory, or another public institution was viewed as unfavorable to working-class families seeking jobs for their daughters. These daughters were to grow to become the wives and mothers of the next generation, so they needed to be viewed with the capability to support domesticity. Therefore, when women had the choice, these young women often chose to be employed as a servant, which was a less humiliating alternative to factory work.12

These young, working-class women helped their families by earning income while remaining in the private sphere. Their class status remained distinctly working class, as it was the distinction to hire a servant in the first place that separated the middle class from the working class. But even when a working-class daughter or wife needed to contribute to the family’s income, if she chose to work as a domestic servant, her could remain largely in the private sphere, although in the private sphere of another woman’s home. An 1891 study shows that out of the 772 domestic servants working in Lancaster, only eight were men.13 Clearly there is an overwhelming difference in number of female servants as opposed to male domestics. Thus, by the Victorian standards that fostered the separate spheres sensibilities, these working-class women were subsequently choosing to remain in the private realm. The same study shows that the majority of servants were young single women. This indicates that these women were preparing for their lives as wives and mothers by supporting their father’s household through work in a private home.14 It further shows that young women worked in factories and entered the public sphere only when absolutely necessary.

Group of Edwardian Maids by Herne Bay (1907) | Courtesy of Flickr

Through the examinations of the work that women of the lower and middle classes contributed to their families, there is a clear distinction that emerged in contrast to their husbands and fathers. While middle-class women dedicated their lives to their work in the privacy of their homes, working-class women were required to roam the male-dominated public sphere by working. Still, a clear distinction emerges, as working women often chose jobs in the homes of the wealthier classes. Through this evidence, I have argued that women most often sought to remain in the private sphere, either as middle-class women or as working-class servants, while their husbands and fathers worked to provide for their families economically. Therefore, despite the claim that participation in the restrictions of the private sphere pertained only to the middle class, it is clear that working-class women often chose to work in the private sphere rather than in the public eye.

  1.  Barbara Laslett and Johanna Brenner, “Gender and Social Reproduction,” Annual Review of Sociology, vol. 15 (1989): 387.
  2.  Amanda Vickery, “Golden Age to Separate Spheres? A Review of the Categories and Chronology of English Women’s History,” The Historical Journal, vol. 36, no. 2 (June 1993): 389.
  3. Ruth L. Smith and Deborah M. Valenze, “Mutuality and Marginality: Liberal Moral Theory and Working Class Women in Nineteenth Century England,” Signs, vol. 13, no. 2 (winter 1988): 278.
  4.  Ellen Jordan, “‘Making Good Wives and Mothers’? The Transformation of Middle-Class Girls’ Education in Nineteenth-Century Britain,” History of Education Quarterly, vol. 31, no. 4 (Winter 1991): 443.
  5.  Barbara Laslett and Johanna Brenner, “Gender and Social Reproduction,” Annual Review of Sociology, vol. 15 (1989): 385.
  6.  Ellen Jordan, “‘Making Good Wives and Mothers’? The Transformation of Middle-Class Girls’ Education in Nineteenth-Century Britain,” History of Education Quarterly, vol. 31, no. 4 (Winter 1991): 442.
  7. World History Encyclopedia, 2011, s.v. “The Cult of Domesticity in the United States and Britain.”
  8.  Barbara Laslett and Johanna Brenner, “Gender and Social Reproduction,” Annual Review of Sociology, vol. 15 (1989): 389.
  9.  Siân Pooley, “Domestic Servants and Their Urban Employers: A Case Study of Lancaster, 1880-1914,”  The Economic History Review, New Series, vol. 62, no. 2 (May 2009): 407.
  10.  Ellen Jordan, “‘Making Good Wives and Mothers’? The Transformation of Middle-Class Girls’ Education in Nineteenth-Century Britain,” History of Education Quarterly, vol. 31, no. 4 (Winter 1991): 442.
  11. Ruth L. Smith and Deborah M. Valenze, “Mutuality and Marginality: Liberal Moral Theory and Working Class Women in Nineteenth Century England,” Signs, vol. 13, no. 2 (winter 1988): 286.
  12. Siân Pooley, “Domestic Servants and Their Urban Employers: A Case Study of Lancaster, 1880-1914,”  The Economic History Review, New Series, vol. 62, no. 2 (May 2009): 418
  13.  Siân Pooley, “Domestic Servants and Their Urban Employers: A Case Study of Lancaster, 1880-1914,”  The Economic History Review, New Series, vol. 62, no. 2 (May 2009): 411.
  14. Siân Pooley, “Domestic Servants and Their Urban Employers: A Case Study of Lancaster, 1880-1914,”  The Economic History Review, New Series, vol. 62, no. 2 (May 2009): 411.
The British Working Class Participation in the Cult of Domesticity
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20 Comments

  • Great article. I enjoyed reading about the difference between working in the private sector versus working in the public sector for working women in that period in England. It does not seem fair that women who had to work in factories were judged as less lady-like then women that worked as servants in private homes. It is clearly a double standard enforced by the larger male-dominated society of the time. Any women that works to help support her family is taking on a supportive and nurturing role and should never be judged for doing so, even if she works in a un-lady-like profession. I think it demonstrates how the middle class began to rise up and look down upon the lower working classes from the beginning.

  • This article was extremely interesting because it exposed readers to a new society that many people might not have thought about prior to reading the article. It clearly demonstrates how the boom of industrial revolution brought a breath of fresh air for working women to contribute alongside their husbands. This article brought a new perspective into my life and I am deeply grateful for it.

  • This article shows works of early feminism, and even shows some of the same aspects as feminism today. It’s nice to see how feminism got its start and how it was seen in the old days. I now have a better understanding of where feminists come from as well, they are fighting for more rights that men have, since they work just the same as men do. Great job on this article!

  • Your article was very clear as to how the Britain women have evolved to become part of the working class. And also how you developed the explanation of the many ways women left the private sphere whether they worked in public with men or for different families. I’m glad that today women are speaking out and voicing their opinion but I dislike how they are still over looked at times

  • Very interesting article! This article was very well written, and provided many discouraging facts about domesticity. It is hard to believe that women were treated like this for thousands of years up until the 20th century. I believe that giving women a role in our present day society has benefitted us greatly. Imagine where we could have been now if we had given women the ability to provide for themselves or others earlier in time.

  • This article was a great read and it was executed very well. Your article depicts a time where men were the head of the household and women were merely just the housekeepers of the house. In our day in age, women are now able to work for themselves not needing a man to provide for them. It is still and works in progress but women are doing much more for themselves than any time before.

  • This a very well written article. You not only gave good insight in setting the time period but also went into great detail about the private sphere. This was truly a dividing time period in terms of today. This time period didn’t allow for self expression for women. This time also further encouraged the idea of suppressing women from working the jobs that where usually for men. We however have come a long way since then. We should still continue to treat everyone equally regardless of gender, or race.

  • It is truly unfortunate how women are belittled for achieving what men have always achieved. They were portrayed as contentious for voicing their opinion, that they didn’t have the right to have. I am happy that nowadays, women are more encouraged to speak on their behalf, but even then, they still get bashed for having thoughts of their own, while men are seen as courageous. We have come a great long way in this society and world, however there are also a few other things we need to achieve in order to truly be fair.

  • It was interesting to see the separation of roles as “spheres”. It makes quite a bit of sense considering they’re essentially just spheres of influence. Mother’s were supposed to have spheres of influence primarily in the home, and for men the same logic applies. I think explaining it in this way was correct and well thought out, but cult of domesticity carries a negative connotation. Hopefully for everyone in this day and age it is not “cult” like to want to own the influence of a home and be a caretaker.

  • This article as well research, very well written. It’s crazy how much economics affect the rest of the world and the chain in society. As described in the passage of the upbringing of the middle class, and how more of the gender roles came along with it. While also creating two separate lives at home for the husband and wife, still the woman wants to go to the private sphere. It’s amazing how this was the affect of the industrial revolution, It seems that all that is talked about is how it helped the male worker but not much is said about the female point of view.

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