Research Paper: Conditional Domesticity in 19th Century American Lit

Heather Haynes
February 22, 2007
Dr. Amy Winans
19th Century American Lit
Conditional Domesticity

The cult of domesticity championed by white women of the nineteenth century had a much different connotation when applied to female slaves. Notions of looking after one’s own children and household were all but abandoned by female slaves who were forced to care for their masters’ domestic concerns rather than their own. For female slaveholders, the most important aspect of domesticity was controlling the household help, while slaves themselves were centrally concerned with family. Conflicts between women of different races in the domestic sphere revolved around inconsistent interpretations of the cult of domesticity.

Catherine Beecher’s essay “A Treatise on Domestic Economy for the Use of Young Ladies at Home and at School” functioned as an instruction manual for white women on how to manage their households. Specifically mentioned are children’s upbringing, table manners, and laundry schedules. Beecher also included her views on democracy, Christianity, and moral values. The ideals suggested by Beecher are far from realized in Harriet Jacob’s autobiography Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Jacobs portrayed white women as bestowing household tasks upon female slaves and contorting Beecher’s values to suit themselves. Slave women in Jacobs’s narrative are shown as attempting to carry out their own household duties, but also as being too caught up in caring for their mistress’s chores to carry out their own.

This conflict of interest in the lives of female slaves can actually be supported by Beecher’s cult of domesticity. By ensuring that slaves cared for the household, female slaveholders fulfilled many of their duties at once. Beecher explains, in her description of democracy, that “it is needful that certain relations be sustained, that involve the duties of subordination. There must be the magistrate and the subject, one of whom is the superior and the other the inferior” (257). In this case slaves had the misfortune of being born into the inferior social position and thereby functioning on a lower level of domesticity. However, female slaves may have been encouraged when Beecher stated that “No American woman, then, has any occasion for feeling that hers is an humble or insignificant lot. The value of what an individual accomplishes, is to be estimated by the importance of the enterprise achieved,” in this case being the maintenance of slave-owners’ households (262).

Supportive of slaves’ work or not, Beecher’s statements on domesticity certainly promoted conflicts between women of different races based on subordination and the care of one’s own family over the care of another’s. Jacobs begins her narrative with this angle, asserting: “My mother’s mistress was the daughter of my grandmother’s mistress. She was the foster sister of my mother; they were both nourished at my grandmother’s breast. In fact, my mother had been weaned at three months old, that the babe of the mistress might obtain sufficient food” (9). Here Jacobs challenged the relevance of the cult of domesticity to slave women while simultaneously asserting its dominance over the lives of white women.

The act of a slave woman removing her own child from her care in order to nurture a second child seems self-sacrificing, to say the least. However a woman switching which child to take care of fits perfectly within the cult of domesticity on both accounts. The white woman answered to her duty to “the spread beneficent influence of Christianity, when carried into every social, civil, and political institution” by overseeing the household help and by ensuring that as many hands as possible aid with the difficult task of child-rearing (Beecher 262). The slave woman fulfilled her role acting appropriate to her station and by raising the next generation to the best of her ability (266). Thus the rules implied with the cult of domesticity signified striking different meanings for women of different races, regardless of Beecher’s call for equality between social classes.

Jacobs herself responded to the need to take care of her own children in a much different manner than the story of her grandmother. She chose outwardly abandoning her son and daughter, an act surely frowned upon by free women of the domestic circle. In order to save her children from being brought to her new master and broken in, Jacobs went into hiding without informing them of her decision (109). When confined to a crawlspace for seven years Jacobs functioned more within the white woman’s view of domesticity by finally being able to make clothing for her children and oversee their care (128). Still the conflict remained of the slave woman only being able to take part in the cult of domesticity when removed from the view of slaveholding women, who controlled their households through the work of others.

By designating childcare to female slaves, the lady of the house took care of her duties to rear children properly and govern the household help. Another important duty mentioned by Beecher is catering to one’s husband (271). However married women in Jacobs’s narrative contended with husbands who were significantly less faithful to their marriage vows than was suggested by Beecher’s treatise. Jacobs informs her reader on how “The young wife soon learns that the husband in whose hands she has placed her happiness pays no regard to his marriage vows. Children of every shade of complexion play with her own fair babies, and too well she knows that they are born unto him of his own household” (39). Sexual situations were not described among women’s duties in the cult of domesticity, thus leaving both races of women to remain in subordinate roles to the man of the house.

Such miscegenation further incited conflicts between women of different races. As the married woman attempted to appease her husband and save her marriage while the slave woman was powerless to stop her master in any respect but was still expected to please her mistress. This predicament became worse for Jacobs because Mrs. Flint knew of her husband’s past adultery and “might have used this knowledge to counsel and to screen the young and the innocent among her slaves’ but for them she had no sympathy,” proving further how conflicts between women of different races were perpetrated (Jacobs 34).

While following the guidelines for domesticity (to say nothing of accepted slave conduct) Beecher outlines, a female slave was required to submit fully to her master, even in sexual matters because those in superior stations know what is best for those beneath them. She explains this by stating that women “are made subordinate in station, only where a regard to their best interest demands it” (260). Jacobs encountered this exact problem when pursued by her master Dr. Flint. His wife Mrs. Flint seemingly protected Jacobs from Dr. Flint’s lechery by allowing Jacobs to sleep in her room; however the married woman continually antagonized her slave by testing her to see if she would respond positively to sexual advances (37).

Here the situation that originally brought the two women together tore them further apart by inspiring mistrust and hatred on both sides of the conflict. The disrespect Mrs. Flint shows to Jacobs may fall under governing household help, though it directly contradicts Beecher’s Christian values and “the free expression of kindly feelings and sympathetic emotions” towards others (264).

The same digression from Beecher’s norm can be observed in Mrs. Hobbs, a northern woman who took care of Jacobs’s daughter Ellen while Jacobs was in hiding. Once the slave escaped she traveled almost immediately to find her daughter and said of her reception: “Mrs. Hobbs looked me coolly in the face, and said, ‘I suppose you know that my cousin, Mr. Sands, has given her to my eldest daughter’” (187, emphasis in original). The statement implies that even in a Free State, women of color functioned as subordinates to white women.

Jacobs understandably became inwardly enraged at the audacity of a woman in the Free states keeping another woman’s daughter as property (187-88). While Mrs. Hobbs worked within the cult of domesticity by keeping her possessions and overseeing her new domestic help, she does so in direct opposition to Jacobs’ interests. Her domestic desires to clothe and feed her children were thwarted by a white woman’s domestic desires for increased household help.
However Beecher’s treatise may be interpreted as only pertaining to white women, as she specifies equality in class and gender, but not in race (257). One quote in particular explains this mindset: “The law of Christianity and of democracy, which teaches that all men are born equal, and that their interests and feelings should be regarded as of equal value, seems to be adopted in aristocratic circles, with exclusive reference to the class in which the individual moves” (265). Although Beecher offered this statement as a critique of her contemporary upper class, it remained true in reference to slave culture because the status of white women in slaveholding states was universally above slave women in social rank.

Thus the conflicts between women of different races that centered on differing realizations of the cult of domesticity were actually implied within the movement’s guidelines. Before Beecher mentioned caring for family and property she explains the necessity of subordination, implying that those with the luxury of caring for their estates also possess the luxury of governing servants beneath them. As slave women occupied what was perhaps the lowest social rank of their day, the luxuries of domesticity were denied to them.

Works Cited
Beecher, Catherine Esther. Excerpt from A Treatise on Domestic Economy for the Use of Young Ladies at Home and at School (1841). Popular American Literature of the Nineteenth Century. Ed Paul C. Gutjar. New York: Oxford UP, 2001.

Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself. Ed. Nell Irvin Painter. New York: Penguin, 2000.