A Brief History of Domestic Goddesses

by Emily Matchar

The Homespun Heroine

When: The American Revolution (and 17th century).

Specialties: Making homespun cloth, boycotting tea, keeping her forehead unwrinkled.

The women of colonial America did it all. They spun the cloth, plucked the chickens, ground the wheat, and made soap from animal fat and wood ash, and not because it was “fulfilling” (I’m looking at you, 21st-century “urban homesteaders”!). If they didn’t, their families would freeze, starve, and stink (okay, they were probably pretty smelly anyway). It was important work, but didn’t get much glory — women referred to their tasks as “my narrow sphere” or “my little Domestick affairs.”

But in the years leading up to the American Revolution, women’s domestic labors suddenly took on major political significance. Boycotts of British-made goods gave women a public role in supporting the fight for independence, as they wove their own cloth and made soap for the troops. The Domestic Goddess of the day wore homespun clothing as a badge of patriotism and hosted political-minded women’s spinning and sewing circles. By rejecting British silks and teas in favor of rough linen and bitter, chicory-laced coffee, she became an image of patriotic heroism.

Many women, roused by this new sense of purpose, wanted to get involved in politics outside the domestic realm. But leaders of the era, even the most enlightened, saw public life as simply unbefitting for gentle ladies. On a visit to France, Thomas Jefferson was shocked — shocked! — to find Parisian women participating in political salons. America’s “good ladies” are too wise to “wrinkle their foreheads with politics,” he wrote, in a 1788 letter. “They have the good sense to value domestic happiness above all others.”

The Angel in the House

When: The mid-19th century.

Specialties: Embroidery, pouring tea, self-sacrifice.

In the 19th century America, rapid industrialization meant that men were leaving the homestead en masse to work in offices and factories. Industrialization also meant that women didn’t have to DIY everything — they could now readily buy factory-made clothes, soap, and other household necessities. The home stopped being a center of economic production, and instead became a refuge from the dirty, masculine world of commerce. Men went “outside” and did “work.” Women stayed “inside” and did “homemaking.” Enter the Cult of Domesticity.

The ideal 19th-century Domestic Goddess was “The Angel in the House,” a position much moralized about by the leading writers, preachers, and politicians of the day. The Angel in the House was sweet, submissive, self-sacrificing, and godly, a model of good Christian behavior for her children. She sat in her velvet-draped parlor, reading the Bible aloud until her eyes crossed or embroidering handkerchiefs for her husband. (Virginia Woolf would later roll her eyes at The Angel’s brand of mommy martyrdom: “She excelled in the difficult arts of family life. She sacrificed herself daily. If there was chicken, she took the leg; if there was a draught she sat in it.”)

Unsurprisingly, not all women were down with a steady diet of embroidery and self-sacrifice. By the late 19th century, utopian feminists like Charlotte Perkins Gilman were advocating for communal kitchens and government-sponsored armies of professional cleaners to replace homemakers. And then it happened, and it was awesome! JK.

The Home Economist

When: The late 19th to early 20th centuries.

Specialties: Calculating the calories in a meal, practicing proper kitchen hygiene, suppressing carnal desires with bland cooking.

Poor Ellen Swallow Richards. The first female MIT grad (class of 1873), she wanted to complete her Ph.D. in chemistry, but was forbidden because of her gender. Ever hopeful, Richards hung around cleaning labs on campus and darning professors’ shirts in the hopes that her earnestness would be rewarded with the chance to pursue an advanced degree. It wasn’t.

So Richards brushed herself off and decided to invent her own academic discipline, one which the powers that be would consider lady-appropriate: Home Economics. Home Economics sought to claim honor for traditional women’s work by applying the era’s scientific discoveries to homemaking: if America’s Domestic Goddesses would learn the Chemistry of Soap and how to calculate the calories in a potato, they might also be viewed as “professionals.”

Unfortunately, the science of the day was often, well … wrong (pork takes five hours to digest! Béchamel sauce curtails carnal desires!). Plus, the white, middle-class Home Economists often plowed over traditional rural crafts and ethnic cooking skills with their zeal for efficiency and professionalism. Rather than honoring the American homemaker, they often inadvertently denigrated her as an “amateur.” In any case, by the 1920s women were entering the workforce, and Home Ec was relegated to soupy-smelling high-school classrooms filled with sullen girls making Jell-O rings.

The Frugal Housewife

When: 1929 to the end of World War II.

Specialties: Home canning, saving cooking oil, keeping her loose lips from sinking ships.

The Great Depression made back-to-basics skills necessary again, and turned the Domestic Goddess into a patriotic heroine just like she’d been during the American Revolution. Women’s magazines were full of images of Domestic Goddesses cooking with bread heels and beet greens, saving scraps of tin foil, and cheerfully darning socks. Foods like creamed chipped beef on toast (a.k.a. “shit on a shingle”) and mock apple pie made with Ritz crackers were the high arts of frugal housewivery.

During World War II, women went to work in record numbers, taking over the manufacturing jobs the men had left behind. Though many women were working, they were still meant to be perfect frugal Domestic Goddesses at home. The “home front” was considered a critical factor in winning the war, and women were mobilized to do their bit. Government posters urged women to grow victory gardens to ease wartime food shortages and to save their leftover cooking fat to be turned into war materials. “Food is a weapon — Don’t waste it!” barked a World War II food poster, reminding women that their private domestic choices had vast public consequences.

The Happy Homemaker

When: The late 1940s to early 1960s.

Specialties: “Glamorizing” cake mix cakes with mini-marshmallows, vacuuming in pearls, popping Nembutal.

By the late ’40s, our Goddess is comfortably ensconced in front of her turquoise Magic Chef stove in her postwar ranch house, stirring “just add an egg” Betty Crocker cake mixes, and ordering new draperies from the Sears catalog. She’s young — half of all women were married by their 20th birthday — and already on her way to producing her portion of the Baby Boom. Maybe she’d liked her wartime job, but too bad! Our GIs needed that work. A return to traditional homemaking was the way to bring back stability and old-fashioned American values.

But traditional homemaking was long gone. The de-skilling of the American homemaker, in process since the Industrial Revolution, was now complete. Suburban supermarkets meant women no longer needed to know how to spot the freshest fish at the fishmonger or the best chicken at the butcher. Frozen foods and boxed casseroles took all the skill out of cooking. Dryers meant women no longer spent Monday afternoons hanging laundry in the backyard. Homemaking had become … boring.

B-b-but you were supposed to love homemaking! Maybe you were neurotic? Maybe you were an Unnatural Woman? Maybe you just needed a dose of Mother’s Little Helper?

And then came Betty Friedan, and saved/ruined/liberated/oppressed everyone …


The Crunchy Domestic (God)dess

When: The early 2000s to today.

Specialties: Gluten-free baking, raising backyard chickens, live-blogging her home birth.

Around the beginning of the 21st century, old-fashioned homemaking began to be re-imagined as a source of fun and fulfillment. Third-wave feminists talked of “reclaiming” traditional women’s crafts like knitting and embroidery. The foodie/locavore movement had everyone and her mother obsessed with baking their own bread and curing bacon in the linen closet. Environmentalism and the recession also contributed to homemaking’s new political purpose, making frugal domestic skills like darning socks and growing eggplants seem honorable rather than drudge-y.

This DIY domesticity finds its highest expression in the Crunchy Domestic Goddess (or, on occasion, the Crunchy Domestic God). She raises her own heritage-breed Araucana hens rather than support Big Agriculture. She makes her own toothpaste to avoid chemicals. She sells hand-sewn cloth diaper covers on Etsy, in the hope that one day she’ll be able to quit her day job working for The Man. She calls her life philosophy Simple Living or Frugal Living or Radical Homemaking, or describes herself as a “punk housewife” or a “DIY homemaker” or a “neo-homesteader.”

Her grandmother sometimes looks at her and says, gently, “don’t you know you can buy butter now, dear?”

Emily Matchar is the author of an upcoming book about women and 21st century domesticity (Free Press, 2013). Read more of her thoughts at New Domesticity.

Illustrations by Gigi Rose Gray.


America’s Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudge, Helpmates and Heroines, by Gail Collins
Just a Housewife: The Rise and Fall of Domesticity in America, by Glenna Matthews
The Great American Housewife: From Helpmate to Wage-Earner, by Annegrete Ogden
No Idle Hands: The Social History of American Knitting, by Anne Macdonald