The Salience of the Home – 19th Century Baptist Women’s Domestic Role

Roles-Of-Women-In-The-Victorian-Era-2In conjunction with the rise of separate spheres, the significance of women’s work in the domestic sphere increased in the 19th century. Women were increasingly considered to be the “moral compass” of the family; they maintained their home as a safe-haven for spiritual growth and retreat for their children and husband. These beliefs were founded in the understanding that scripture had decreed this special role to women. This imperative would have undoubtedly resonated with Christians before the 19th century, and separate spheres, historians have argued, were extant long before the period defined by Davidoff and Hall. However, it is undeniable that this separation of roles received a newfound emphasis – an idyllic Victorian accent, in the late 18th, early 19th century.

Whereas previously, in the 17th and 18th centuries, women would have worked as a family unit alongside their husbands, the 19th century saw increasing urbanisation which placed greater distance between home and work.  Historian F. Knight states it eloquently when he says, “The Victorians’ excessive adulation of domesticity, combined with their elevation of the moral value of men’s work, was at the heart of much of their distinctive frame of mind. It was an attitude that can be linked with wider changes.” Included in these changes was a belief that the public world was hostile – stress on success was predominant. Men worked to support their families, and because this was part and parcel of his ‘role’, his hard work was a demonstration of manly virtue – especially independence, honesty, and competence.[1]

The home became a place of retreat from worldly pressures placed on men. John Ruskin, a predominant social thinker of the 19th century, said this about the home –

“This is the true nature of home – it is a place of Peace; the shelter, not only from all injury, but from all terror, doubt and division.”[2]

In this peaceful domestic sphere, a woman under the authority of her husband, guided and nurtured her household. Betts provided insight into these ideals in his commentary on a good wife –

“She commandeth her husband by constantly obeying him. She never crosseth him in the spring-tide of his anger, but stays till it be ebbing water…Her children, though many in number, are none in noise. She guideth them with a look whither she listeth.”[3]

Although women’s domestic roles have been mentioned second, it is clear that in the Particular Baptist tradition they were prioritised over work in the church community. Regardless of whether a woman was a minister’s wife or a layperson, her primary role was the domestic sphere. A woman’s highest mission was considered to be that of a mother and a wife, to the exclusion of all others. The Baptist Quarterly Review notes that

“the [domestic] sphere of duty must not be neglected for any other, she is in her own special sphere of duty.”[4]

Betts, when commenting about minister’s wives, also stated that she, as with any other married woman, had household duties to perform – and these must be prioritised.[5]

This sentiment is emphasised, yet again, in a sermon preached by C.H. Spurgeon in 1869, in which he exempted married women from the obligation of consistent church attendance. In fact, he asserted that married women must prioritise their household over the local church.

“Many cannot come, I know, and I do not ask that domestic duties be sacrificed, even for public worship.”[6]

Landels emphasised this in his conduct manual, in which he informs young women on the importance of maintaining a happy hearth:

There can be no happy marriage where, for any consideration whatever, a wife deserts or neglects her own fireside…the duty which she owes to her husband and children, takes precedence of that which she owes to all the world beside.”[7]

While women did have opportunities to dabble in the public sphere through their participation in the church, as noted by the previous blog post on this topic, they were still considered primarily to be destined ‘for the home.’ Indeed, if church work, or even church attendance, was to conflict with their domestic duties, women were expected to sacrifice the former for the latter.

[1] Knight, F. (1997). ‘Male and Female He Created Them’: Men, Women and the Question of Gender. In: J. Wolffe, ed., Religion in Victorian Britain: Volume V – Culture and Empire. Manchester: Manchester University Press, p. 26.

[2] Quoted in Knight, F. (1997). ‘Male and Female He Created Them’: Men, Women and the Question of Gender. In: J. Wolffe, ed., Religion in Victorian Britain: Volume V – Culture and Empire. Manchester: Manchester University Press, p. 27.

[3] Betts, H.J. (1854). Gleanings from a Pastor’s Portfolio. London: Houlston & Stoneman; J. Bigg & Son, p.  38.

[4] Women’s work in the Church. (1888). The Baptist Quarterly Review, p. 481.

[5] Betts, H.J. (1854). Gleanings from a Pastor’s Portfolio. London: Houlston & Stoneman; J. Bigg & Son, pp. 84-85.

[6] Spurgeon, C. (1869). Joining the Church.

[7] Landels, W. (1859). Woman’s Sphere and Work. London, p. 110.

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