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13.2: Cultural Movements- Transcendentalism, Utopian Communities, and the Cult of Domesticity

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    Like the Second Great Awakening, other American movements professed a deep-held belief in the goodness of mankind. Transcendentalists and members of Utopian communities emphasized the perfectibility of humanity and took steps to live their lives and create communities so as to achieve some measure of human perfection. These movements transformed American culture in distinct ways. The transcendentalists had a lasting effect as part of a greater, global movement in Romanticism, which emphasized elevation of the spirit over reason. Transcendentalists also had a powerful effect on the development of a distinctly American field of literature.

    More than a hundred Utopian communities were established throughout the United States during the nineteenth century; each of these communities sought to perfect the human experience, though they took differing views on how this could be achieved.


    The transcendentalists were an intellectual community mostly centered in New England. They emphasized the dignity of the individual and exalted American ideals of freedom, optimism, and self-reliance. They sought to “transcend” the limits of reason and intellect and allow the soul to attain a relationship, a mystical oneness, with the universe. Many important American transcendentalists were writers who set about establishing an “American literary independence,” producing a flowering of literature. Much of their literature reflected transcendental beliefs, praising Nature, a simple life, and self-reliance. In Walden, or Life in the Woods, Henry David Thoreau wrote of his experiences supporting himself living on Walden Pond, Massachusetts; he begins his narrative by declaring, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of live, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover I had not lived.” In his address “The American Scholar,” fellow Massachusetts resident Ralph Waldo Emerson similarly wrote that “We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds…A nation of men will for the first time exist, because each believes himself inspired by the Divine Soul which also inspires all men.” Many transcendentalists, including Emerson and Thoreau, were also reformers who worked in the abolitionist and women’s rights causes.

    Utopian Communities

    Other groups held similar beliefs to the transcendentalists and focused their efforts on establishing ideal communities that would work to perfect the human experience in a social Utopia. Over the course of the century, some 100 Utopian communities were founded. Many focused on religion as the center of its community and activities; others were secular in nature. Utopian movements withdrew from the larger society and focused their efforts on the creation of a perfected new social order, not a reformed older one. Most of the communities stressed hard work and commitment to community ideals as a means of achieving this perfected new society. Many collapsed after years or even months; however, taken together, Utopianism was a significant movement that introduced new ideas to American society. In some cases, the transcendental and Utopian movements overlapped.

    In 1840, leading transcendentalist George Ripley of Boston announced his intention of creating a place based on communal living and transcendental values. He and his followers established Brook Farm, where intellectuals pursued both hard physical and mental work as a way of life. Each member of the community was encouraged to work at the farming tasks that they liked best; every member was paid the same wage, including women. The community supported itself not only through farming, but also selling handmade goods and charging admission to the farm to curious visitors; they also earned money through the tuition raised by the excellent school run on the farm by Ripley. Brook Farm was to serve as an example in the perfection of living for the rest of the world. By 1844, community members had formally adopted a socialist societal model. They wrote and published a journal to promote and promulgate their views. However, the general public paid little attention to both the journal and the farm itself. Like many other Utopian communities, the experiment at Brook Farm came to an end in part because it had little to no real effect on the outside world. The final factor in its ending was when part of the farm caught fire; the community was unable to rebuild because the buildings were uninsured. By 1847, the experiment in communal living was over, and the farm closed down.

    One of the longest-lasting Utopian traditions was the Shaker community. The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing established multiple communities devoted to living a simple life and developing one’s talents through hard work. They were popularly called Shakers because of their practice of worship through music and dance, sometimes in twitching, “shaking” movements. Shakers worked to perfect themselves and their communities in anticipation of Christ’s return.

    Shakers, who lived a celibate life, added to their community through adoption and conversion, by taking in orphans, the homeless, and poor. The sexes lived and worked separately but held property in common. They practiced equality of the sexes, and at each level of the church hierarchy, both men and women held leadership positions. Since men and women were equal in the eyes of God, they argued, men and women should be treated equally on Earth. In fact, the founder of the American Shaker church was a woman: “Mother” Ann Lee. Shakers believed that God had both male and female aspects, and that Mother Lee was the female counterpart to Christ. For these reasons, more women joined the Shakers than men. At their height, the movement had about 6,000 members; however, the movement’s rule of celibacy brought about its decline as few people joined the Shakers after mid-century.

    Ultimately, the Shaker community’s most lasting influence on the American public was not religious, but through design aesthetics. The Shaker emphasis on simplicity, functionality, and craftsmanship held broad appeal for many Americans. Shaker-designed and produced products and furniture, such as chairs, boxes, and cabinetry, remain a staple of the design world to this day.

    Utopian socialist communities formed as a reaction to growing industrialization and its effects on the working class. The most prominent example of this is the community at New Harmony, Indiana. Established in 1825 by Scottish business owner and social reformer Robert Owen, the community’s goal was to create a new social order where cooperation and the needs of the community superseded the interests of individuals. To this end, the community adopted a constitution which required that members of the community work for the community in exchange for credit at the town store. Those who did not wish to work could purchase credit instead. The town was to be governed by a committee of seven: four chosen by Owen, three elected by the community. Within the year, complaints of discrepancies between workers and non-workers arose. Additionally, the community had been unable to become self-sufficient and was overcrowded. Nevertheless, many members remained hopeful that the experiment world work and the community adopted a new constitution that espoused equal rights and equal duties for all. Although the constitution aspired to lofty goals, it proved too short on detailed specifics on how the community was to function on a dayto-day basis. The community limped along for several more months, but by 1827, it was subdivided and socialism gave way to individualism.

    Cult of Domesticity and Separate Spheres

    Though many of the Utopian communities such as the Shakers called for relative equality of the sexes and women were viewed as spiritual equals in the Second Great Awakening, the American elite and middle class held a very different idea of the nature of women and their role in society. The “Cult of Domesticity” declared that the sphere of a “true woman” was her household. Publications such as Godey’s Lady Book and A Treatise on Domestic Economy instructed women on how to create a refuge for their husbands and children, sheltering them from the cruel world outside. Moreover, women were to be the moral compass for their families. The Cult of Domesticity provided a powerful ideology of gender roles for many Americans. While not all regions and classes were adherents to this ideology, it was a movement that profoundly influenced American culture.

    The ideology of the Cult of Domesticity took shape in the early 1800s. It viewed women and men as complete and total opposites, with almost no characteristics in common. Sex was the ultimate divisor, and gender roles and American society and culture were shaped with this division at its heart. Men and women inhabited two completely different “spheres”: the public world of work and politics, belonging exclusively to men, and the private world of home and family, the domain of women. Although the spheres were completely separate, they were complimentary. The Cult of Domesticity built upon this notion of separate spheres and asserted that true women were centered exclusively in the domestic world of home and family; childrearing and caretaking was not work for women, but a natural expression of their feminine nature. True womanhood was found in selfless service to others. True women were to be pure and pious as well as skilled practitioners of the domestic arts, such as needlecraft. The Cult of Domesticity was upheld as the ideal among the mainstream American culture; however, many women were effectively excluded from “true womanhood” by virtue of their social status, race, or religion. True women, the underlying message proclaimed, were white, Protestant, and did not work outside of the home; it was a middle-class social ideology resting on the assumption that a woman was married to a man who was able and willing to support her. Living the ideals of the Cult of Domesticity and true womanhood allowed the middle class to distinguish themselves from the working class as increasing industrialization, urbanization, and immigration in the 1820-1850 period resulted in the first emergence of female wage laborers.

    The Cult of Domesticity served a religious as well as social and cultural role. Through their devotion and sacrifice as wife, and more importantly, as mother, women were serving as a Christian ideal for their family. She served as a representative of Christ in daily life and made her sphere of domesticity a kind of sacred territory, creating a home which was a “haven from the heartless world” for her husband and children. Historians Ellen Carol DuBois and Lynn Dumenil argue that “true womanhood was a fervently Protestant notion, which gave to female devotion and selfless sacrifice a redemptive power.” It is no coincidence that this ideology came to prominence in the same era as the Second Great Awakening.

    Both the influence of the Cult of Domesticity and the role that women played in the Second Great Awakening ultimately allowed and even encouraged women to participate in the moral reform efforts that came to characterize the antebellum period in the United States. Beginning in the 1820s, women participate in female benevolent associations that sponsored international Christian missionary efforts. Other organizations worked closer to home to uplift the poor, spiritually and morally. Middle class women were involved in these organizations because adherents of the Cult of Domesticity viewed the absence of separate spheres and family values as the cause of poverty. Since the mother and wife worked outside of the home in the corrupt public world, they reasoned, how could it be a place of refuge and purity? Middle class women worked to “educate” the poor in how they should live. Belief in the moral superiority of the Cult of Domesticity allowed for women of the middle class to engage in good works outside of the home, in the public world. In essence, the moral outreach and female benevolent societies expanded the private, domestic sphere and allowed the middle class to view itself as superior to the working class not only economically, but also socially. By the early 1830s, middle class women played an important role in the many reform movements of the age, including the temperance movement as well as the reform of education and prisons.


    The nineteenth century saw cultural movements that, like the Second Great Awakening, perceived humanity as basically good and imminently perfectible. The transcendentalists, the United States’ first organized intellectual community, expressed this notion in their writings. American literature flourished in part because of the activities of the transcendentalists. Secular and religious utopian communities sought to live their lives and create communities that achieved some measure of human perfection. Utopian movements focused their efforts on the creation of a perfected new social order, not a reformed older one. Most of the communities withdrew from society, stressing the value of hard work and commitment to community ideals as a means of achieving this perfected new society. The Brook Farm community was an intellectual experiment that overlapped with the transcendental movement. The Shakers sought perfection of humanity in religion, stressing the equality of the sexes and celibacy. Finally, the utopian socialist community of New Harmony tried to create a more perfect society through communal work and property.

    Finally, the Cult of Domesticity sought to perfect family life through the maintenance of a home run by a moral, domestically-skilled wife and mother. The home (and, by extension, the woman of the house) came to represent a place of morality, in sharp contrast to the corrupt public world. The Cult of Domesticity provided a powerful ideology of gender roles for many Americans. While not all regions and classes were adherents to this ideology, it was a movement that profoundly influenced American culture.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    Transcendentalists viewed ________ as the key to the human experience.

    1. transcending nature to attain reason
    2. equality of nations
    3. self-reliance
    4. dystopian communities


    Exercise \(\PageIndex{2}\)

    Shakers and Millerites were _____ movements, because they thought that the second coming of Jesus was approaching.

    1. millennial
    2. diurnal
    3. reform
    4. utopian


    Exercise \(\PageIndex{3}\)

    The notion of separate spheres and the Cult of Domesticity allowed the American middle class to distinguish themselves as separate from and superior to the working class.

    1. True
    2. False


    This page titled 13.2: Cultural Movements- Transcendentalism, Utopian Communities, and the Cult of Domesticity is shared under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Catherine Locks, Sarah Mergel, Pamela Roseman, Tamara Spike & Marie Lasseter (GALILEO Open Learning Materials) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.