When you hear the word domesticity, what do you think? Several things probably come to mind.
Perhaps you picture a Leave it to Beaver-esque home or maybe something from an earlier time in American history when women were expected to keep the house, raise the children, and leave everything else to the husband. We associate several tasks with domesticity. Really, everything from cooking, to cleaning, to child-rearing, to sitting in front of a sewing machine for work or pleasure is associated with this idea.
What is the actual definition of domesticity, you ask? Well, here it is, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Domesticity means “life inside the home: the activities of a family or of the people who share the home.” But, there are other connotations as well. Domestic, a form of the word domesticity also means “tame,” as in the idea of a domesticated animal. So, here it becomes a little fuzzy.
Centuries ago, women were sort of supposed to be tame. They received a separate education from boys (often informal from mothers and grandmothers) that “refined” them and prepared them for a domestic life in the house. Women who acted out, who spoke out in public, and even worked were often considered improper and unladylike. Some women, however, found a way to use domesticity to get around the limitations men set upon them.
By the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, women were able to get out into the public sphere under the guise of domestic crafts. Some women took jobs in sewing shops as seamstresses and by the early nineteenth century were working in some of the New England textile mills. Other women joined activist sewing groups where they sold their products and donated the profits to a cause. They didn’t let domestic crafts tame them.
Today, there is still a legacy of independence tied to things like knitting, quilting, crocheting, and sewing. More and more young women are picking up knitting needles and purchasing sewing machines in an attempt to bring attention to where things like clothing, accessories, and bedding come from. Think of it as the organic and local food movements, but for knits and quilts and things. A simple Google search will reveal a plethora of blogs related to each of these crafts, some come from the kindly grandmother types you’d expect to teach you to knit, while others come from renegade twenty-somethings keeping the craft alive, while giving it a modern twist…and they definitely aren’t subscribing to ideas about feminine domesticity.
What about you? Do you knit, sew, crochet, quilt, or participate in any other craft I’ve left out? We’d love to hear about it here at the Whaley House and we’d love to see you at our upcoming March program entitled Using Domesticity!