What exactly is a Domestic Goddess?  And why bother creating a website about them?

 I'm so glad you asked that question.

A Domestic Goddess is a woman writer who wrote novels, poetry, and other types of literature (including journalism & cookbooks), about specifically "domestic" types of things. It can be associated with a specific time period, that is, the late nineteenth century, although I would argue that there are still "domestic" novels being written today. This particular website deals with American women writers from the period between 1830-1920 (or so).

In general, domestic novels featured the home, the hearth, children (child-rearing, bearing, etc), and relationships between women, as well as other issues like religion, abolition of slavery, the right to vote, and love. In short, they were (are) about women's issues. They were frequently quite popular, but today are often regarded as "minor" or "lesser" works of a period that focuses on the Transcendentalists, or mostly male writers (Poe, Hawthorne & Melville come to mind). When and if they are taught, they are often only taught as children's novels, although they were often originally intended for adults.

The website's name is sort of a pun based on the domestic woman-- women who stay at home have often been called "domestic goddesses" because it sounds so much less a negative judgment of the work done by them than "housewife," (a woman married to a house?) and glorifies their necessary contribution to the smooth running of society. The title is also borrowed (gratefully) from a course that the editor and several (but not all) of the site's contributing writers took in Fall 1997 at Southwest Texas State University, taught by Dr. Priscilla Leder as part of an MA program in Literature. (For more details about the site's purpose and "history", go to the about us page). The "scribbling mobs of women" part is based on a statement, specifically aimed at a number of the writers featured on this website, made in 1855 by Nathaniel Hawthorne:

America is now wholly given over to a d--d mob of scribbling women, and I should have no chance of success while the public taste is occupied with their trash-- and should be ashamed of myself if I did. (qtd in Scribbling Women website).

The funny thing is, Hawthorne did enjoy some popular success (commonly associated with "trash), and for some of the same reasons he condemns the women writers of the period, as Jane Tompkins' critical work, Sensational Designs, explains (see below for more on this).

Domestic fiction has often been criticized as being too limited in scope and being too sentimental, and many critics claimed it was not well-written (a point from which I beg to differ!). Many of the women who wrote this type of work were very popular during their lifetime, selling many copies of their books; but they seemed to disappear from the annals of history/literature soon after their deaths. Instead of believing that this disappearance reflects on the quality of their work and wishing them a well-deserved farewell, scholars today have begun insisting on new categories that reflect more points of view-- including those of women and "popular" writers.

Mother reading to daughterOften these writers shared the particular problems associated with writing during a time when the most important thing for a woman to be doing was raising children and keeping house, in a "separate sphere" from the public, i.e., male/author-ly, one. Some had to make the hard choice between family and writing and never married. Those who did marry were often very conflicted about their passion for writing versus their duties as mother; sometimes this even shows through in their work. But they overcame many odds to keep writing, risking the displeasure of their extended family and social commentators.

Some of them were even forced into writing to support their families, after the deaths of their husbands or in the absence of a "traditional" provider (as in the case with Louisa May Alcott). When we consider that most of them wrote their stories out longhand, stealing moments while their children were asleep and dinner was cooking-- (Louisa May Alcott even suffered extreme pain from mercury poisoning and had violent hand cramps from recopying her work)-- and when we consider the beauty and grace of much of their writing, we understand what we missed when these writers were forgotten. I, for one, am grateful they took the time to do so because it makes me understand the sacrifices that have come before.

For a good book discussing more of the way "great" authors, i.e., Nathaniel Hawthorne, were made in contrast to the so-called "lesser" writers, see Jane Tompkin's critical book Sensational Designs. Tomkins makes the point, with which I agree, that

the reputation of a classic author arises not from the "intrinsic merit" of his or her work, but rather from the complex of circumstances that make texts visible initially and then maintain them in their preeminent position. When classic texts are seen not as the ineffable products of genius but as the bearers of a set of national, social, economic, institutional, and professional interests, then their domination of the critical scene seems less the result of their indisputable excellence than the product of historical contingencies (Sensational Designs, xii)

Perhaps these women's writing, as some people claim, is not universal enough to be considered "Great Literature." Sometimes the stories are very didactic, or preachy/teachy. They are often filled with a religious fervor that we scoff at today. But women of this era were encouraged to make the world a better place through their so-called "higher morality." (Whether women are/were more moral is a very debatable critique of the books, and one that should be discussed). Nevertheless, many women took this call to educate their readers very seriously. They also had lots of fun with their readers too; and some of their novels became bestsellers and changed society.

Some people think that reading about gossip around the kitchen table, or recipes, or quilting, or about a woman driven to do something other than mothering with her life, is too boring. I would argue, and others would agree, that women's concerns are as universal as any others. For example, some might say that a novel strictly about whales and whale fishing is limited to a very narrow audience, and, that no matter how "great" the writing is, its limitations are too great to make it "Universal."

Many of these women writers were "re-discovered" by feminists in the early 1960's and 70's as part of a drive to find literature that represented women's concerns. These women are Victorian versions of Virginia Woolf's "Shakespeare's Sister--" a woman, writing in a "man's world," and needing independence and encouragement to do so.

So, what this site attempts to do is provide a forum for the re-examination of the works of several women writers, from the US, (at this time we are limited to US writers). To accomplish this, and to provide a source of active research in the field, the editor of this site has collected critical papers, written by professional scholars. For the most part, our papers are written by graduate students, but not limited to them. We'd love to have Ph.D's and maybe even undergraduates around the cyberstaffroom. See the call for papers if you're interested in contributing. I, and other contributing writers, have also collected links to other sites about these authors, who are somewhat under-represented on the Internet. The general biographies on each author are very brief, and are, unless otherwise noted, written by the site's editor, but there are listings of published books (in the bibliographies) that the interested reader can buy or get from their library, to learn more. (Please do!) Also, see our "about us" page for more about the specific publishing history of this website.

So what are you waiting for!! Go read about one (or all) of our women writers!

Kimberly A. Wells, Domestic Goddesses Editor and Writer.

Quote: Tompkins, Jane. Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860. New York: Oxford UP. 1985.

Created 2/22/99
updated May 2003