A while ago I was listening a history podcast that referenced something called the Four Pillars of Womanhood that I hadn’t heard of before. I did a little digging to find out more. Apparently, from 1820-1860, the role of women was viewed as encompassed by these four pillars. Women who did not possess these qualities were vilified as unnatural and undesirable mates. Given how closely they track with some current views of women in the Church, I was intrigued and simultaneously horrified. Let’s take a closer look at these Four Pillars and see if they are a relic of the past or if they are still seen as relevant in today’s Church.

Historian Barbara Welter explains that these pillars arose to define a role for women that complemented the masculine role that emerged as a result of the rise of industrial capitalism which took men away from the homestead, out of the agricultural life, and into the cities where long hours became the norm. These shifts saw the emergence of a new middle class in which husbands worked as lawyers, office workers, factory managers, merchants, teachers, physicians, etc. Increasingly, these middle class families began to see themselves as the backbone of society.

Women were encouraged to focus on these four “virtues” in response to these new social trends:

  • Piety
  • Purity
  • Submissiveness
  • Domesticity


Let’s start with the role of religion which was seen as a particularly important pursuit for women (as opposed to men). Religion had a few benefits for women who were left to handle domestic affairs while men’s jobs took them away from the home. It gave women a non-threatening place to exercise their social skills, one that wouldn’t encourage them to question the status quo or to develop their own ideas. It would also encourage women to exert a moral influence over the household, particularly the children and other members of the household. Religion and piety would reduce strife and selfishness when women were without the support and resources their husbands used to provide when they were more present.

“Religion is exactly what a woman needs, for it gives her that dignity that best suits her dependence.” Caleb Atwater, Esq.

“Religion is just what a woman needs. Without it she is ever restless and unhappy…” Mrs. John Sanford

Karl Marx observed that religion was the opiate of the masses. It was a particularly effective tranquilizer for women who wanted to see their activities as social and meaningful, but whose access to social power structures was being curtailed at this time. Participating in government or other civic areas was seen as a pathway out of the domestic sphere, something to be feared as it would leave vacant the spaces men had already vacated. Women were particularly cautioned against academic pursuits that would fill their heads with thoughts rather than prayer:

“the greater the intellectual force, the greater and more fatal the errors into which women fall who wander from the Rock of Salvation…” Sarah Joseph Hale


When the cat’s away, the mice will play. And when the husband’s off working, the postman rings twice. There’s nothing quite so unsettling to these “modern” men as the insecurity of paternity.

Women’s magazines warned that women who were unfaithful to their husbands or had “loose morals” would suffer madness or even death as a result. While “true” women were urged to protect their virtue, men were deemed more sensual, and women were cautioned that men would be unable to keep themselves from attempting to assault the virtue of women. It became the responsibility of women (despite their smaller physical size) to prevent men from fulfilling their carnal lusts or suffer the consequences. If a woman failed to rebuff a man’s sexual overtures, she could expect the worst possible outcomes:

“You will be left in silent sadness to bewail your credulity, imbecility, duplicity, and premature prostitution.” Thomas Branagan in The Excellency of the Female Character Vindicated

If she was successful in rejecting male seduction, however, she would be revered and respected by her potential assaulter as the preserver of virtue. Obviously, I can’t tell you how many Thank You cards I received in high school for all the advances I rebuffed! While men were in charge of most things, women were in charge of keeping their husbands’ carnal desires under control.

“The man bears rule over his wife’s person and conduct. She bears rule over his inclinations: he governs by law; she by persuasion…The empire of women is the empire of softness, her commands are caresses, her menaces are tears.” A popular women’s magazine of the period. I threw up a little in my mouth.

Real women were seen to have no sex drive. If a woman was passionate or pursued sex, it was believed she would drain her male partners of his life force like a vampire! So a woman who was asexual was seen as a sort of ideal. Still, the world must be peopled, which brings us to the next so-called virtue.


Since women were taught to fear sex and flee from it or risk mental illness, death, prostitution, and ignominy, the dilemma was that their only haven was to be marriage in which sex was an expected part. Whereas she must fight off the advances of any non-spouse, she was required to submit to the advances of her husband regardless her feelings. This extended beyond sex to all other aspects of her life because women were completely dependent on their husbands, barred from any means of self-support.

“True feminine genius is ever timid, doubtful, and clingingly dependent; a perpetual childhood…” Grace Greenwood

Female submission was required to the greatest extremes.

“if [your husband] is abusive, never retort.” Grace Greenwood

“to suffer and be silent under suffering seems to be the great command a woman has to obey…” from A Young Women’s Guide to the Harmonious Development of a Christian Character

By absorbing any negative emotions her husband threw her way, the woman was supposed to create a haven for the other family members. Her soft answer would theoretically turn away his wrath. And if that didn’t work, with no divorce available and provided he didn’t actually kill her first, there was always arsenic.

Women were constantly reminded that they were different from and inferior to men, and this kept them from questioning their position’s limitations too much.

“She feels herself weak and timid. She needs a protector. She is in a measure dependent. She asks for wisdom, constancy, firmness, perseveredness, and she is willing to repay it all by the surrender of the full treasure of her affection. Women despise in men everything like themselves except a tender heart. It is enough that she is effeminate and weak; she does not want another like herself.” George Burnap in The Sphere and Duties of Woman. Jeez, I wouldn’t want to be with someone like that either!

Lest this sound hopelessly outdated, I literally just saw a meme last week that said men were losing their way without a societal expectation that women need their protection! I mean, don’t these guys have jobs? Family obligations other than killing spiders and warding off home invasions? Doesn’t cleaning out the garage give them a reason to get up in the morning? Helping with the laundry or dishes? Being a parent? Fighting for social justice? Reducing their carbon footprint? Contributing to charity or the space program? Feeding the family dog?

And this next one makes women sound like faithful pets:

“A woman has a head almost too small for intellect but just big enough for love.” Aw, thanks. This was a popular saying of the time.

A belief in the inferiority of women was largely based on a few biological factors: 1) that women were on average physically smaller, 2) that women fainted more often (hello, corsets!), 3) that women menstruated which was believed to weaken them like a wound would, 4) that women appeared more emotionally unstable due to reproductive system differences. So tied to reproduction was the perception of women that one doctor argued that “It was as if the Almighty, in creating the female sex, had taken the uterus and built up a woman around it.” That’s a doctor, y’all. I wouldn’t want him examining me is all I’m saying.


The role of woman could best be summed up in the idea of a “woman’s place” being in the home. This is where all her important work was to be done, including: handling the sickroom (a constant need in the mid-1800s), overseeing the religious devotion of the household (including her husband), and overseeing the beautification and usefulness of herself and her home. Even though men were considered to be morally superior (and in all other ways superior) to women, women were responsible for keeping their husbands tethered to the Church and its teachings, since they might become distracted while they were off working long hours.

“Even if we cannot reform the world in a moment, we can begin the work by reforming ourselves and our households – it is woman’s mission. Let her not look away from her own little family circle for the means of producing moral and social reforms, but begin at home…” from The Young Ladies Class Book

Nursing others to health helped women to develop gentleness, patience and mercy. The repetitious domestic tasks of cleaning, making beds, and cooking meals, were supposed to create more patience and quiet reflection for women, to help them become more quiet, wise, and calm. These were seen as morally uplifting tasks, particularly by the people not doing them.

Women were particularly cautioned against reading too many novels because with their gentle natures and time for reflection, they were particularly susceptible to the influence of others. This was deemed particularly dangerous if those readings cast any doubt on the domestic role that had been staked out for women. Even women’s seminaries and finishing schools were defensive in claiming that they would not encourage women to leave the domestic sphere.

Women who sought achievements outside the domestic sphere were condemned in the harshest terms in women’s magazines of the day.

“They are only semi-women, mental hermaphrodites.” Reverend Harrington

To discourage women from seeking additional rights like the vote, this little ditty was penned:

The right to love whom others scorn
The right to comfort and to mourn.
The right to shed new joy on earth.
The right to feel the soul’s high worth.
Such women’s rights,  and God will bless
And crown their champions with success…

Looking at each pillar compared to today, here’s what struck me:

Piety is a requirement for women in the Church still, and to some extent there is still a double standard about the role of women in keeping the family religious. While men are supposedly “presiding,” if the children fall away, the blame is still disproportionately assigned to mothers, particularly by older generations. In traditional homes, women are often expected to shoulder the load at keeping the family in the Church and the Church in the family. Women are also set up to be seen as lacking in piety if they leave the domestic sphere as in this so-called “study” published in 1998 at BYU. The free labor provided by non-working women correlates strongly (in the study) with religious devotion. This is not surprising given the stigma applied to working women, and yet no similar study was done to question the religious devotion of working men.

Purity is required of both men and women in the Church, and (polygamy aside, gag) is no different for men and women. However, some traditional attitudes still pervade, assuming that women endure sex while men pursue it. The Miracle of Forgiveness assigned blame to victims of sexual assault if they didn’t fight to the death rather than be assaulted, but these ideas are finally falling away.

Submissiveness has persisted in the temple language until the most recent changes. Clearly there’s some progress, if delayed substantially. While the proclamation claims men preside, it also claims husbands and wives operate as equal partners and does not delineate a submissive position for women. Hopefully these harmful attitudes are finally dying off.

Domesticity persists in the Church, and change comes slowly while many women still choose to stay home rather than pursue a career. The amount of work required in the home has steadily decreased over the last two centuries, so the continued focus on women remaining home rather than pursuing careers can leak out into more involvement in the local community than was thought proper in the 1820s, particularly in things like children’s extracurricular programs, volunteering or fund-raising for the school, and PTA groups. Women in the Church are certainly on the whole more prone to choosing to avoid career development, although this trend is changing along with the economy and as workplaces become more female-friendly.

So, have we come a long way, baby, or are these pillars still the norm for women in the Church? What do you think? It seems to me that while we have dropped some of these extreme views, the roots of our current views of women are clearly in this soil, and it holds us back from seeing women as full people in our own rights, just like men. That’s hardly surprising in a gerontocracy; they are living closer to the 1860s than the rest of us. But we are getting there, little by little.

What I find frustrating is that these restricted roles for women and outdated definitions for the family are not rooted in the teachings of Jesus and are not a prerequisite for living the gospel. If we instead focused our teachings on every individual living more like Christ, we would have far better outcomes than through this complementarian gender-role focus.

  • Have you heard of these four pillars before?
  • Do you think these extreme views of women are still pervasive in the Church? Why or why not?