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Ornaments of the Daughters of Zion

Puritan leader Cotton Mather gives young women advice on appropriate dress and behavior.

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Summary

COUNSEL I
I. For a Woman to Expose unto Common View those parts of her Body, which there can be no Good End or Use for the Exposing of is for her to Expose herself unto the Vengeance of Heaven.
1. If a woman does not cover the parts of her body for which there is no everyday use, she is in danger of making God angry.
There is indeed a Covering of the Skin, which is but a Black Mark of one that never yet had a Covering for her Sin. The Black Patches worn by too many Females, are indeed so many Blew ones; they are the Tokens of a Plague in the Soul. They are not, the spots of Gods Children, but the Dapples of a Leopard that will never, Learn to do well. They are for the most part upon the Faces that never were washed, in the Blood of the Lamb without Spot; nor do they argue the Soul within to be one unto whom our Lord may say, Thou art all fair, there is no Spot in thee. Women who wear fashionable clothing are sinners. The beauty marks that fashionable women are drawing on their faces are signs of the evil in their souls. Wearing one is the same as declaring that you are not a godly person.
But there is a Nakedness of the Skin which is also, and as much, to be accounted Criminal. The Face is to be Naked because of what is to be Known by it; the Hands are to be Naked, because of what is to be Done by them. But for the Nakedness of the Back and Breasts, No Reason can be given; unless it be that a Woman may by showing a Fair-Skin Enkindle a Foul Fire in the Male Spectators; for which cause even Popish Writers have no less Righteously than severely Lashed them; and for Protestant Women to use them, is no less inexcusable than it is Abominable: nor did a Golden Mouth of old stick to say, The Devil sat upon them! Leaving body parts uncovered is a crime. The face can be uncovered, because it is how people recognize you. The hands can be uncovered, because they are needed for work. But there is no good reason for a woman to expose her back or breasts. Women only expose those parts to tempt men, and even Catholics think that is evil. For a Puritan woman to do, it is not just unforgivable, it is offensive to everyone around her.
For a Woman to put herself into a Fashion, that shall prejudice, either her Health, or her Work, is to break all the other Eight Commandments as well as the Sixth and the Eighth, which are thereby notoriously violated. 2. If a woman wears clothing that endangers her health or her work, she is breaking all of God’s rules at the same time.

Cotton Mather. Ornaments for the Daughters of Zion. Or The Character and Happiness of a Vertuous Woman: In a Discourse Which Directs the Female-Sex How to Express, the Fear of God, in Every Age and State of Their Life ; and Obtain Both Temporal and Eternal Blessedness (Cambridge [Mass.]: Printed by S.G. & B.G. [i.e. Samuel and Bartholomew Green] for Samuel Phillips at Boston, 1692). New-York Historical Society Library.

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Background

Ornaments of the Daughters of Zion was written by Puritan leader Cotton Mather in 1692 to instruct and enlighten Puritan women in Massachusetts. Puritans believed that they had a special covenant, or agreement, with God. They felt that the other English churches were not strict enough, and had moved to the New England colonies in the Americas to establish religious utopian societies. Approximately 20,000 Puritans migrated to New England between 1630 and 1643.

About the Document

In this passage, Cotton Mather focuses on the clothing and styling of Puritan women. His remarks highlight contradictions that still influence debates over women’s clothing today. On the one hand, he criticizes women who show skin, because by doing so, they are endangering the souls of the men around them. But he also criticizes women who cover up with the wrong kind of clothing. According to Mather, anything but the most inexpensive and modest fashions are a sign of a woman’s moral failures.

The fact that Mather felt the need to write this advice in 1692 implies that some women living in Puritan settlements were not strictly following the guidelines set out for them by their male religious leaders.

Vocabulary

  • blew ones: Blue moles or marks on the skin, believed to be concrete evidence that a woman was a witch.
  • Commandments: The ten most important laws of the Judeo-Christian faith.
  • enkindle: Start.
  • popish writers: A derogatory term for Catholics.
  • Puritan: A strict sect of Christianity that evolved during the Protestant Reformation.
  • utopian: Impossibly perfect.
  • Zion: The kingdom of heaven.

Discussion Questions

  • What does this passage reveal about the lives of Puritan women?
  • Why is this writer so concerned with the clothing the women of his congregation wear?
  • Is there any evidence in this passage that women are not following the strict rules governing Puritan clothing?
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Themes

DOMESTICITY AND FAMILY; AMERICAN CULTURE

New-York Historical Society Curriculum Library Connections

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