Separate Spheres Ideology

Women and Men in Their Own Places

depiction of gender role reversal
Early steroscopic image: "The New Woman, Wash Day" mocks reversal of the separate spheres.

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The ideology of separate spheres dominated thought about gender roles from the late 18th century through the 19th century in America. Similar ideas influenced gender roles in other parts of the world. The concept of separate spheres continues to influence some thinking about "proper" gender roles today.

In the conception of the division of gender roles into separate spheres, women's place was in the private sphere, which included family life and the home. Men's place was in the public sphere, whether in politics, in the economic world which was becoming increasingly separate from home life as the Industrial Revolution progressed, or in public social and cultural activity.

Natural Gender Division or Social Construction of Gender

Many experts of the time wrote about how such a division was natural, rooted in the nature of each gender. Those women who sought roles or visibility in the public sphere often found themselves identified as unnatural and as unwelcome challenges to the cultural assumptions. The legal status of women was as dependents until marriage and under coverture after marriage, with no separate identity and few or no personal rights including economic and property rights. This status was in accord with the idea that women's place was in the home and man's place was in the public world.

While experts of the time often tried to defend this division of gender rules as rooted in nature, the ideology of separate spheres is considered an example of the social construction of gender: that cultural and social attitudes built ideas of womanhood and manhood (proper womanhood and proper manhood) that empowered and/or constrained women and men.

Historians on Separate Spheres and Women

Nancy Cott's 1977 book, The Bonds of Womanhood: "Women's Sphere" in New England, 1780-1835, is a classic in the study of women's history that examines the concept of separate spheres, with women's sphere being the domestic sphere. Cott focuses, in the tradition of social history, on the experience of women in their lives, and shows how within their sphere, women wielded considerable power and influence.

Critics of Nancy Cott's portrayal of separate spheres include Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, who published Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America in 1982. She showed not only how women, in their separate sphere, created a women's culture, but how women were at a disadvantage socially, educationally, politically, economically and even medically.

Another writer who took on the separate spheres ideology in women's history was Rosalind Rosenberg. Her 1982 book, Beyond Separate Spheres: Intellectual Roots of Modern Feminism, details the legal and social disadvantages of women under the separate spheres ideology. Her work documents how some women began to challenge the relegation of women to the home.

Elizabeth Fox-Genovese also challenged the focus on separate spheres as a place of solidarity among women, in her 1988 book Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women in the Old South. She demonstrated the different experiences of women: those who were part of the slave-holding class as wives and daughters, those who were enslaved, those free women who lived on farms where there were no enslaved people, and other poor white women. Within a general disempowerment of women in a patriarchal system, there was no singular "women's culture," she argues. Friendships among women, documented in studies of northern bourgeois or well-off women, were not characteristic of the Old South.

In common among all these books, and others on the topic is documentation of a general cultural ideology of separate spheres, grounded in the idea that women belong in the private sphere, and are aliens in the public sphere, and that the reverse was true of men.

Public Housekeeping and Widening Women's Sphere

In the late 19th century, some reformers like Frances Willard with her temperance work and Jane Addams with her settlement house work relied on a separate spheres ideology to justify their public reform efforts, thus subtly both using and undermining the ideology. Both saw their work as "public housekeeping," a public expression of "women's work" of taking care of family and the home, and both took that work into the realms of politics and the public social and cultural realm. This idea was later termed social feminism.