Separate Spheres by Chad Stante

Since the days of the ancient Greeks, humans have always tried to put things into categories. Putting things into categories simply helps us to understand things better. The same can be said with why humans have put themselves into categories. To be more specific, humans have categorized men and women into their own different worlds, or spheres, in order to help them understand their roles in society.  But as time progresses and the interworkings of society changes, the question that still lurks is just how useful is the idea of separate spheres? Is it time that the terms men’s sphere and women’s sphere be torn down to leave just the human sphere?

First, you have to look at how this term was coined in the first place. According to Linda Kerper, in her article entitled, “Separate Spheres, Female Worlds, Woman’s Place: The Rhetoric of Women’s History”, Alexis de Tocqueville was the first to describe the qualities that made up the women’s sphere after describing the roles and activities he saw women doing while visiting America in 1835. “The inexorable opinion of the public carefully circumscribes [her] within the narrow circle of domestic interests and duties and forbids her to step beyond it” (10). Here he is saying he observed women restricted to domestic duties and were not allowed to do anything else. As the article is also sure to mention about Tocqueville’s remarks, “In this sentence he provided the physical image (the circle) and the interpretation (that it was a limiting boundary on choices) that would continue to characterize the metaphor” (10.) Kerper continues, “The metaphor of the ‘sphere’ was the figure of speech, the trope, on which historians came to rely when they described women’s part in American culture. Exploring the traditions of historical discourse, historians found that notions of women’s sphere permeated the language; they in turn used the metaphor in their own descriptions” (10-11). In other words, once the term was coined, it was so deeply embedded in the language that historians inevitably used the term again themselves while writing on women’s history. As Kerber also points out, more than a hundred years after Tocqueville made his comments regarding the separate spheres in the mid-1800s, “Women were said to live in a distinct ‘world,’ engaged in nurturant activities, focused on children, husbands, and family dependents” (10). Hence, the term women’s sphere still exists thanks to historians, consciously or not, keeping the language going.

As we have talked about in class, the women’s sphere was actually considered to be the private sphere whereas a synonym for the men’s sphere was the public sphere.  Women as it was clearly stated already, were restricted to just domestic roles inside the house that dealt only with family, hence the term “private” sphere. Men on the other hand were expected to go out into the world and make a living to provide for their families and support them. Men would also be the only ones involved in politics since this too was another way of trying to improve the families place in society.

The roles of men and women in society in the 21st century are a lot more complex than they were in just the 20th century.  No longer can we divide the genders into different worlds. Although the idea of separate spheres once served a purpose to help us identify our roles in society, the language has not caught up with the reality in which we live in today and the term should be eliminated altogether as it no longer serves a purpose. In today’s world we need something more that shows the dynamic relationship with the overlap between men and women and hopefully the historians of the future can help us accomplish this.


Separate Spheres of Life by Frank Sandefur

Women and men are different. At least that what the thought was in early America. During this time, as women started to seek out their own self-worth, there came a separation between them and men. This separation was not just caused by women alone. Many other factors were in play. How the economy was changing was a big factor. In both “Pedestal, Loom, and Auction Block” by Ellen Carol DuBois and Lynn Dumenil and “Separate Spheres, Female Worlds, Woman’s Place: The Rhetoric of Women’s History” by Linda Kerber the idea of the separation is really examined.

DuBois and Dumenil believe that the separation of women from men can be seen through the idea of “true womanhood.” According to DuBois and Dumenil, true womanhood came from motherhood.[1] Women were seen as more nurturing and caring than men were. Right away, we get to see the separation between the two groups. This idea was not just for women to be able to recognize what they should be doing. This idea was also set in classist thinking. In “Pedestal, Loom, and Auction Block,” the authors say how middle class women used this idea to look down and separate themselves from women who weren’t as well off.[2] However, this idea of true womanhood was greatly tested. This test came from the change to market economy in the United States. There was a great shift from people making goods in their own homes and working for themselves to going to work for someone else in a factory. There was no better evidence than the “Lowell girls,” the unmarried and mostly teenage girls who worked at a textile factory in Lowell, Massachusetts.[3] By working these girls felt like they got a little independence.

Kerber writes about many of the same ideas that DuBois and Dumenil cover. Two of the major ideas both readings discuss is the separation of spheres between men and women, and the economy and it that changed the dynamic. Women were put into the role of the domestic sphere which revolved around their home life.[4]  Kerber also writes about the Industrial Revolution and how it affected the way of life for both men and women. Women began to leave their homes to work in factories. Just as Dubois and Dumenil mentioned, middle class women used this to look down upon women, who they thought were beneath them. They used the slogan “woman’s place is in the home.”[5] They used this to say that the women going out to work in these factories were not real women. This image is a great representation of what woman’s life should be, which was domestic and all about the home.[6] 

However, one reading may be better than another. Dubois and Dumenil cover enslaved women. They made a connection that the spheres of separation, especially in the work area, were not in play for enslave women. Enslaved women, along with the men, had to plant and pick the cotton all day long.[7] As the picture indicates, enslaved women were also beaten just like enslaved men.[8] This just further proves that there was little separation of labor within among the enslaved.

Both of these readings tell us about how there were a separation of spheres between men and women. They also talk about why this separation came about and the things that were harmful towards this separation. Unfortunately, just like a lot of historical records, many records of minorities and people not in power were not the focus.

[1] DuBois and Dumenil, 188

[2] Ibid, 192

[3] Ibid, 197

[4] Kerber, 10

[5] Ibid, 12

[6] Ibid, 25

[7] DuBois and Dumenil, 211

[8] Ibid, 215

The Exclusion of Native American Women from Early American History by Rebecca Johnson

Unlike the previous readings that we have done in class, Pedestal, Loom, and Auction Block, a chapter from Through Women’s Eyes: An American History with Documents by Ellen Carol Dubois and Lynn Dumenil, the authors use a combination of many primary and secondary sources while discussing true womanhood, early industrial women workers, and women in slave society. Alternatively, “Separate Spheres, Female Worlds, Woman’s Place: The Rhetoric of Women’s History,” by Linda K. Kerber uses predominantly secondary sources to make her argument. Although she does frequently reference Alexis de Tocqueville’s books illustrating his experience in America, which is considered a primary source, quite frequently. However, regardless of their differences both articles discuss the idea of “true womanhood” and “woman’s sphere” in early America, they both leave out a significant group of women in their discussion.

Both of the articles focus primarily on the experience of white women at the time. More specifically, on upper class white women. Poor white women were discussed as well, but in less detail and at less length. When the issues were discussed in a general sense it was typically referring to the experiences of just that narrow class.  Kerber only briefly discusses the experience in the African American community by addressing the gap in the existing literature and making assumptions based on what was available[1]. This appears to be a significant drawback of using predominately secondary sources. The older studies which the author was using largely failed to discuss the experience of African American women at this time and because of that it was largely left out of her article as well. The issue was also discussed by Dubois and Dumenil, who did a much better job covering the experiences of both poor white women and African American women due to her wider sources. Pictured blow is Ellen Craft, an escaped slave with an amazing story that was only able to be told because of transcriptions created during the New Deal in order to document the real experience of slavery before all of the freed slaves died[2]. However, both articles completely fail to mention Native American women in a significant manner.


While the European influence in the trends noticed in early America is discussed, the contradictions that can be found in the Native American community are not referenced by Dubois,, and only momentarily touched on by Kerber. Kerber mentioned briefly that the different gender roles in the Native American community caused the European settlers to view them as uncivilized. However, her coverage of the issue took up less than a paragraph[4].

Dubois and Dumenil say that to Americans at the time, it seemed ‘natural’ that women were suited to become teachers, take on domestic roles, and were sexually innocent. However, these feelings were only due to societal pressures in Europe[5], that were taken over to the United States. However, the gender roles that were already present in the land where the United States would eventually be born were quite different from those in Europe. While there were still somewhat separate spheres for Native American men and women, their circles overlapped more. For instance, they were both heavily involved in different parts of the farming process.[6]



[1] Linda K. Kerber, Separate Spheres, Female Worlds, Woman’s Place: The Rhetoric of Women’s History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 25-26.

[2] Dubois, Ellen Carol, and Lynn Dumenil. ” Pedestal, Loom, and Auction Block 1800-1860.” In Through Women’s Eyes: An American History with Documents, (Boston: Belford/St.Martins, 2012), 226.

[3] Dubois, Pedestal Loom, and Auction Block, 227.

[4] Kerber, Separate Spheres, 19.

[5] Dubois, Pedestal Loom, and Auction Block, 190.

[6] Brown, Kathleen. “The Anglo-Indian Gender Frontier.” In Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and

Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012), 20.