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.


Gender and the Rhetoric of Society by Keely Shannon

The articles by Dubois and Dumenil, and Kerber discuss the ways women and men were divided by gender primarily in the 19th Century. Kerber focuses on the historiography of the term ‘separate spheres’ which historians use when defining the role of men and women in society throughout American history.[1] Dubois and Dumenil however, focus on the ways the concept of ‘true womanhood’ was constructed from 1800 to 1860.[2] These ideas of separate spheres for men and women, and of true womanhood are closely connected through the belief in essential roles women were expected to play in everyday life. Kerber argues that the language surrounding these ‘separate spheres’ used by historians mask a complex system of gender roles in the 19th Century. This is undoubtedly the case, however, rather than being a fault with historians alone, this seems to be product of the popular opinion that women and men have inherent differences. This has been the common belief held until very recently in history, and remains the view of many people today. It is difficult to create a nuanced view of men’s and women’s roles when the rhetoric of society involves the division of the population based on gender. Presenting arguments which support this are thus more easily accepted by later scholars, and are more likely to enter mainstream thought.

This does not mean to say that these beliefs are correct. I agree with Kerber when she asserts that a nuanced view of the roles of women and men in history would benefit society today. Language has power to direct thought and behaviours, and women today are trying to dispel the myth that there are distinct roles for men and women. Women remain under pressure to be the parent to raise the children, and receive on average less pay than men in the same jobs. However, only within the last thirty years has gender as a social construction and its separation from sex been accepted, and from it has come new scholarship practices regarding gender and history. For example, examining women’s history not in isolation, but studying the history of gender as a whole, and how women and men’s roles interacted. In this way, the scholars Kerber refers to were also limited by the ideas of the times they wrote in, and used the language they knew to express these beliefs. As a result, the concept of separate spheres for men and women became an entrenched idea. Theories of gender and the language used to explain them evolve over time, and though progress may be slow, there has been improvement in how gender has been discussed and how it is regarded today. However, I expect it will be a while yet before ideas of the separation of the genders are erased from our language in history and in the present day.

[1] Linda K. Kerber, ‘Separate Spheres, Female Worlds, Women’s Place: The Rhetoric of Women’s History’, The Journal of American History, 75 (1988), 9-39 (pp. 9-39).

[2] Ellen Carol Dubois and Lynn Dumenil, Through Women’s Eyes: An American History with Documents (New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2012), pp. 186-218.

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