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Separate spheres

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Separate spheres

Separate spheres or the domestic–public dichotomy is an ideology that defines and prescribes separate spheres for women and men. Culturally located in Europe and North America, it emerged as a distinct ideology during the Industrial Revolution, although the basic idea of gendered separation of spheres is much older.


The notion of separate spheres dictates that men, based primarily on their biological makeup as well as the will of God, inhabit the public sphere – the world of politics, economy, commerce, and law. Women's "proper sphere", according to the ideology, is the private realm of domestic life, child-rearing, housekeeping, and religious education.


The idea that women should inhabit a separate domestic sphere has been extant in Western thought for centuries, extending as far back as the ancient Greeks. In Politics, Aristotle described two separate spheres in Greek society, the home (oikos) and the city (polis). Women were confined to the private realm while men occupied the public sphere of the polis.

In the hunting/gathering communities, men are usually the hunters and the warriors, where they use tools such as spears, bows, and knives. “Men make better [warriors] because they are bigger and stronger than women in the same population”.

This phenomenon, however, was not studied until much later. One of the first social critics to examine the separation between female and male spheres was French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville. In Democracy in America (1840), in a chapter entitled How the Americans understand the Equality of the sexes, Tocqueville wrote: "In no country has such constant care been taken as in America to trace two clearly distinct lines of action for the two sexes and to make them keep pace one with the other, but in two pathways that are always different." He observed that married women, in particular, were subject to many restrictions, noting that "the independence of woman is irrecoverably lost in the bonds of matrimony", adding that "in the United States the inexorable opinion of the public carefully circumscribes woman within the narrow circle of domestic interests and duties and forbids her to step beyond it." Tocqueville considered the separate spheres of women and men a positive development, arguing:

although the women of the United States are confined within the narrow circle of domestic life, and their situation is in some respects one of extreme dependence, I have nowhere seen women occupying a loftier position; and if I were asked...to what the singular prosperity and growing strength of that people ought mainly to be attributed, I should reply,—to the superiority of their women.

The notion of separate spheres prevailed in the dominant mainstream consciousness as well-founded, or at the very worst harmless, until the mid-20th century when historians and feminist theorists began to take a much more critical stance toward the separate spheres ideology and its impact on women's lives. Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique asserted that women were being forced to rely on their husbands and children as the sole sources of their identity by an historically constructed oppressive paradigm, not by any "intrinsic" predisposition. Drawing on Friedan, historian Barbara Welter identified a "Cult of True Womanhood", an ideal of femininity prevalent among the upper and middle classes in the 19th century. "True women" were supposed to be pious, pure, submissive, and domestic. Domesticity, in particular, was regarded as a laudable virtue as the home was considered a woman's proper sphere. Unlike Tocqueville, Welter and other 20th-century historians were critical of the separate spheres ideology, seeing it as a source of women's denigration.


The ideology of separate spheres emerged in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. Prior to the industrialization of the Western world, family members worked side by side and the workplace was located mostly in and around the home. With the shift from home-based to factory production, men left the home to sell their labor for wages while women stayed home to perform unpaid domestic work. The separate spheres ideology reflected and fueled these changes. Theorists such as Friedrich Engels and, to a lesser extent, Karl Marx have stressed the importance of industrialization. Marx argued that following the rise of capitalism, the home lost its control of the means of production and consequently became a private, separate sphere. As a result, Engels contended, women were excluded from participating directly in the production process and relegated to the subordinate domestic sphere.

Biological determinism

The separation between female and male spheres was heavily influenced by biological determinism, the notion that women and men are naturally suitable for different social roles due to their biological and genetic makeup. The idea of biological determinism was popular during the Age of Enlightenment and among such thinkers as Jean-Jacques Rousseau who argued that women were inherently different from men and should devote themselves to reproduction and domesticity. Women were considered passive, dependent on men, and, due to their reproductive capacity, ill-suited for life outside the domestic realm. Rousseau described women's primary duties in Emile, or On Education, stating that "women's entire education should be planned in relation to men. To please men, to be useful to them, to win their love and respect, to raise them as children, to care for them as adults, correct and console them, make their lives sweet and pleasant; these are women's duties in all ages and these are what they should be taught from childhood."

The popular beliefs about inherent sex differences remained deeply embedded in popular consciousness throughout the Progressive Era. By the early 20th century, however, dissident anthropologists and other social scientists began to challenge the biological determination of human behavior, revealing great similarities between men and women and suggesting that many sex differences were socially constructed. Despite these new insights and social and economic changes such as women's entry into the labor force, the separate spheres ideology did not disappear.

Other influences

Women's confinement to the private sphere was reinforced by cultural and legal arrangements, such as the lack of women's suffrage, legal prohibitions against women undertaking professions like medicine and law, and discouragement from obtaining higher education.

Strong support for the separation of spheres came from antisuffragists who relied on the notion of inherent sexual differences to argue that women were unfit for political participation. Antifeminist men's groups in late 19th and early 20th century United States responded to the societal changes and shift in gender relations by advocating a return to a strict separation of spheres that would keep women from competing with men in the public sphere.

Similarly, Christian fundamentalists supported the separate spheres ideology and opposed women's suffrage as well as other attempts to broaden women's influence in the public sphere. Theological conservatism has been found to have a stable effect on the endorsement of separate spheres ideology. Leading evangelicals propagated a view of womanhood which reinforced gendered division. Thomas Gisborne's An Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex (1797) and Henry Venn's The Complete Duty of Man (1763) were two popular evangelical texts which described proper behavior for men and women, arguing that a woman's primary duty was to care for those in her domestic circle and obey her husband.


In her paper "Separate Spheres or Shared Dominions", Cathy Ross suggests that the separate spheres ideology had ambiguous effects on women's lives. She argues that while it "was clear that women were supposed to be subordinate and that home and children were their sphere", the separation of spheres enabled women "to reach out to other women in sisterhood, in solidarity, on the common ground of domesticity".

The ideology of separate spheres contributed to resistance to coeducation and to the emergence of gendered educational institutions such as the female seminary and women's college in higher education, and the woman's club in continuing education. The rise of teaching as a woman's profession was also closely linked to the ideology of separate spheres, as women came to be regarded as uniquely skilled at classroom management. In coeducational universities in the late 19th century, the separation of spheres contributed to the emergence of home economics as a field of advanced study for the woman's sphere, and the dean of women as frequently the only high-ranking woman administrator in coeducational institutions.

Although it created a space for women's academic and professional advancement, the separation of spheres also provided an excuse for keeping women out of fields not specifically marked as female. Thus many talented woman scientists were pushed into professorships in home economics rather than in their principal fields. Some women educators resisted this typecasting even while working within the framework of separation. Frances Shimer, founder of Shimer College, which was a woman's school from 1866 to 1950, insisted that she was "in favor of the co-education of the sexes" and that the education at her school was equal to what was given to young men.


Separate spheres Wikipedia