A Woman’s Place is in the Home: The 19th Century Separate Spheres

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Early stereoscopic image entitled, "The New Woman, Wash Day " mocks reversal of the separate spheres.
The New Woman.—Wash Day.” American Stereoscopic Company, 1901, stereograph. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
In the 19th​ century gender roles were looked upon as separate spheres. A woman's place was in the private sphere which included family life and the home. A man's place was in the public sphere which included politics and economic, social and cultural activity. The ideology of separate spheres was prominent throughout the 19th century in the United States and similar ideas influenced gender roles in other parts of the world too.

Many experts of the time wrote about how these separate spheres were naturally rooted in each gender. Women who sought roles or visibility in the public sphere often found themselves looked down upon and identified as strange or unnatural. They posed an unwelcome challenge to cultural assumptions.

Of course women were legally considered dependents until marriage and under coverture after marriage. This left them with no separate identity and few or no personal rights. This status was in line with the strongly held belief that a woman's place was in the home and a man's place was in the public world.

Several books have been written about 19th​ century gender roles. Many show how women within their sphere wielded considerable power and influence. They created a women's culture. Yet numerous others demonstrate how women were at a disadvantage socially, educationally, politically, economically and even medically.

We mustn’t forget that the 19th​ century also brought us an idea that was later termed social feminism. Reformers relied on the separate spheres ideology to justify their public reform efforts.

How do you think the Civil War affected the concept of separate spheres? Do you think this ideology continues to influence thinking even today?
 
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Peace Society

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Any major war sends females into the traditional male sphere. But everything goes back to "normal" afterward. I wonder if the emancipation of slaves got women to thinking of their own emancipation. A short 50 years later and women have stepped firmly onto the road to social equality. After War II, it seems like there's been no looking back.
 
Joined
Mar 19, 2019
How do you think the Civil War affected the concept of separate spheres?

I've mentioned this before, but I have started a list of elite women from the Civil War who wrote their own memoirs of the war years. I also have the names of several non-elite women who also wrote their memoirs of the war years. Also, Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women to great commercial success in the 1860's.

Now, I know that female authors existed prior to the 1860's. (For instance, Girl Scouts of America founder Juliette Gordon Low was named after her grandmother, Juliette Magill Kinzie. Several decades before the Civil War started, Mrs. Kinzie authored books about her father-in-law John Kinzie's role in the founding of Chicago and the attack on Fort Dearborn during the War of 1812. Harriett Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin. Etc.)

However, even though American women wrote and published books before the Civil War started, I am personally amazed by how many women connected to the Civil War wrote books based on their experiences.
 

Fairfield

Sergeant Major
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Any major war sends females into the traditional male sphere. But everything goes back to "normal" afterward. I wonder if the emancipation of slaves got women to thinking of their own emancipation. A short 50 years later and women have stepped firmly onto the road to social equality. After War II, it seems like there's been no looking back.
Last year I worked on a display on local suffrage. I did the historic research and was surprised to see how far back the movement went. I'd say that the road started with the Civil War. It was interesting to find that the major movers (at least here in Maine) were men: they had the legislative voices and, without them, the movement would have failed. The last president of the suffrage organization in Maine was a woman named Mabel Connor--she was a daughter of General Selden Connor who fought in the Civil War; apparently he passed some of his ability to his daughter!
 

Mrs. V

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
May 5, 2017
View attachment 349487
Early stereoscopic image entitled, "The New Woman, Wash Day " mocks reversal of the separate spheres.
The New Woman.—Wash Day.” American Stereoscopic Company, 1901, stereograph. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
In the 19th​ century gender roles were looked upon as separate spheres. A woman's place was in the private sphere which included family life and the home. A man's place was in the public sphere which included politics and economic, social and cultural activity. The ideology of separate spheres was prominent throughout the 19th century in the United States and similar ideas influenced gender roles in other parts of the world too.

Many experts of the time wrote about how these separate spheres were naturally rooted in each gender. Women who sought roles or visibility in the public sphere often found themselves looked down upon and identified as strange or unnatural. They posed an unwelcome challenge to cultural assumptions.

Of course women were legally considered dependents until marriage and under coverture after marriage. This left them with no separate identity and few or no personal rights. This status was in line with the strongly held belief that a woman's place was in the home and a man's place was in the public world.

Several books have been written about 19th​ century gender roles. Many show how women within their sphere wielded considerable power and influence. They created a women's culture. Yet numerous others demonstrate how women were at a disadvantage socially, educationally, politically, economically and even medically.

We mustn’t forget that the 19th​ century also brought us an idea that was later termed social feminism. Reformers relied on the separate spheres ideology to justify their public reform efforts.

How do you think the Civil War affected the concept of separate spheres? Do you think this ideology continues to influence thinking even today?
Well, the suffragette movement was well under way before the Civil War. However, it grew by leaps and bounds during and after the CW. Once again women were left behind and charged with running farms, mercantiles etc. And don’t forget the women who stepped up and ran hospitals, organized canned good drives, and other funding for veterans and their care. We really were coming into our own in this time period. And with so many women left widowed at a young age, it makes sense that they would turn to what would have been a man’s traditional role in society in order to make ends meet. What I am trying to say is that the train had already left the station, and during the civil war it mearly picked up steam.
 

DBF

Sergeant Major
Joined
Aug 6, 2016
One of my favorites and pre-Civil War ladies is Lucretia Coffin Mott (1793-1880). Lucretia along with her husband began speaking out against slavery in the 1830’s, being one of the founders of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society in 1833. She was “constantly criticized for behaving in ways not acceptable for women of her sex, but it did not deter her”. {*}

She 1840 attended the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London. She believed she would be allowed to speak - but as a woman - she was not allowed. In 1848 Mott along with Elizabeth C. Stanton held their own convention the Seneca Fall Convention - Frederick Douglass was an attended. Coming out of the convention:

“Declaration of Sentiments” at the meeting, which demanded rights for women by inserting the word “woman” into the language of the Declaration of Independence and included a list of 18 woman-specific demands. These included divorce, property and custody rights, as well as the right to vote. The latter fueled the launching of the woman suffrage movement. Mott explained that she grew up “so thoroughly imbued with women’s rights that it was the most important question” of her life. Following the convention Mott continued her crusade for women’s equality by speaking at ensuing annual women’s rights conventions and publishing Discourse on Women, a reasoned account of the history of women’s repression.” {*}

She along with her husband protested the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act and in 1866 was the first president of the American Equal Rights Association.

A supportive husband, mother of 6 children - how did she find the time?

*https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/lucretia-mott
 

Tom Hughes

First Sergeant
Joined
May 27, 2019
Location
Mississippi
View attachment 349487
Early stereoscopic image entitled, "The New Woman, Wash Day " mocks reversal of the separate spheres.
The New Woman.—Wash Day.” American Stereoscopic Company, 1901, stereograph. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
In the 19th​ century gender roles were looked upon as separate spheres. A woman's place was in the private sphere which included family life and the home. A man's place was in the public sphere which included politics and economic, social and cultural activity. The ideology of separate spheres was prominent throughout the 19th century in the United States and similar ideas influenced gender roles in other parts of the world too.

Many experts of the time wrote about how these separate spheres were naturally rooted in each gender. Women who sought roles or visibility in the public sphere often found themselves looked down upon and identified as strange or unnatural. They posed an unwelcome challenge to cultural assumptions.

Of course women were legally considered dependents until marriage and under coverture after marriage. This left them with no separate identity and few or no personal rights. This status was in line with the strongly held belief that a woman's place was in the home and a man's place was in the public world.

Several books have been written about 19th​ century gender roles. Many show how women within their sphere wielded considerable power and influence. They created a women's culture. Yet numerous others demonstrate how women were at a disadvantage socially, educationally, politically, economically and even medically.

We mustn’t forget that the 19th​ century also brought us an idea that was later termed social feminism. Reformers relied on the separate spheres ideology to justify their public reform efforts.

How do you think the Civil War affected the concept of separate spheres? Do you think this ideology continues to influence thinking even today?
They say that behind every good man is a good woman. Women could certainly influence their husbands in many ways. The success of many men was certainly due to the women in their lives that were “behind the scenes” in their own cultural spheres.
 
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Location
Hannover, Germany
How do you think the Civil War affected the concept of separate spheres? Do you think this ideology continues to influence thinking even today?
What always makes me uncomfortable is that although at first sight women now have equal opportunities - they may leave their domestic sphere and go to work and follow their careers - deep inside many of us seem to think they should be perfect as a housewife in the traditional private sphere AND work like any man in the public sphere. And that women who decide not to go to work but stay permanently at home and raise the kids, are looked upon with a certain contempt, as if they are too lazy to do a job. At least that is the case here. The pendulum has swung in the opposite direction in many cases and not always to the best benefit of women.
 

Fairfield

Sergeant Major
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Well, the suffragette movement was well under way before the Civil War. However, it grew by leaps and bounds during and after the CW. Once again women were left behind and charged with running farms, mercantiles etc. And don’t forget the women who stepped up and ran hospitals, organized canned good drives, and other funding for veterans and their care. We really were coming into our own in this time period. And with so many women left widowed at a young age, it makes sense that they would turn to what would have been a man’s traditional role in society in order to make ends meet. What I am trying to say is that the train had already left the station, and during the civil war it mearly picked up steam.
You're right, of course. But I limited my research to Maine. The earliest date that I could find (in Maine) was 1854 but the stand of a few became a movement with the Civil War.
 

Fairfield

Sergeant Major
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I also believe it is important to remember the good man that supports his woman's good work such as Lucretia Mott had with her husband.
One of the episodes that I loved happened in the Maine State legislature: an anti-suffrage representative was railing against the movement and finished his screed with the accusation "I'll tell you who the real culprit is, who the real force is: it's Representative So-and-So!" In response, the Representative named rose and said "Thank you!".
 

Fairfield

Sergeant Major
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What always makes me uncomfortable is that although at first sight women now have equal opportunities - they may leave their domestic sphere and go to work and follow their careers - deep inside many of us seem to think they should be perfect as a housewife in the traditional private sphere AND work like any man in the public sphere. And that women who decide not to go to work but stay permanently at home and raise the kids, are looked upon with a certain contempt, as if they are too lazy to do a job. At least that is the case here. The pendulum has swung in the opposite direction in many cases and not always to the best benefit of women.
This is an old tension that will simply have to work its way out; when there are children involved, perhaps it is best that someone be there for them (whether husband or wife). In my research, I saw that controversy back in earlier times when it was working class women vs. middle class women. The women who worked in the mills, etc. couldn't stay home to raise their children and sometimes saw women who agitated for the vote--often with male support--as dillettantes who were looking down on them for not raising their children; today some men--unwilling to be labelled as anti-equality--still cite that argument. But the husbands of my younger friends are far more willing than the men of my own generation to shoulder much of the domestic work and men who can work from home often become the primary care-giver.
 

lupaglupa

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I agree with the idea that the Civil War (and later wars such as WW2) gave women opportunities outside the home and thus spurred them to advance the cause of equality. I think at the same time, however, social changes wrought by the industrial revolution were making the desire for statutory legal rights inevitable, regardless of temporary changes caused by war. When the center of most family life was the farm, women's roles were more balanced with that of men's. A wife who ran the domestic operations of a farm was a vital and necessary component of the family workforce. These women had a huge number of tasks they supervised and undertook and a lot of knowledge and skill in doing so, which brought them respect within the family and in the broader community. A farm wife knew she was important and I think could gain a great deal of satisfaction from her efforts and the crucial nature of her work. However, when the family moved to town, where a man's job was out of the house and the wife's role was reduced to managing only the immediate household, women's importance was diminished and their dissatisfaction at being restricted grew. It makes sense that women began to push for a broader role in the world outside the home, since their home role had been significantly reduced.
 
Joined
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Location
Hannover, Germany
I agree with the idea that the Civil War (and later wars such as WW2) gave women opportunities outside the home and thus spurred them to advance the cause of equality. I think at the same time, however, social changes wrought by the industrial revolution were making the desire for statutory legal rights inevitable, regardless of temporary changes caused by war. When the center of most family life was the farm, women's roles were more balanced with that of men's. A wife who ran the domestic operations of a farm was a vital and necessary component of the family workforce. These women had a huge number of tasks they supervised and undertook and a lot of knowledge and skill in doing so, which brought them respect within the family and in the broader community. A farm wife knew she was important and I think could gain a great deal of satisfaction from her efforts and the crucial nature of her work. However, when the family moved to town, where a man's job was out of the house and the wife's role was reduced to managing only the immediate household, women's importance was diminished and their dissatisfaction at being restricted grew. It makes sense that women began to push for a broader role in the world outside the home, since their home role had been significantly reduced.
Great post and for me a totally new way of looking at it! Very true!!
 

Shannon Wolf

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I know that women's equality coming to fruition was a series of waves that happened slowly. Colonization, The Revolution, 1812, Civil War, World War 1 & 2, these all were waves that first pushed forward, then like any ocean wave pulled back until the waves finally touched the shore. I have always felt that the women's movement never took into consideration 1> What would happen when they succeeded and 2> How other women felt about what they were doing. There was no plan to make the transition smooth. No thought to how economically this would increase the cost of living because greedy corporations would now see 2 incomes that could afford the higher burden. This took away the ability for single incomes to support a family. Any women who dreamed of being a stay at home mom could no longer even hope of it being a possibility. Some women have always had to work. The happy housewife has always been largely a myth, but some could make it work irregardless of income. Now that is a bygone dream and it does affect children and people who want them. I am single and 40 and keep being told I could have them on my own not to give up. But how? I can't imagine leaving an infant at a daycare, at the mercy of someone else's values which most likely do not match my own. How would I influence a child's raising when I have to be out the door at 7am and oft times do not arrive home after work until 7pm? and those are the good days. My income barely supports me and 2 cats and I really do make a good living. The whole thing is a massive conundrum. I am grateful on the one hand because it did eventually allow me out of an abusive marriage, but I do still deal with the aftermath of that despite all the forward changes. On the other I am angry because even if I found someone who wanted a women like me, and by some strange miracle they were willing to start a family, I would still have to have my child in day care. And that just isn't for me. I don't trust a stranger to bring up a child the way I would expect. I don't think the women from these times could have forseen how all this would change everything.
 

Fairfield

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I don't think the women from these times could have forseen how all this would change everything.
First, it may not be fair to put the entire blame on one cause. The situation that you--and far too many of us face--can likely be traced to many reasons. As was stated earlier, the Industrial Revolution itself turned the world upside down; wars certainly have had a major impact; life styles (my own ancestors were sea-going: when a man is away for onto 3 years at a time, women have to step in). We ought to learn from the past: if there is something wrong for a good many people, it is needed to join together and work against it. If no one changed anything for fear of making matters worse, we'd all still be in caves and on mothers' milk.
 
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If no one changed anything for fear of making matters worse, we'd all still be in caves and on mothers' milk.
Just a side note: we all are here because our ice age ancestors were the fearful ones who did not fight any cave bear or sabre-toothed cat with wooden spears and got eaten or experimented with fire and got burnt... our ancestors most probably used caution and stayed in the cave at a thunderstorm, watching it from the safety of their straw matted beds ... :D

But joking apart, I think both you and @Shannon Wolf are right. There is no black or white here, no well defined right or wrong, just as there is no such thing as an ideal life for everyone. We probably all have something to be grateful for and something we regret.
 
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