22 Mar

Linda K. Kerber, “Separate Spheres, Female Worlds, Woman’s Place: The Rhetoric of Women’s History” (1988)

“Separate Spheres, Female Worlds, Woman’s Place” offers a historiography of the ideology of “separate spheres” in women’s history. Kerber argues that the phrase “separate spheres” was a trope or strategy used by historians that enabled them to “move the history of women out of the realm of the trivial and anecdotal into the realm of analytic social history.”[1] The phrase recognized women as more than a force in history (as had Mary R. Beard) and “proposed a dynamic by which that force was manifest.”[2] Kerber calls for historians to abandon this phrase and its implied dualisms—home versus market, public versus private, household versus state—since it denies the reciprocal relationships between gender and society and imposes static models on these relationships.


Kerber traces the ideology of “separate spheres” to Alexis de Tocqueville’s 1835 commentary of women in Democracy in America. In the section “Influence of Democracy on Manners Properly So Called” de Tocqueville implies the separation of male and female spheres. De Tocqueville provided the physical image of the circle around the home and the interpretation that it was “a limited boundary on women’s choices.”[3] According to Kerber, this was the most widely read work about women in American history after WWII. On examining the actual historical discourse, historians recognized that “women’s sphere” was used. Thus, the historians chose the term “sphere” as a figure of speech or a trope to talk about women in American culture.

In the 1960s, historians reinforced the centrality of the metaphor of “separate spheres.” Following Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, historians argued that American women’s history needed to be understood not through specific events but an ideology. Barbara Welter posited “The Cult of True Womanhood” in 1966 as a stereotype that women defined and that defined women. Welter defined True Womanhood as women’s piety, purity, domesticity, and submissiveness. Welter recognized that True Womanhood separated women into their own spheres. The domestic sphere and the “cult” negatively affected women. In 1968 Aileen S. Kraditor published Up from the Pedestal. It argued that the separation of the spheres and their broadening distinction were linked to the Industrial Revolution and the redefinition of men and women’s occupations. In 1969, Gerda Lerner wrote “The Lady and Mill Girl,” which introduced class into women’s history. Lerner argued that “the Cult of True Womanhood” was “a vehicle by which middle-class women elevated their own status.”[4]

Kerber argues that Kraditor and Lerner’s work was too dependent on Friedrich Engels’s The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and State. Their worked subordinated the sphere of women to the sphere of men as had Engels. Engels argued that there was a split between the public and private spheres. The private sphere was that of women even though it was still controlled by man. Engels recognized woman, the home, and the private sphere as interchangeable. The separate spheres “served the interests of the dominate classes.”[5] Feminist-Marxists carried this idea into their work in the 1970s and argued that the home was the central problem for women’s social and psychic identity.

The separate sphere language of Welter, Kraditor, and Lerner had its own influence. Historians of women’s history, who did not consider themselves Marxists, employed the sphere language because it offered opportunities for social, cultural, political, and material analysis. But, the language in the 1970s generally associated the women’s sphere with the “subordination, deteriorating status, and victimization of women by men.”[6] Historians who turned to the political analysis of women recognized women’s history as a progressive history, or “a march toward the suffrage.”[7]

Historians of the 1970s argued for the existence of a distinctive women’s culture which separated and elevated women over men. Kathryn Kish Sklar’s biography of Catherine Beecher (1976) “analyzed the woman who did most to define the ingredients of the traditional women’s sphere: domesticity, nurture, and education” (17). According to Kerber, Sklar showed how “Beecher took the position that women’s sphere did not encompass politics.” Moreover, Kerber suggested that Sklar focused on Beecher’s address of “the elements of the physical location of the woman’s sphere, not only in abstraction like ‘the classroom’ or ‘the home’ but also in explicit and original plans for The American Woman’s Home”  (17). Thus, Sklar’s work showed that Beecher did not really recognize  women as political actors. This helped define the physical spaces of women in the home. Nancy F. Cott’s The Bonds of Womanhood (1977) examined how the “doctrine of women’s sphere” was practiced in nineteenth-century New England. Cott argued that church groups were one of the only ways women could meaningfully participate in their communities. Cott suggested that the suffragist movement of the nineteenth-century grew out of the separation of spheres. The women’s sphere, or “women’s perception of ‘womanhood’” was a precondition for feminism, but it was not necessarily proto-feminist.

Kerber recognizes this scholarship as occurring in two stages. The first stage—the 1960s and 1970s—developed the metaphor of separate spheres as a theme central to women’s experience and located its emergence in antebellum America. The second stage—the later 1970s—introduced the idea of the separate spheres as a liberating women’s culture. According to Kerber, this scholarship was “vulnerable to sloppy use.” At any one time, separate spheres could mean an ideology imposed on women, a culture created by women, and a set of boundaries women were expected to observe. The phrase also ignored race.

Kerber suggests that The Feminist Symposium in 1980 opened a third stage for thinking about separate spheres. Participants recognized the phrase as a metaphor, or rhetorical strategy that could be unpacked. The also recognized that the term “cult” had dropped out of usage in talking about womanhood and separate spheres. Following this opening, Kerber suggests some characteristics, or avenues for further research in this stage: 1) “the application of the concept [separate spheres] to the entire chronology of human experience, rather than to discussion of antebellum society, where perhaps, by accident, perhaps thank to De Tocqueville, historians first encountered it”; 2) the giving of “more attention to questions about the social relations of the sexes and treating the language of the spheres itself as a rhetorical construction that responded to changing social and economic reality”; 3) the recognition of “sphere” in its literal sense in terms of the physical space to which women were assigned.”[8]

Kerber concludes by urging scholars to abandon the phrase “separate spheres”: “To continue to use the language of separate spheres is to deny the reciprocity between gender and society, and to impose a static model on dynamic relationships.”[9] She hopes that “One day we will understand the idea of separate spheres as primarily a trope, employed by people in the past to characterize power relations for which they had no other words and that they could not acknowledge because they could not name, and by historians in our own times as they groped for a device that might dispel the confusion of anecdote and impose narrative and analytic order on the anarchy of inherited evidence, the better to comprehend the world in which we live.”[10]

Kerber’s analysis and historiography are insightful. However, scholars must be cautious of her advice for the third stage. Kerber suggests that historians move beyond antebellum America in their examination of separate spheres. This is laudable, but it dismisses the historical moment in which the phrase “woman’s sphere” developed. Part of this dismissal is that Kerber wants to recognize separate spheres language as a trope. But, this poses problems for scholars of nineteenth-century America because the primary sources (before de Tocqueville) actually refer to the “woman’s sphere” or the “sphere of woman.” Historians may need to stop talking about “separate spheres” in order to better understand the terms that actual historical women employed to talk about gender roles. There is too much slippage between “separate spheres” as a metaphorical construction and “woman’s sphere” as an actual term. “Woman’s sphere” is not the same thing as “separate spheres.” We must recognize this. If not, what are we to do with the  nineteenth-century authors who use and identify the intensification of “sphere” language at particular times? Kerber has an answer to this, but it is a bit arrogant. Kerber suggests that one day we will understand that separate spheres was “employed by people in the past to characterize power relations for which they had no other words and that they could not acknowledge because they could not name.” But, many people who used this language did use it in a particular way “woman’s sphere.” They also name the power relations: the subordination of women in Christianity and American culture. Women like Sarah J. Hale used the sphere language to name power relations and call for changes in these relations. Scholars must be willing to listen to the primary resources and what they tell us about the sphere language in particular historical moments.

Kerber’s analysis of religion and the separate spheres also needs reevaluation. In the second avenue for further study (see above), Kerber argues that the ideology of separate spheres could be helpful for evaluating religion in antebellum America. The ideology of separate spheres was a “familiar link between the old patriarchal culture and the new bourgeois experience.” Kerber suggests that “This aspect could be particularly welcome as a hedge against secularization; religious women of virtually all persuasions sustained a pattern of separateness both in their religious activism and in their religiosity.”[11] In this analysis, Kerber has fallen victim to the secularization thesis of the 1980s and to the separate sphere ideology itself. As scholars have now shown, the United States was not secularized in the 1980s. Religion remained an important part of life for men and women in public and private life. Moreover, women of the nineteenth century did not recognize the “separateness” of their religious activism or of their religiosity. Women practiced religion at home, in churches, through benevolent societies, in publications and writings, and politics. Most of them certainly did not recognize the secularization of nineteenth-century America. In fact, what most scholars would recognize as “secular” publications (Godey’s Ladies’ Book) in the nineteenth-century, were actually filled with articles about Protestant practices among women in public and political spaces. Religious women of the nineteenth-century did not necessarily separate religion and politics, and they did not separate themselves from “secular” society to practice religion. Despite these criticisms, Kerber’s historiography remains essential to the study of women in American history and the evaluation of study of separate spheres. Historians do need to recognize that “separate spheres” was metaphorical. But, we must also recognize they very particular ways that women used “woman’s sphere.” Investigating this term will help scholars better understand they physical places attached to this sphere. These places were not just the home. The term and concept of “woman’s sphere” actually undermines the notion of separate spheres altogether.

[1] Linda K. Kerber, “Separate Spheres, Female Worlds, Woman’s Place: The Rhetoric of Women’s History,” The Journal of American History 75, no. 1 (June 1, 1988): 37.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 10.

[4] Ibid., 12.

[5] Ibid., 13.

[6] Ibid., 14.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 18, 21, 31.

[9] Ibid., 38.

[10] Ibid., 39.

[11] Ibid., 26.

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