03 Apr

Kathryn K. Sklar, Catherine Beecher: A Study in American Domesticity (1973)

Kathryn K. Sklar traces the relationship between women and nineteenth-century American society through the life, work, and writings of Catharine Beecher (1800-1878). Catherine Beecher: A Study in American Domesticity examines women’s religious, political, and domestic roles during the transition from Calvinist to Victorian society in New England and the emerging West. Sklar argues that Catharine Beecher redefined the American domestic environment in her published debates with the Grimké sisters on women’s rights, and in her Treatise on Domestic Economy first published in 1841. Beecher “politicized the traditional female sphere of the home” by recognizing gendered roles in the “Divine economy” (134-135). Beecher argued that women were subordinate to men in public society, but morally superior to men in the domestic and social circle. As teachers, mothers, and domestics, women were to, according to Sklar, “conform to the needs of their nation…and to disregard their secondary identities of class and locale” (160). Sklar also suggests that “Catharine saw the home as an integral part of a national system, reflecting and promoting mainstream American values” (163). Beecher urged women to be the arbiters between “the expanding thrust of Jacksonian Democracy and the continuing social need for coherence and stability” (xiv).

This biography is an important contribution to the study of women’s roles and agency in nineteenth-century American society. Sklar’s book and Linda K. Kerber’s Women of the Republic highlight similar themes. American women in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries adopted notions of domesticity that aligned women’s roles as virtuous wives, mothers, and teachers with the education of the public and the moral progress of the nation. While Republican Motherhood and Beecher’s American domesticity bridged the gap between the home and nation, women remained, in many ways, on the periphery of the political community. Women did not enjoy the same political and legal privileges as did white males.

Sklar, however, complicates the notion that nineteenth-century women remained on the periphery by emphasizing the tensions and contradictions that women faced in their everyday lives. Women, like Beecher, actively carved positions for themselves in male hierarchies even when these positions seemed to contradict American domesticity. Beecher urged women to participate in a submissive American domesticity based on patriarchal hierarchy. However, Beecher fervently fought this hierarchy her entire life. Beecher never married and was not a mother. She did not own a home and she did not participate in American domesticity. Beecher was a competent and published religious writer. Yet, Beecher was not allowed to participate in official, male church life. These contradictions are important because they highlight the ways some women actively worked around and within these male dominated political, legal, social, and religious communities. Women did not always remain on the periphery of these communities. They engaged in these hierarchies by debating (in private and public writings, at schools and public meetings, and on speaking tours) with their fathers, brothers, ministers, and other men.

Sklar’s work is also important for its insight into women’s labor in nineteenth-century America. Sklar suggests that Beecher’s “ideology of domesticity was an effort to overcome the relative deterioration in the status of women that occurred when economic production was transferred from the household to the factory” (193). Although underexplored in Sklar’s analysis, this insight is significant as it challenges other narratives about capitalism. Friedrich Engels notes in The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State: “The emancipation of woman will only be possible when woman can take part in production on a large, social scale, and domestic work no longer claims anything but an insignificant amount of her time” (199). Similarly, Alan Kulikoff notes in The Agrarian Origins of Capitalism that women’s participation in industrialization, wages, and exchange challenged nineteenth-century American patriarchy (20, 23). Sklar suggests that for Beecher, and perhaps other nineteenth-century American women, domesticity liberated women who faced harsh industrial workplaces and elevated their social statuses.

Sklar also complicates notions about the transformation of the family and women’s roles in relation to the state and capitalism. Marxist historians often see capitalism and industrial labor as driving forces that compel and manipulate familial organization and gender roles. Particularly, Friedrich Engels recognizes capitalism as a patriarchal system that encourages women to become prostitutes. To be sure, contemporary scholars have challenged Engels. Yet, Sklar reminds historians that religious ideas and practices played equally important roles in developments of the family and domesticity. Beecher’s notions about gender and submissiveness were deeply grounded in Calvinist thought and traditions about marriage and gender. To understand how Beecher challenged and participated in American patriarchal society, historians must recognize her economic as well as religious influences.

Sklar also extends notions about the “woman’s sphere” as it relates to domesticity. Sklar situates Beecher in her time and place, and reads Beecher’s work in light of her political, religious, and social goals for women and America. Sklar argues that with her Treatise, Beecher “tried to reconcile the inequality of women with an egalitarian democracy by emphasizing the importance of the woman’s sphere of domesticity…Beecher explained to her readers that women were restricted to the domestic sphere as a political expedient necessary to the maintenance of democracy in America” (156). Sklar recognizes that Beecher politicized the woman’s sphere in ways that historians have barely recognized.

Nevertheless, Sklar’s reading of the woman’s sphere needs some revision. Sklar argued that the woman’s sphere was the domestic sphere. This notion of the separate sphere has been challenged by Linda K. Kerber (See “Separate Spheres” in 1988) and rightly so. Women, especially Beecher, were not relegated to the domestic sphere in terms of the physical space of and surrounding the home. However, Beecher and other women did have something particular in mind when they mentioned woman’s sphere. Beecher talked about woman’s sphere as “the domestic and social circle.” Scholars have paid too little attention to the meaning of the social circle in their debates about the woman’s sphere. The social circle was not a metaphorical influence on society through the domestic circle. The social circle was women’s action and activity outside of the home. For Beecher, the social circle was her teaching, lecturing, participating in social clubs, and religious activities outside of the home in public. Beecher did not define the woman’s sphere as the home. Horace Bushnell’s Christian Nurture did.

While Sklar’s work provides many insights into Beecher’s notions of American domesticity, the notion of domesticity could have been complicated and further analyzed. Sklar notes that the parlor was the “cultural podium…the base from which their [women’s] influence on the rest of the culture was launched” (137). Elsewhere Sklar notes, that the home was “a new kind of space within which they forged their [families] identities and around which they organized their social and political interaction” (xi). The nineteenth-century New England home, especially the parlor, was a domestic space. But, the parlor was a domestic, public space where guests were entertained, items displayed, people slept, and politics were discussed. The parlor was not a private or individual space. Recognizing the politics of the parlor in ideas about domesticity may challenge contemporary historians’ notions of private and public spaces, and the role of women and families in these spaces. Nineteenth-century American domesticity may not be as private and secluded a sphere as historians have suggested. These spaces and their uses contributed to notions of domesticity that scholars have not fully explored in the history of women and gender. Nevertheless, Sklar’s biography of Catharine Beecher provides essential insights into the social, political, and religious culture of nineteenth-century American gender and domesticity.


02 Apr

Tracy Fessenden, “The Other Woman’s Sphere” (2001)

“The Other Woman’s Sphere” examines how nuns and prostitutes stood “well outside of the nineteenth-century Protestant woman’s sphere” (169). According to Fessenden, “the creation and maintenance of a Protestant woman’s sphere in the nineteenth century emerges as part of the larger project of asserting a unified Protestant America in the face of social fragmentation along multiple axes, and then of managing that fragmentation by processing difference through a binary logic.” In other words, non-Protestant women like nuns and prostitutes, were coded as outside the woman’s sphere. Nonetheless, some Protestant women “resisted this homogenization of ‘woman’ and put it to work to serve their own interests” (172). Fessenden argues that the constructed discourse of woman’s sphere allowed “white middle-class Protestant women to extend their power over other women while allowing men to maintain their dominance over women as a class” (184). It allowed white Protestant men and women to protect and frame their hegemony over religious, racial, and class formations. Men, particularly those in the emerging medical field, biologized the woman’s sphere so that working outside the home was considered a criminal act. Protestant women working in factories, sales, or other jobs were considered dangerous like nuns and prostitutes who worked outside the home. One medical publication stated “A woman who works outside the home commits a biological crime against herself and her community.” Men deployed the ideology of biologized spheres to keep women out of public occupations.  The woman’s sphere came to be seen as separate from the marketplace.


Fessenden’s work is significant because she recognizes the woman’s sphere as an ideological construction by Protestants. Few scholars have recognized this religious aspect of the woman’s sphere. Fessdenden notes, “The widespread critical unwillingness to engage religion as a category of identity alongside or encoded within race or class also elide the ways that female power, whether represented as belonging to or transcending woman’s sphere, has frequently been organized as power over (and at the expense of) women whose racial, class, and religious identities set them in ambiguous relation to dominant and implicitly white, middle-class, and Protestant ideologies of womanhood.” Recognizing the woman’s sphere as a particularly Protestant construction allows scholars to recognize the relationships between religion, class, and race in the nineteenth century. It allows scholars to analyze the ways that Protestants deployed the woman’s sphere against non-Protestants, non-whites, and the lower classes.

Despite these insights, Fessenden’s work lacks a historiography of the ideology of woman’s sphere. It is not clear which historians Fessenden draws on to evoke and elaborate the definition and ideology of the woman’s sphere and the separate spheres. This is problematic because Fessenden invokes both phrases in ways that historians have already elaborated and/or cautioned against. For example, Fessenden suggests “As sites for probing the boundaries of private and public spaces, behaviors and roles, the figures of nun and prostitute both vex and bolster nineteenth-century constructions of legitimate femininity as domestic, maternal, pious, and separate from the workings of the market.” The idea that separate sphere ideology was metaphorical, or a construction, was supported by Linda K. Kerber in “Separate Spheres, Female Worlds, Woman’s Place.” Moreover, the argument that this ideological construction separated women’s domestic life from public or industrial life has been argued by Jeanne Boydston in Home & Work. Neither of these scholars’ work appear in Fessenden’s notes. This makes it hard to trace what exactly is new and important about Fessenden’s elaboration of the woman’s sphere and the separate spheres. I suggest that the importance of this work emerges in its suggestion that men and women used the ideology of the woman’s sphere to talk about “the other,” or nuns and prostitutes. This work is also important because it argues that the emerging medical field, not just industrialization (See Boydston) worked to create the ideology of separate spheres. More importantly, this article suggests that the woman’s sphere promoted Protestant ways of understanding women, as well as Protestant women’s actions in society and their construction of “the other.” Few historians have recognized the religious dimension of the ideology of the woman’s sphere and how Protestant women  and men deployed this phrase to and against women.

31 Mar

Jeanne Boydston, Home & Work: Housework, Wages, and the Ideology of Labor in the Early Republic (1990)

Jeanne Boydston traces the history of unpaid domestic labor among white working- and middle-class women in the northeast in colonial and antebellum America. Home & Work sets housework within a Marxist framework to understand “the intimate relationship between the gender and labor systems that characterized industrializing America” (xii). Boydston argues that in the antebellum period the “growing social invisibility of labor women performed for their own families made housework in many ways the prototype for the restructuring of the social relations of labor under conditions of early industrialization” (xx). Boydston terms the invisibility of women’s labor “the pastoralization of housework.” By the 1820s and 1830s, economic life and labor were “spherized” such that women’s labor was ideologically separated from the “productive” labor of men. This notion was cemented in Americans’ imagination although housework was physically taxing, time-consuming, and supported family life and economy.

This book is an important contribution to the study of women’s labor in American history. Boydston’s book challenges other scholars’ definition of labor, and its relation to industrialization, capitalism, and Marxism. In The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, Friedrich Engels argues that domestic work enslaved women and prevented them from participating in industrialization and the larger economy (199). In this traditional capitalist narrative, women’s domestic labor is separated from industrial labor that takes place in public, male spaces. Women’s housework is viewed as private, unproductive labor that is ancillary to the progress of the economy and society. The legacy of Engel’s narrative can be traced to Herbert G. Gutman’s Work, Culture & Society. Gutman’s work moves the study of labor history beyond a “narrow ‘economic’ analysis” that isolates labor from “American cultural and social history” (10). This “new” labor history emphasizes “the frequent tension between different groups of men and women new to the machine and a changing American society” (12). Yet, like Engels, Gutman defines labor in terms of production, public space, and profit.

Boydston’s revolutionizes the ways that scholars should think about labor. Labor does not only occur in public, male spaces. Labor also takes place in homes and is carried out by unpaid women. Thus, Boydston challenges traditional Marxist notions of labor that are defined in terms of profit, public spaces, and mechanical production of goods. Boydston goes further in her analysis to suggest that scholars must recognize the relationship between domestic labor and industrialization. With the war of 1812, Boydston suggests that Americans began to believe that their “household economies and their identity as a nation depended on growing cash markets and capitalized manufacturing” (54). This notion contributed to an understanding not only that there was “a gendered division of labor,” but that there was “a gendered definition of labor” (55) in the early American Republic. Boydston urges scholars to recognize that the processes of early industrialization and emerging capitalism transformed perceptions about women’s labor in the household. This is made clear when Boydston describes the innovations in household technologies that were influenced by industrialization and notions of material consumption.

Recognizing the relationship between labor and industrialization allows Boydston to historicize and challenge notions about the ideology of separate spheres in antebellum America. Other scholars, like Kathryn K. Sklar, have recognized the relationship between domestic labor and industrialization. In Catharine Beecher, Sklar argues: “the ideology of domesticity was an effort to overcome the relative deterioration in the status of women that occurred when economic production was transferred from the household to the factory” (193). Yet, Sklar does not challenge scholarly notions about sphere ideology. Rather, Sklar reinforces the notions that sphere ideology was an accepted antebellum reality. The parlor was the “cultural podium…the base from which their [women’s] influence on the rest of the culture was launched” (137). Elsewhere Sklar notes, that the home was “a new kind of space within which they forged their [families’] identities and around which they organized their social and political interaction” (xi). Thus, nineteenth-century New England homes remain private, domestic spaces in antebellum reality. Homes are free of strenuous domestic labor, and are the realms of spiritual mothers basking in cultural and social leisure.

Boydston, following Linda K. Kerber, challenges the reality of sphere ideology in an effort to explain the invisibility of women’s domestic labor. Boydston notes, “the ideology of gender spheres was partly a response to the chaos of a changing society—an intellectually and emotionally comforting way of setting limits to the uncertainties of early industrialization” (143). The mother and home were perceived as shelters from the dangers of an industrial society. Thus, “Woman-in-the-abstract” was “defined as the embodiment of all that was contrary to the values and behaviors of men in the marketplace, and thus, the marketplace itself” (144). Eventually, the metaphors of sphere ideology were accepted as women’s actual behaviors. The conflation of “ideology and behavior was to obscure both the nature and the economic importance of women’s domestic labor” (146). This culminated in what Boydston terms the “pastoralization of housework” (161). Women, like Harriett Beecher, could detail their strenuous domestic labors—cooking, cleaning, caring for children, varnishing furniture, mending clothes, making household items, dealing with tradespeople, visiting neighbors, writing, and managing landlords—and still suggest that “I don’t do anything” (163). The sphere ideology masked the reality of women’s works such that women themselves understood their work as dissociated from “productive,” industrialized labor. Separate sphere ideology began as a metaphor and was then accepted as reality.

While Boydston’s work provides notable insights into the relationships between domestic labor and industrialization, the relationships between labor, capitalism, and Protestantism could have been complicated to better understand the history of the invisibility of women’s work. Boydston argues that women’s domestic labor was not always invisible in American society. Women’s labor was recognized by colonial Americans, particularly early Protestants, as significant to the family’s economy and well-being in the community. Boydston suggests that the Puritan “calling” infused “secular work with an ethical dimension: the goal of labor was to be useful to the larger purposes of creation, as expressed in the commonweal of society” (20).  This analysis is important for understanding the relationship between religion, labor, and industrialization.

Yet, this analysis is problematic on several levels. First, Boydston relies on the notion that there is a division between the sacred and “secular work.” Thus, Boydston’s history of labor assumes a secularization framework where the progress of capitalism and labor are evidence of the absence of religion. Religious studies historians have discounted the secularization thesis that proliferated through the 1980s. Second, Boydston assumes that when Puritans’ notion of “the calling” was deemphasized, later Protestantism had little impact on conceptions of labor and capitalism. In fact, Protestantism vanishes from Boydston’s history after the 1640s even though evangelicalism proliferated through the antebellum period and influenced notions of labor and labor reform through “the benevolent empire.” Gutman refers to some of these influences in Work, Culture & Society in his discussion of pre- and post-millennialism Protestant labor reform movements (79-118). Finally, Protestantism does not figure into Boydston’s analysis of the ideology of gender spheres. This is deeply problematic because, as Sklar notes in Catharine Beecher, this ideology can be traced to Calvinist beliefs about gender roles. Moreover by the mid-nineteenth century, sphere language promoted the home as the center for children’s religious formation, and mothers in homes as the arbiters of religious life. This is especially seen in Catharine Beecher’s Treatise on Domestic Economy, which Boydston’s quotes extensively without mentioning its Protestant leanings. Beecher urged women to teach their children Christian values, and to literally construct a Christian home by modeling the architecture of the home on nineteenth-century church plans. The domestic economy for Beecher, and other women who promoted or misrecognized the ideology of the gender spheres, mirrored the divine, Protestant economy. Future analysis of women’s labor must also analyze Protestantism in relation to nineteenth-century ideas about gender, capitalism, and industrialization.


Protestants notions about labor, gender, and capitalism are important because nineteenth-century American aligned middle-class respectability with Protestant parlor piety and the marketplace. This is important because Boydston assumes that separate sphere ideology defined womanhood and motherhood “as the embodiment of all that was contrary to the values and behaviors of men in the marketplace, and thus, the marketplace itself” (144). But, this is not true. Protestant women brought the marketplace into the home in very specific ways. Protestant advice literature advised women to buy mass-produced products for display in their homes. These things were religious objects and images that reflected the families’ wealth, religiosity, participation in the marketplace, and class. Class and social status were central to nineteenth-century Protestants conceptions of home and work. Boydston mentions class in her analysis of home and work. “It was, after all, in the middle classes that women had presumably been freed from the necessity of labor that had characterized the colonial helpmate….Indeed, in the celebrations of middle-class ‘Motherhood’ lay the fullest embodiments of the marginalization of housewives as workers” (158). But, class was not only defined by motherhood in terms of nurturing children. It was defined by the marketplace and things. Mothers were to educate their children and decorate their homes with Christian things. But decorating homes cost money that many American families did not have. Women were instructed to work to decorate homes so they would appear to be upper-middle class, white Protestants. The appearance of class through display and home decoration contributed to the invisibility of women’s labor. Women were supposed to present themselves and their homes as if they could afford things and servants. White, middle-class Protestant aspirations contributed to the invisibility of women’s domestic labor. Protestant things and the marketplace were essential to “the pastoralization of housework.”


Despite Boydston neglect of religion and the marketplace in the home, Home & Work revolutionizes the ways scholars should think about women’s domestic labor. Women’s domestic work and its dissociation from “real” labor, economy, and capitalism cannot be understood without recognizing how housework was transformed in its relationship to industrialization and separate sphere ideology in the nineteenth-century.

29 Mar

Linda K. Kerber, Women of the Republic (1980)

In Women of the Republic Linda K. Kerber examines how the American Revolution affected women’s roles in political and domestic life. Kerber traces these roles through the origin and adoption of the language of “Republican Motherhood.” To understand the transformation of the female political imagination, Kerber analyzes political treatises, women’s diaries and letters, published materials, legal documents, probate inventories, and court records.

Kerber argues that Anglo-Americans inherited the Enlightenment tradition from Europe, which ignored the role of women in conceptions of the new social order. Women challenged this ideology during the Revolution as they negotiated contradictory loyalties to their families and the state. Women adopted the language of Republican Motherhood, which “provided the justification of women’s political behavior; it bridged the gap between idiocy and the polis” (11-12). Women exhibited patriotism by serving as army nurses, joining voluntary associations, and signing petitions. Yet, women were not recognized as political beings in the new republic. After the Revolution, courts upheld coverture laws, limited dower rights, and restricted divorce. American women had few legal rights as citizens. The language of Republican Motherhood was also adopted to promote women’s education. Republican mothers were informed citizens, well-read in religious texts, histories, and politics. Yet, education served women’s domestic duties, especially the training of virtuous sons and husbands for the republic.

Kerber’s work is noteworthy for its consideration of the gendered notions of Enlightenment ideals, politics, and freedom during the Revolution and Early Republic. Kerber demonstrates how women participated in politics in their everyday lives by adopting the language of Republican Motherhood. Republican Motherhood was a revolutionary invention in that it allowed for the intersection of women’s domestic life and the polis. Women used Republican Motherhood “to articulate a poltical ideology that blended the domestic and public sphere” (36). Thus, Republican Motherhood represents “a stage in the process of women’s political socialization” (284). Kerber’s work is also noteworthy as it encourages scholars to recognize the limitations of Republican Motherhood. The role was liberating, but it also severely limited women. Republican Motherhood masked women’s actual positions in the polis: “women remained on the periphery of the political community” (12). The American Revolution did not provide women with the same political and legal privileges as it did white males in the early American Republic.

For a historiography of separate spheres and a critique of Kerber’s “Republican Motherhood” see: the tag “separate spheres.”

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.