A Dissatisfying Ideology: 19th Century Separate Spheres

Photo Credit: Victorian gentleman and lady with flowers, silhouette, OpenClipartVectors/Pixabay/CC0 1.0

Since much of my writing (historical and otherwise) explores the relationship between the sexes and how women and men interact in the world, one of the basics to understanding Gilded Age and Progressive Era fiction is the concept of the separate spheres. I briefly refer to this concept in many of my posts on my other blog, The Dream Book Blog where I deal more with contemporary psychological interpretations in fiction, art, and film but I think it’s important to go into detail about it here since this will lay the groundwork for many of my coming blog articles.

I first learned about the separate spheres when I was in graduate school. An academic article by Barbara Welter, “The Cult Of True Womanhood: 1820 – 1860” started me off and made a huge impression on me. It talks about the separate spheres and its sister ideology, the cult of true womanhood . The article was written on the heels of the second wave feminist movement when writers, theorists, and scholars were beginning to take a more critical look at past gender roles, stereotypes, and ideologies and explore their relevance and repercussions on the present and future.

To put it as simply as I can, the separate spheres is about men and women “in their place” and their “destined” place in the world. I use the word “destined” here a bit ironically because gender destiny is a concept we now know to be outdated and rigid in its definition of what men and women are “supposed” to be. But in the 19th century and earlier, philosophers, religious leaders, and intellectuals believed men were born to the public sphere (including politics, business, and law) and women to the private sphere (home, family, and religion). Women were expected to stay out of the sphere in which they did not belong and men out of the sphere in which they didn’t, or shouldn’t, have any interest (because, presumably, they had more important things to attend to).

The shaping of this concept coincided with the rise of the Industrial Revolution, which began roughly in the late 18th century and continued on through to the mid-19th. In America and elsewhere, industry was developing at a rapid pace and many people were moving out of rural areas and into cities because that’s where many of the jobs were heading. In the minds of many people, industry was a big bad monster (hence Frank Norris’ allegory of the octopus to illustrate the brutality of the railroad industry in his book The Octopus) capable of luring young people into greed and sin and soiling their minds, souls, and bodies. Even worse, in the city, these young men engaged in unsavory pastimes such as drinking, dancing, theatrical entertainments and, obviously, women.

Therefore, the home became an ideal associated with purity, comfort and refuge (one reason why Victorian homes were so ornate and overstuffed) and who better to take care of it than women? They were the “angels in the house”, the eyelash-fluttering sweethearts who spent all their time and energy cleaning, cooking, shopping, attending children, and, for some, engaging in religious and charitable work. They weren’t to bother their pretty little heads with intellectually taxing and often times dirty and corrupt politics or business or law.

One of the hallmarks of the angel in the house was her tenderness and preoccupation with her home and her children, as this painting illustrates.

Photo Credit: Mother Combing Child’s Hair, Mary Cassatt, 1879, painting, pastel, scan from catalogue: File Upload Bot (Cobalty)/Wikimedia Commons/PD Old 80

The description above may be a gross stereotype but it illustrates the whole idea behind the separate spheres. It was, after all an ideology – the way people wished things would be or believed they were supposed to be.

The problem was it created an ideal for women that most found impossible to live up to and/or unsatisfying if they did manage to live up to it. A great example of this comes from Natalie Dykstra’s book Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life. Dykstra describes historian Henry Adams’ mother in typical “angel in the house” terms:

“Mrs. Adams, lively but pampered, had been a social ornament when young. What had charmed her wealthy father… had also captivated her husband — her buoyancy, her love of conversation, her open affection.” (location 949).

However, as with many women, Mrs. Adams’ role as the angel in the house proved anything but satisfying:

“[F]ollowing marriage and the birth of seven children within fifteen years… Mrs. Adams found little to engage her beyond her family. Simmering unhappiness had become tightly braided with chronic physical debility — crushing headaches, sleeplessness, and constant noises in her ears.” (Dykstra, location 949).

It was not uncommon for women to be ill because their temperaments did not fit in well in the separate spheres (a famous example of this is Charlotte Perkins Gilman story “The Yellow Wallpaper”, which I discuss here). Welter refers to the “cult of true womanhood”, but it should really be called the myth of true womanhood. As an ideology, it could only take on the proportions of a myth, a narrative that goes into legend but cannot be realized.

Furthermore, the true woman, in the 19th century sense, had four characteristics that she had to have to be judged worthy of her sex: religious piety, virginal purity, absolute submissiveness, and a talent for the domestic arts. In other words, she was expected to honor her religion, her chastity, her husband, and her home. Honoring herself (her own intellect, her own feelings, her own beliefs and desires) was left out of the equation.

To be fair, some argue, then as now, that the separate spheres did create a sense of solidarity among women of different classes and races. It also encouraged women to connect to one another within their own race or class by forming their own institutions, like women’s colleges, organizations, and clubs. Later in the Progressive Era, when the fight for women’s rights and the right of women to have a voice in social and political matters came to the forefront of social reform, the “we’re all in this together” feeling emerged which made women consolidate.

Thankfully, the ideal of the separate spheres started to crumble when women began to demand a louder voice in public. This is not to say that the separate spheres did not continue to exist and does so, even today (consider that women are still expected to do the majority of housework and caring for children). But, as Welter makes clear, the separate spheres and the cult of true womanhood weren’t just about where a woman should be but what she should do while she was there. It overlooked more salient questions such as whether she wanted to be there at all and what the consequences of her being there if she didn’t could be.


Works Cited
Dykstra, Natalie. Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Co., 2012. Kindle digital file.

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