Gender: Separate Spheres for Men and Women
Gender: Separate Spheres for Men and Women
Different Worlds. Men and women grew up in different worlds. Americans assumed that men and women naturally belonged in what they called separate “spheres.” Women inhabited a sphere comprising the home, church, and social visits they exchanged with each other. Men’s sphere was outside the home in the world of industry, commerce, and politics. These separate spheres were especially well defined among the middle class in the cities and small towns. On farms and plantations men’s and women’s worlds were not so rigidly separate although different roles were assigned to each sex. Even though most men and women married and raised families together, they tended to identify strongly with these separate social worlds throughout their lives.
Women’s Sphere. Only privileged girls of the upper and middle classes enjoyed much education, sometimes in female academies but more often under the supervision of their scholarly fathers. Most girls were raised under the wings of their mothers, preparing to take on the same responsibilities one day. They often cared for younger siblings and generally tried to lighten their mothers’ loads. The home was the young woman’s schoolroom, and the social activities in which she engaged were conducted in the company of other girls and women. The quilting circles, reading groups, and benevolent societies to which she belonged were composed largely (or entirely) of women. Bonds with sisters, mothers, and close female friends were maintained, even over long distances, by ritual visits women made to each other’s homes. Visiting was an everyday activity for many women who made the rounds to check in on neighbors and share gossip or a cup of tea. As families moved out West, female family members from the East would make extended visits, staying weeks or months at a time.
Men’s Sphere. Men often felt only tentatively linked to the home, expressing at times a feeling of exclusion. Young boys were nurtured at home, but they early learned that their sphere was elsewhere. They grew up under the tutelage of their fathers, preparing for their future careers. Boys who grew up on farms attended their fathers at chores and trips to town to conduct business. Boys who grew up in middle- and upper-class households received extensive educations, sometimes including college. Because they were surrounded only by men throughout their schooling and grew up to work in fields such as politics, law, or medicine that included only men, they developed friendships and socialized within an allmale world. Many men, especially bachelors, spent much of their leisure time at sporting events or in taverns (often one and the same).
Cult of Domesticity. As the capitalist economy grew and technological advances mechanized the methods of production, the realm of business moved outside the home, where previously families had kept shops and manufactured wares for sale, and into factories and specialized business districts. As these economic activities moved out of the house, men went with them, at least during the working day, leaving women and children at home. Of course, many families could not afford to lose the earning power of women and children, but in most middle-class homes women ceased to produce goods for sale and focused their energies on keeping a home and raising children. As a result the home itself was elevated in status. Perceiving the outside world of politics and business to be full of corruption and greed, Americans viewed the home as a haven or sanctuary where young children acquired from their mothers the civic and personal virtues that would sustain the republic. The family and home became idealized as the moral center of society, a harbor of republican values in the face of rampant capitalism.
THE LOWELL MILL GIRLS
The New England farm girls who worked in the textile mills in Lowell, Massachusetts, were fascinating to their contemporaries not only because they were the first female factory-labor force in American history but also because of their commitment to self-culture that led to the establishment of a library; a lyceum lecture series, “Improvement Circle”; and a magazine called The Lowell Offering that published the stories, essays, and poems of the female mill operatives. Lowell was viewed as an idyllic factory community, and it attracted the attention of visitors such as Charles Dickens and Harriet Martineau as well as American presidents and other politicians. Davy Crockett visited Lowell in 1834 and made special note of the “mile of gals,” as they were commonly called: “All well dressed, lively, and genteel in their appearance; indeed, the girls looked as if they were coming from a quilting frolic.” The reputation of the Lowell mill girls did much to contradict the stigma attached to factory work, especially for women, and the intelligence they displayed in their magazine drew curious subscribers from all over America and abroad. More than anything, though, their magazine proved that intellectual improvement was available to all, even farm girls who worked all day in the factories and then applied themselves in the evenings to serious study.
Sources: Benita Eisler, ed., The Lowell Offering Writings by New England Mill Women (1840–1845) (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1977);
True Womanhood. As keepers of the home women possessed a special role in republican America. They were the backbone of society, responsible for protecting American virtues, largely by the example they set for others. Lydia Howard Sigourney summed up the new idealization of the home and women’s role in her Whisper to a Bride (1850): “Home! Blessed bride, thou art about to enter this sanctuary, and to become a priestess at its altar!” Sermons and magazine articles described what were called “true women,” which meant those who were excellent managers of the home, submissive to the men in their lives, pure in thought and action, devout in their Christian faith, and committed to their families as mothers, wives, daughters, or sisters. The middle-class ideal of the true woman played a strong role in women’s lives by setting up expectations for all women to follow.
Respect. While not all could live up to the ideal of the true woman, many women fitted comfortably into their prescribed sphere. Some even made careers out of advocating it for others despite the fact that true women were not supposed to have careers. Catharine Beecher, for example, campaigned both for greater respect for the role of the “true woman” and an increased rigor on the part of women in their adoption of that role. Her Treatise on Domestic Economy (1841) collected an exhaustive amount of information on every aspect of housekeeping, from building the house itself to rearing the children within it. Believing that women were not adequately prepared to assume their roles as wives and mothers, she sought to modernize and regularize housework by easing the anxieties of women about their duties and offering them practical advice on how to perform them in the most effective way. Her sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, would go on to popularize the image of the true woman in her fiction, but Sarah Josepha Hale, author of many novels and editor of Godey’s Lr.dy’s Book, the most popular women’s magazine of its time, would become the culture’s foremost spokeswoman for domesticity and the true woman.
Idealization of Motherhood. The most important, even sacred, role for a woman to play, according to nineteenth-century advisers, was to bear, nurture, and educate her children. A woman who did not desire to have children was thought to be unnatural. Motherhood was considered the source of a woman’s most intense happiness while at the same time conferring authority on women; as mothers they assumed the responsibility for ensuring the moral health of the nation through the values they transmitted to their children. Lydia Sigourney, in Letters to Mothers (1838), advised women, “If in becoming a mother, you have reached the climax of your happiness, you have also taken a higher place in the scale of being …you have gained an increase in power.” If middle-class women had lost some influence in the culture when they ceased to contribute to the family’s livelihood, they made up for it by an elevation in their status as mothers. “The acquisition of wealth, the advancement of his children in worldly honor—these are [the father’s] self-imposed tasks,” wrote Emma Embury in the Ladies’ Companion, while it was the mother who shaped “the infant
mind as yet untainted by contact with evil …like wax beneath the plastic hand of the mother.”
Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women in the Old South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988);
Caroll Smith-Rosenberg, Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America (New York: Knopf, 1985);
Barbara Welter, Dimity Convictions: The American Woman in the Nineteenth Century (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1976).