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Separate Spheres

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Throughout the 1700’s, men and women were confined to culturally predefined spheres of responsibility. “A woman’s place is in the home” was the prevailing opinion in America under the Separate Spheres ideology during the eighteenth century. Women were thought to be biologically inclined to excel in the domestic sphere of childrearing and homemaking while men were thought to be biologically inclined to excel in the public sphere of economics and politics. Some early feminist pioneers like Abigail Adams and Mary Wollstonecraft were the first feminists to test the boundaries. Women were not content to be relegated solely to the domestic sphere and under the guidance of pioneers such as Adams and Wollstonecraft began to challenge the idea of Separate Spheres and start an eventual merging of those spheres.
Separate Spheres was a set of ideas that assigned specific and opposite duties to men and women. The ideology behind the concept of Separate Spheres was that the man of the house, by the will of god and biological structure, was meant to work in politics, the workforce, and anything in the public sphere. Meanwhile, the woman’s sphere was confined to the home for many of the same reasons--so she could bear children, cook, clean, and basically take care of the domestic life. This initially meant that men got a better education than most women, because the women would not work in a position of authority like a man.
These stereotypes dominated American culture throughout the eighteenth century. In fact, women were said to be naturally unfit for economic competition or political citizenship because of their “delicate constitution”. The idea of Separate Spheres defined the roles of women and men during the eighteenth century. Therefore, women had a very limited role in society.
The idea of Separate Spheres is not so much an idea as it is a “metaphor” for complex relations in social and economic contexts (Kerber 28). The idea basically states that a woman’s job is not to “work” but to “help”. A woman’s place is in the home and if she decides to leave the home then she should do jobs best suited for her gender (Kerber 28). In light of the Separate Spheres ideology, a woman’s work outside of the home is to do limited unskilled work, very different from a man’s work. Separate Spheres was a segregation of the two different genders and their roles in society.
Abigail Adams (as seen in the picture below) was perhaps the most important feminist of the 1700’s. Abigail Adams was born November 11, 1744 in North Parish Congregational Church (Noble). Abigail was married to John Adams, the 2nd President of the United States. Abigail’s first stride in American Feminism occurred when she spoke against women’s land laws. Abigail thoroughly believed that women should not submit to laws clearly made not in their favor (Noble). Abigail Adams believed all women should be educated and appreciated for their skill to guide men and their children in the right direction. Abigail Adams stated "remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebellion and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice or Representation." (qtd. in Noble).
Mary Wollstonecraft was another important feminist of the 1700’s. Mary Wollstonecraft earned her right as an American feminist when she published the book “A Vindication of the Rights of Womanhood” in 1792 (Stevenson 1). “A Vindication of the Rights of Womanhood” became a bestseller. The book argued that women should have an equal education to men. She argued that women needed a good education so they could teach their own sons and daughters. She also advocated that men and women should have equal marriage rights-- not a marriage where the man receives all of the land. Mary Wollstonecraft wrote that single women should be educated and trained for a career (Stevenson 1). Publishing this book was a bold move on Wollstonecraft’s part, especially for this time period. However, it paid off when Wollstonecraft’s book became a bestseller and was published all over the world.
As Alexis de Tocqueville states “In no country has such constant care been taken as in America to trace two clearly distinct lines of action for the two sexes and to make them keep pace one with the other, but in two pathways that are always different”(qtd. in Kerber 1). The idea of Separate Spheres separated men and women into two completely different social spheres based on society’s perception of the strengths of the two sexes. Women were put into a sphere where they had no say in what happened in politics or anything outside of the domestic sphere. The confinement of women solely to the domestic sphere did not fully utilize the intellect and ambition of the female sex. As a direct result of efforts by early feminists such as Adams and Wollstonecraft, women began to entertain the idea of venturing into the male sphere of politics and economics. Thus, women began the slow process of integrating the two spheres which would allow women to contribute their ideas into American culture.

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