Should the ideology of “separate spheres” be seen as a description of social reality or a prescription for social reform?
The Industrial Revolution, especially the years from 1815 to 1900, saw huge growth and changes in the economy, population, agriculture, trade and lifestyle. The 19th century saw, more than ever before a growing preoccupation with the issues of gender, domesticity, morality and discipline. The family structure was changing, with emigration to the big cities for work and the ever increasing family size meant more men took on the role of main breadwinner while the women were expected to stay at home to raise the children and uphold the moral duties of the family. The conjugal family unit, with men and women operating in their separate spheres of work and home became the keystone for social stability. But the question to ask is how far did this ideology actually reflect family life at this time? The main focus for this ideal fell on the women with the majority of educational writing, religious sermons, pamphlets and magazines of the time telling them how to behave. These would always dwell on the importance of feminine, submissive roles, the dignity of motherhood and domestic perfection. This essay will predominantly explore the changing role of women in this time and whether they ascribed to this ideal. To do this each class of society needs to be looked at individually as some were more affected by the social moral code, and the education system than others. Also the historiography, as there is a variation in opinion between historians as to whether the theory of separate spheres was accepted as a positive improvement to the values of society or a set of rules to control and reform women, to which they would eventually rebel against.
A large majority of the women in Britain were working-class, and would need to work to survive and support their families. There was however also the huge pressure in the 19th century that they should also keep the perfect home and be responsible for raising the children. Some women worked up to 12 hours a day as domestic servants or in factories, and would then have to stay up all night washing, cleaning and preparing foods. From this point of view it would be seen that the ideology of separate spheres would have been crippling and unachievable for the working class woman. However they also took great pride in keeping their families “respectable” rather than “rough”. This was measured at a local level where status amongst neighbours was of up most importance. Although the standards were not as high as the middle and upper classes, to be supportive of your husband and care well for your children was the priority.
There is contradictory evidence of this though in some of the early pamphlets for the rights of women show. One, published by the Women’s freedom league pictures a working class women juggling her housework, squabbling children and preparing dinner whilst her husband relaxes in the pub. It holds the slogan: “ A man works from sun to sun, but a woman’s work is never done.” This is not the ideal image of the ‘angel in the home’ and was undoubtedly not for many working class women at this time.
For the middle classes, being able to afford to have your wife stay at home, fulfilling her domestic role, was the ultimate way to display a man’s wealth, success and pride. Although this standard of living would have seemed affluent to the majority of the nation, the male head of the family would have had a relatively usual job, possibly a shop owner, a bank clerk or a schoolteacher, and would have had an annual income of around £80 to £150. The middle class male had important social networking roles regarding business and politics, which the women would be supporters. These women had an equally important role in the creation of their husband’s social and therefore business reputation. It was said, “The talk of the town was almost as important as the smoke of the factory chimneys in creating a prosperous industrial economy” Here it can be seen that the separate sphere ideology was a reality that enriched the lives of those able to afford it. Carroll Smith Rosenburg reinforces this idea and argues that: “the women’s sphere had an essential integrity and dignity that grew out of women’s shared experiences and mutual affection…Most 18th and 19th century women lived within a world bounded by home church and the institution of visiting…” These women were not being weak, submissive and feeble but proactive in their communities. These women are not prescribed this behaviour but choose it, as it was beneficial to their family’s wellbeing.
The alternative argument is that women were submissive and supporters to their husbands, simply because they had no other choice. In society they didn’t exist legally once married. They became the property of their husband, along with any inheritance or children they had. They had so few rights in law that some say they were no more than prisoners in their own home. Activist Ray Strachey, who was writing in 1928, claims that it was the oppression of the private sphere for women that, “…operated as a pressure cooker generating pent up frustrations which eventually exploded as mass female politics…a female invasion of the male public sphere…” thus meaning that the ideology was prescribed by society and eventually rejected.
The elite, upper classes were the one area of society that was affected far less by the ‘public’, ‘private’ divide. The majority of aristocratic men, did not leave the house for work each morning as their riches were inherited, and the women would have had domestic servants to do the housework and child rearing, so the home was the shared sphere for both. The women also had far greater independence as they had their own wealth through inheritance that was protected for them by male trustee’s, usually elder family members. This did not mean that there was not a gender divide. The women were still expected to take on the role of moral guardian for the estate and the children but this would be in a managerial form rather than hands on. One famous example of this is in the advice book of the time: Isabella Beeton’s book of household management, the instructions of which could only have been followed by the elite classes.
“As with the Commander of an army, so it is with the mistress of a house. Of all those acquirements, which belong more to the feminine character, there are none which take higher rank than such as enter into the knowledge of household duties; for on these are perpetually dependant the happiness, comfort and well-being of a family”
So although there was still an ideal to be followed it was much easier for the elite. Delegating the chores of the house to others left much more leisure time, and public time, for both the men and women. The men devoted time to politics while the women would concern themselves with philanthropic work in the community. These women were the first to start the fight for all women’s rights to education and suffrage. In the case of the upper classes the separate spheres ideology was a loose set if ideas to be followed. There was a greater emphasis placed on people conducting themselves in an aristocratic manner, irrelevant of what sex they were.
Education was a huge reinforcement of the specific roles between the sexes. It was seen to ‘civilise’ the working classes and hoped to bestow them with middle class values. Boys were expected to be industrious and punctual and girls to be chaste and obedient. Academic achievement was not considered important for girls, as they were not seen to be born leaders. At best they would be taught philanthropy, and then only in the elite families. Education at this time seemed to be about progress for the boys in the changing industrial world but about social control for the girls. Some doctor’s even suggested that women were mentally and physically unsuitable for education. Too much thinking would over stretch their brains and would certainly render them infertile. With this sort of advice women had no option but to assume their given domestic role.
Historian Amanda Vickery has undertaken a huge amount of study in the area of the public and private spheres of the 19th century and has gone through many personal letters and diaries from the time to get an accurate picture as much social history was unrecorded officially. With the lack of women’s history it would be easy to conclude that they were not considered a significantly important part of everyday life, yet these personal, sentimental and honest anecdotes show that times had changed in the 19th century. Couples were marrying for love and companionship, where parents had far less control over their children’s choice of spouse. Vickery also found that especially in middle classes, seen as the most likely to conform to the ideal of separate spheres, the definitions of the gender roles varied widely with many men being involved in the home and family, and many women being expected to have a knowledge on politics, even if in just a supportive role towards their husbands.
The fact that there was a generally accepted set of rules for each gender is inescapable. For some their lives were enriched by these rules, while others were left feeling unvalued and ostracised from society.
A precise conclusion seems difficult to come by, as there are so many variables within people’s relationships, in the regions they live, and their wealth, which can affect their behaviour within society.
It becomes increasingly apparent that to separate the sexes into such specific roles is not going to prove successful for everyone. The differences in human beings mean that when people are given a set of rules, which they are prescribed to live their life by, some are bound to rebel, while others are happy to conform.
The ideology of separate spheres was reinforced through law, religion, politics and education, and seemed to be a virtuous and appropriate way to organise and reform society. It was also a reality that it was an ideology that existed in people’s consciousness as a way of life but not all chose to adhere to it. It was however only really affecting for the middle classes and those who could afford it and were happy with their position.
BEETON I, Isabella Beeton’s Book of Household Management, (1861) S.O. Beeton, England
MATTHEW C, The Nineteenth Century, The British Isles: 1851-1901, (Oxford 2000) Oxford University Press.
STEINBACH S, Women in England 1760-1914 A Social History, (London 2000) Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London.
WOJTCZAK H, Women of Victorian Sussex, (Hastings, Sussex, 2003) Hastings Press.
VICKERY A, Golden Age to Separate Spheres? A Review of the Categories and Chronology of English Women’s History, The Historical Journal, Vol.36, No.2 (Jun, 1993) pp.383-414
CLARK A, Review of VICKERY A, The Gentleman’s Daughter, Women’s lives in Georgian England, Institute of Historical Research, (1998) New Haven and London, Yale University Press.