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Separate Spheres

How has investigation of the history of masculinity affected understandings of the gendered separation of spheres?

‘Separate spheres’, the idea that the public and the private (ie. the home) are segregated along gender lines, with men in the public and women imprisoned in the private has become entrenched as a historical concept. The idea resonated with those involved in the women’s history movement that emerged from the second wave feminism of the 1960s and 1970s; women who were themselves rallying against what was believed to have been the enforced female domesticity of the 1950s for the most part accepted this division along gender lines as simple fact. This began to change in the 1980s with the emergence of serious research into gender history; it quickly became apparent that earlier assumptions had been, in many cases, too generalised and simplistic. Vickery argued that class, age and religion amongst other factors impacted upon the position and freedom of individual women. Others have questioned the extent to which the ideals of woman as the ‘angel’ of the home had ever permeated the reality of feminine gender identity. Increasing interest in gender history also led to historical masculinity being considered properly for the first time, historians like John Tosh have attempted to correct the deficiencies in previous work which saw masculine identity as homogenous and fixed. Such research has forced a reassessment of a concept that has long been taken for granted. This essay shall seek to prove that earlier research into separate spheres tended too far to over-simplification in order to prove feminist theories of female subordination at the hands of men. It shall consider recent ideas about the changing nature of gender identity and argue that historical masculinity, as well as femininity, was as heterogeneous as it is today.

One aspect of the separate spheres theory that has been debunked by recent research is the idea that it was something unique to industrialised society. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries it was widely believed that society before industrialisation had been an ‘Eden’ of equality between men and women. Clark writing in 1919 argued that industrialisation, and the resultant separation of work and home life, led to the exclusion of women from ‘public’ life as they lost the opportunity to assist their husbands and fathers in paid work and became idle ‘parasites’. Such views have always been problematic however, not least because of a lack of consensus over when this change took place. Clark claimed this fundamental separation of the spheres of home and work occurred in the late seventeenth century, whilst Pinchbeck argued the change took place in the early nineteenth century. In addition recent research carried out by economic historians has cast doubt over the very existence of an ‘Industrial Revolution’, the process whereby industrialisation took place and brought about the separation of work and home which earlier writers felt was a prerequisite for gendered separate spheres. Judith Bennett has argued that work has always been divided along gender lines and Peter Earle found that female employment remained relatively unchanged in scope and occupation from 1700 to 1851; something that seems to suggest simultaneously that ‘separate spheres’ was at once important – in controlling the types of work women did – and unimportant – in that women remained in the workplace in similar numbers despite the growing idealization of the woman as homemaker in the Victorian era. Were separate spheres only ever a myth? Or were they a constant fact of life, even in pre-industrial society? This confusion has been one of the major consequences of serious study of the history of gender; it has proven that earlier accounts were over generalised and simplified to ignore contradictory evidence.

To argue that there is doubt over the dominance of the ideology of separate spheres might, at first glance, seem strange as it so embodies everything that is understood about Victorian society in modern popular culture. Feminist writers of the 1960s and 1970s were as quick to portray the mid-nineteenth century woman as a bird in a gilded cage as those of the 1890s and 1910s. To their eyes men, by restricting women to the private sphere, had encouraged a breed of apathetic ‘parasitic’ women who had neither the education nor the inclination to question their position. Yet even during what has been considered the ‘golden age’ of separate spheres in mid nineteenth century, the situation was never so simple. For a start there is a world of difference between the idealistic middle class writing on the subject which survives and the harsh realities faced by the majority of the population. The economic position of the labouring classes meant that many women found it necessary to go out into the workplace, even in the face of increasing opposition to female labour from skilled male workers who felt they were undermining their position and the arguments from groups such as the moral force Chartists who felt that it was morally better for women to be shielded from the public sphere. Similarly individual case studies have revealed that that the private sphere was ‘not necessarily synonymous with female seclusion and confinement’; Vickery points out that middle and upper class women continued the administrative work of business, writing letters to establish and retain contacts and sponsors which could be useful to their husbands for example. Amanda Foreman has argued that, providing women did not flaunt it too openly, there was scope for woman to be involved in the ‘public’ world of politics; the Duchess of Devonshire received widespread criticism when she publicly canvassed for Charles Fox in the 1790s for example, yet her advisory role to many prominent Whig politicians within the domestic setting received relatively little censure. The contribution of the study of masculinity has been to further complicate the once clear cut picture of separate spheres; Tosh points to the ‘cult’ of domesticity of the 1850s which saw men spending increasing amounts of leisure time within the private sphere of the home, as opposed to the pub or club, suggesting that the separation of spheres was never as complete as feminists once portrayed. 

Following on from this idea of a complex network of acceptable gendered behaviour the study of gender identities has challenged the long held assumption that masculinity was a homogeneous construction. Just as the reality between middle class rhetoric on the position of women and the economic realities of the working classes was incompatible, so the same was true for men. The dominant voice of the middling class in printed literature argued that male identity rested on a respectable occupation, gained through one’s own merit; yet for the working classes this concept of masculinity was less widely accepted in the mid-nineteenth century. At a time when employment markets were volatile the male as breadwinner was a role many men found they could not live up to and so clung to an older masculine identity of violence and physical strength against which to judge themselves. Indeed, Tosh argues that the bourgeois ideal of masculinity could not have been the dominant ideal amongst more than forty per cent of the adult male population in the mid nineteenth century. Similarly J.S. Bratton found that music hall fare aimed at the working classes continued to portray women as having an equal, if not greater, sex drive than men at a time when dominant middle class opinion was that women possessed little if any desire for sex. Class was not the only factor that determined how people constructed their gender identity; Tosh draws attention to the way in which men defined themselves against the ‘other’. This could mean women or another social class, but was by no means limited to these two interpretations. Men could also judge their masculinity against boys, colonial subjects or, later in the century, homosexuals. Tosh described how the clerical workers of the lower middle classes in particular, having neither the status to secure middle class masculinity nor the tough physicality of the working class ideal, were prone to viewing their masculinity in relation to ‘effeminate’ colonials, Sinha found that this was the case in which Bengali men were perceived. Such research has served to cast doubt on the validity of separate spheres as a catch all concept for understanding earlier societies; the picture was clearly more varied and complex than has generally been acknowledged.

Similarly research into the history of gender has revealed that gender identity was not fixed throughout time as Connell’s theory of traditional, ‘hegemonic’ gender identity might suggest. This might appear obvious but has been long overlooked by those who have seen gender as an almost exclusively biological construct; in truth as social values have changed so has gender identity. Tosh has spoken of a late Victorian ‘crisis of masculinity’, the idea that as women began to gain admittance into the public sphere and increased control over their own lives men increasingly looked for new ways in which to measure their masculinity. As discussed in the previous paragraph clerical workers were especially prone to this as it was in their occupation that growing numbers of middle class women were most likely to find ‘respectable’ employment; in response their male counterparts adopted a hyper-masculinity which prized physical strength and superiority over the ‘subordinate’ masculine identities of colonials and homosexuals. This change over time can also be witnessed in advice manuals for the upbringing of sons, during the mid-nineteenth century fathers were warned not to be overtly emotional towards their sons lest they ruin their chances of leaving the emotional, feminine state of childhood behind. Over 30 new private schools were established by the 1860s to educate the sons of the middle classes and so prepare them for the ‘masculine’ public sphere, something which they could not learn at home. Yet, even as a more violent masculinity became dominant in the 1880s, advice literature was changing; by 1893 Annie Swan advised fathers to be a ‘chum’ to their sons so that they might feel at ease with them. The moral welfare was increasingly being left to the virtuous mother to ensure. Again these seeming contradictions say much about the lack of a single, unified idea of masculinity and suggest that the separate spheres model could never have neatly encompassed the entirety of British society.

These findings have forced a re-evaluation not only of the validity of separate spheres as a concept but also of the justification of separate spheres by contemporaries. Traditionally feminist writers have argued that men strove to confine women to the home so as to remove their competition in the workplace and in the political world, and confirm their position as heads of a patriarchal society. However in light of research into masculinities it has become clear that separate spheres as an ideology was the result of a number of factors. The Romanticism of the nineteenth century encouraged a view of motherhood and childhood as something special and sacred, something which should be separate from the harsh world of business. This was a view shared by nineteenth century religion; Evangelicalism demanded that children needed constant supervision to save them from the taint of original situation and so needed the segregation with mothers in the home, the more child friendly outlook of the Non-conformists also stressed the importance of segregation – although in this case to preserve the natural innocence of children. Women, who had been seen as closer to sin than men (stemming from their association with Eve’s sin) throughout the Middle Ages, were increasingly believed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to be purer with higher morals. William Acton, for example, claimed in 1857 that ‘the majority of women (happily for them) are not very much troubled with sexual feeling of any kind’. Men sought, then, not just to stamp their superiority over women but in many cases sought to protect their wives and daughters in order to preserve their inherent goodness. This paternalistic nature was investigated by Tosh in a case study of Edward Benson and his young wife Mary; Edward was 30 when he married her, aged just 18, in the hope her childish innocence would protect him from his own impure desires. Other men looked upon their wives as surrogate mothers, enabling them to depend upon women in a society where this was otherwise frowned upon. Still others saw their wives as equals such as Thomas Sanderson who added his wife’s surname, Cobden, to his own name after their marriage and was heavily involved in the upbringing of their children. Such findings have called what has been seen as the fundamentally subordinating nature of this era of separate spheres into question.

In conclusion the concept of separate spheres has been shown to be founded on misconceptions by recent research, the study of gender and masculinity in particular. It has been shown that the concept never fully reflected the reality of life in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; earlier work where this was believed to be the case relied too much on assumptions. Masculinity was never a fixed, homogeneous construct, as this essay has shown the dominant discourses shifted from the idea of moral masculinity in the 1850s to the cult of athleticism and physical strength by the 1880s, a process started in response to the changing visibility of subordinate masculine identities (such as homosexuals) as much as the increasing visibility of women in the public sphere. More importantly it has been realised that the dominant ideal masculinity was never all encompassing, and took time to filter down through society. In the early nineteenth century middle class men defined themselves in relation to the ‘other’ of the working classes when they condemned wife-beating, it was not until the 1850s when this idea was taken up by the skilled and semi-skilled working classes. Understandings of gender identity has impacted massively on understandings of the gendered separation of spheres then, not just by showing that there were exceptions to its grip over the structure of society, but also in understanding why contemporaries chose to view society through the filter of separate spheres. No longer can it be argued that it was a simple case of patriarchal male dominance being inflicted on a previously egalitarian society, instead it has had to be acknowledged that the reasoning was more complex and was open to change throughout the period.


  • L. Davidoff and C. Hall, Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class 1780-1850 (1987), prologue. 
  • H. Barker and E. Chalus, Gender in Eighteenth-Century England (1998), introduction. A. Vickery, ‘Golden age to separate spheres?’ Historical Journal 36 (1993) 
  • J. Tosh, ‘What should historians do with masculinity? Reflections on nineteenth century Britain’ History Workshop Journal 33 (1994) 
  • J. Tosh, A Man’s Place: Masculinity and the Middle Class Home in Victorian England (1999). M. Roper and J. Tosh (eds.), Manful Assertions: masculinities in Britain since 1800 (1990), Introduction. 
  • E. Foyster, Marital Violence: An English Family History c.1660-1857 (2005), chapter 1. 
  • J. Tosh, ‘Masculinities in an Industrializing Society: Britain, 1800-1914’ Journal of British Studies 44 (2005). 
  • D. Kuchta, ‘The making of the self-made man: class, clothing, and English masculinity, 1688-1832’ in V. de Grazia (ed.), The Sex of Things: Gender and Consumption in Historical Perspective (1996). 
  • M. Francis, ‘The domestication of the male? Recent research on nineteenth- and twentieth-century British masculinity’ Historical Journal 45, 3 (2002).


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