Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

Beyond Separate Spheres: The Power of Public Opinion

Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

Beyond Separate Spheres: The Power of Public Opinion

Article excerpt

The essays by Julie Roy Jeffrey and Laura McCall both point out how historians sometimes become imprisoned by the preconceptions, categories, and concepts that we bring to our "texts"-whether those are works of fiction or women's accomplishments in the world. We see or hear or read what we have been trained to recognize, applying predetermined categories perhaps beyond the point of sensible or reasonable interpretations. For these essays, "woman's sphere" is the trope carried too far; the authors join a growing chorus of voices that call for a new way of understanding the behaviors and images of women-real and archetypal-in the early republic, asking us to think beyond the boundaries we have come to assume.

Let me illustrate the ways in which our understandings of some concepts-or at least what we think we are hearing as concepts-can be constraining by describing an experience I had teaching a women's history class just a few years ago. My coinstructor and I assigned Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's wonderful volume A Midwife's Tale to introduce our students to notions of the fluidity of domesticity, to the historicity of the very notions of "public" and "private" as they emerged from home-based economies in frontier Maine in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.1 Women, we wanted students to understand, had been far from powerless in their household roles in the early years of the Republic. Gender-specific responsibilities sanctioned critical roles for women. Men and women collaborated in structuring society and politics, even as the threat of maledominated institutions, like modern medicine, began to emerge. We thought the students were engaged, attentive to our argument, sophisticated in their understanding-that is, until we read one student's paper that, in two pages, described how women could use the weapon of their domesticity in their battles with men. The weapon of woman's spear had, after all, been allocated to women by men; and men and women of course had "separate spears." It was, in a sense, a creative misreading; without preconceptions, the student was able to see transgressive power and autonomy, not submission and deference in women's household and domestic roles. Not knowing the familiar or traditional limits, this student could think beyond the boundaries.

So too these two essays urge us to move, albeit self-consciously, beyond the categories that have so framed the thinking of historians of women, and, instead, to view freshly the contest over gender definitions and gender relations waged both by antebellum men and women, and by their historians. Implicitly and explicitly, they build on the work of Mary Kelley, whose astute introduction precedes these essays, as well as that by Dorothy Helly and Susan Reverby. These feminist historians have traced insightfully the history of the rise-and fall-of the utility of the notion of separate spheres, observing that, in its earliest versions, the concept was employed (1) to explain universal female subordination and (2) to legitimate the need for a distinctive effort to inquire into women's particular experiences. Yet with the widespread deployment of a different model, that of the social construction of gender, and its implications for gender as a relationship, the notion of "separate spheres" has increasingly appeared as an obstacle to understanding the past rather than a tool for exploring it.2 Historians of African-American women and others studying working-class women, agricultural families, Native Americans, and immigrants have all commented on the inadequacy of separate spheres to explain the history of gender constructions, and their interactions with class, ethnicity, and race. But despite the growth of dissatisfactions, we do not yet have a new "grand theory" to help us break away from our attraction to notions of "true womanhood" as the bedrock for cultural norms. These two essays push us toward starting points and strategies for such a project. …

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