In the Victorian age, one of the fun socially-constructed gender role concepts was that men and women occupied separate spheres. I suppose you would call these separate spheres of being or existence. The sexes were considered two halves of a whole, hence part of the importance of the whole marriage thing (but much more in a moral and social than a biological sense). Men and women were seen as equal but different, the men dominant and the women subordinate.

Women were seen as the more moral of the two sexes. They were expected to take care of all the finicky emotional nurturing bits of life, such as running the household, entertaining, teaching, and bringing up children. The "womanly arts", as it were. The house was the woman's sphere, and she reigned at the center of it (if she were the mistress of the house. Otherwise she circulated around in a cooking and scrubbing floors sort of way). The house was the center of family life, and the woman--the wife and mistress of the house--was the moral backbone of the family. She was supposed to use her womanly powers and graces to keep the men from being too immoral: to provide a haven from the immoral outside world. You might check out Coventry Patmore's very, very long poem "The Angel in the House" for some examples of idealized female virtue at the time.

Men were therefore the less moral. They occupied the sphere consisting of "the rest of the world". Yes indeed. They went into business, took care of money matters, and generally were not a part of the family unit within the household. They would come home and be served a newspaper and a drink in the study. The man--master and husband--was the head of the household, yet played no such central familial role as the woman. He spent his days out of the house, and came home to be situated in comfort, to take his place at the head of the table, and to carve the roast beef (and there's a symbolic action if I ever saw one).

Note my breakdown in parallel structure: "wife and mistress" vs. "master and husband". I think this is an accurate portrayal. Women were primarily wives; men were primarily masters. So a wife's main job was to help her husband be the best master possible: to keep him morally upright. The master's main job was to go make money, and keep the household well provided for; his role as husband to his wife was secondary.

Nice! Yes, it was. And it was not just men who believed this, no. Such esteemed individuals as Catharine Beecher, founder of several women's schools of domestic economy in the USA, certainly espoused it. In her Treatise on Domestic Economy, published in 1841, she argues why women's schools are necessary through citation of the woman's moral role:

The mother forms the character of the future man; the sister bends the fibres that are hereafter to be the forest tree; the wife sways the heart, whose energies may turn for good or evil the destinies of a nation. Let the women of a country be made virtuous and intelligent, and the men will certainly be the same. The proper education of a man decides the welfare of an individual; but educate a woman, and the interests of a whole family are secured.

She goes on to argue in fact that American women held the entire country's moral reputation in their hands, and that they had a huge responsibility: to shape the moral character of the country, and hence to set an example for the countries of a slightly less moral nature. Thus, "each and all may be animated by the consciousness, that they are agents in accomplishing the greatest work that ever was commited to human responsiblity." Yay evangelical Christianity!

Anyway. So, the outside world was full of peril: women were not suffered to go out alone in it, as they might fall off their pedestal or otherwise become incrementally less moral. SIN! Horrors. Yet the men went out into the corrupt world every day. Yes. And they were expected to remain moral creatures under the influence of their submissive pedestalian wives, and the moral households that said pedestalian wives created. The man was the dominant partner, and had actual power over his wife, yet the submissive wife was supposed to be able to make her husband moral. Hmm.

The conundrums involved in this can make your head spin. Ok. Men were weaker creatures, morally, so therefore they went out into the world of temptation. What happened, could they withstand the temptation better? No, they could not; they were expected to fall under and be less moral in the marketplace. Could this have something to do with the whole concept of capitalism, and the idea that one must be a little immoral and exploitative if one is to make the correct amount of money? This is conjecture, but I think it has a point or two in its favor. In order to operate in the immoral world, then, must one be able to be immoral as well? What is going on?

And the women were the stronger moral creatures, yet they were not allowed to go out into the depraved world, because they had to stay pure. But would they not have the greater strength of will by means of which to stand up against such corruption, being the all-moral creatures they were thought to be? No, apparently not: they could not go out, because they might become similarly corrupted. Or perhaps one might use a daintier word, such as "soiled". They had to maintain their moral superiority in order to keep the household (and their husband) functioning morally.

Well. I see a couple of holes here, and so did various people at the time. The abolitionist sisters Sarah and Angelina Grimké attacked it roundly. In Sarah's "Pastoral Letter of the General Association of Congregational Ministers of Massachusetts", in Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Women, 1838, she rips apart the moral defenses of the woman's submissive role:

'Her influence is the source of mighty power.' This has ever been the flattering language of man since he laid aside the whip as a means to keep woman in subjection. He spares her body; but the war he has waged against her mind, her heart, and her soul, has been no less destructive to her as a moral being. . . . 'Rule by obedience and by submission sway,' or, in other words, study to be a hypocrite, pretend to submit, but gain your point, has been the code of household morality which woman has been taught.

While not quite the argument I would make, Grimké has a point, and a defensible one. However, it was really not a popular point of view at that time, at All. But then, the Grimkés were essentially the crazy radicals of their time, espousing not only women's rights but also abolition of slavery, and on top of that the rights of slave women. They were not exactly popular except within a very small section of the population.

So, while there were a variety of points of view as to the validity of separate spheres, most people agreed that it was correct. The concept remained widespread and powerful, and had a large role in shaping the Victorian household as well as the society in which those households were situated.

Hollinger, David A. and Charles Capper. The American Intellectual Tradition, vol. I 1630-1865. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. Quotes taken from pp.226 (Grimké) and 259 (Beecher).

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