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  • Gender and the Public/Private Distinction in the Eighteenth Century: Some Questions about Evidence and Analytic Procedure
  • Lawrence E. Klein (bio)

It is commonly held that public and private have been separate spheres asociated with gender throughout the history of Western political and social thought and Western institutions and practices. In feminist historical accounts, the persistent exclusion of women from public roles, power and citizenship is repeatedly asserted. 1 In studies of the eighteenth century, this pattern takes the specific form of the construction of the “domestic woman,” whose enclosure reached a peak in the nineteenth century. 2 In this vein, Vivien Jones introduced her anthology, Women in the Eighteenth Century (1990), with the assertion that there was a “dominant eighteenth-century ideology of femininity” which included, among other things, “the natural association between women and the private sphere, domesticity and leisure.” 3 Jones’s assertion involves a contrast between a domestic setting, to which women were increasingly restricted in ideology and practice, and spaces outside the home, which were men’s domains. Implicit in the spatial contrast is a contrast between assigned practices—the difference between men’s work and women’s, between female accomplishments and men’s. Thus, the “domestic thesis,” as I will call it, makes claims about the organization of spaces, the uses made of them, and the meanings attached to them.

My skepticism about the “domestic thesis” arises in part from my reading of the eighteenth century, but also from a disagreement with analytic moves [End Page 97] that underpin the thesis itself. 4 One such move is expressed in Ludmilla Jordanova’s Sexual Visions, published in 1989. Indeed, the following passage offers a rather weighty grounding for the standard account of the gendering of public and private. According to Jordanova:

In our attempts to understand the deployment of symbols and metaphors, we must recognize the fact that one of their most powerful forms in our culture has been the dichotomy, where two opposed terms mutually define each other. It is not just male/female and nature/culture but also town/country, matter/spirit, mind/body, public/private, capitalist/worker and so on. Our entire philosophical set presents natural and social phenomena in terms of oppositional characteristics.

It is not hard to assent to the contention that binary oppositions are a frequent, important and powerful tool with which people, past and present, attempt to tidy up their mental and discursive worlds. To be sure, gender is an especially dichotomy-prone area of human reflection, and the dichotomies of gender are often mapped against other dichotomies including the public-private distinction, in which I am mainly interested here.

At the same time, the binary opposition does not adequately explain the complexities of discourse, let alone those of human experience in practice. Jordanova herself points out that the actual operation in discourse of these dichotomies is intricate. She writes:

Each polarity has its own history, at the same time as it develops related meanings to other pairs. . . . Transformations between sets of dichotomies are performed all the time. . . . The fact that there are a number of related pairs, connected in complex ways, demonstrates the point that we are not speaking of simple linear hierarchies. 5

While taking up the challenge posed by Jordanova to pursue the complexity of such distinctions, I will go so far as to suggest that, as an account of the history of past discourse, Jordanova’s statement about the pre-eminence of dichotomized modes of thought may be misleading. Indeed, my principal target in this essay is the tendency to overestimate or rely uncritically on the binary opposition either as a feature of people’s mental equipment in the past or as an analytic device for those of us who write histories. In what follows I will examine how two oppositions (masculine/feminine, public/private) were related in eighteenth-century England. These instances suggest that the hegemonic role often assigned to binary oppositions in the discursive worlds of past people is less solid and total than it is sometimes made out to be. While analyzing the use of bipolar oppositions is a revealing historical enterprise, it also has some obvious limits.

First, it is...

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pp. 97-109
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