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Journal of Women's History 15.1 (2003) 11-27

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Gender and the "Great Divide"
Public and Private in British Gender History

Leonore Davidoff

. . . with the advance of civilization the lives of human beings are increasingly split between an intimate and a public sphere, between secret and public behaviour. And this split is taken so much for granted, becomes so compulsive a habit, that it is hardly perceived in consciousness. 1

British women's history of the 1970s and 1980s was spearheaded by feminists with a deep commitment to the women's movement. We confronted a traditional and male-dominated historical profession whose view of history centered on high politics and diplomacy. By contrast, for many, our approach had been through labor history, particularly in the History Workshop movement, and focused on working-class, everyday lives in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Small wonder that women's oppression and exploitation figured large and that the exclusion of women from the work force and formal politics was especially significant. In particular, we recognized the power of marriage, family, and motherhood in determining women's past lives. Following nineteenth-century nomenclature,women's "separate sphere" became a dominant theme, particularly in relation to the nineteenth-century English middle class. 2

To an extent, this was to be expected: each generation looks at the past through its own lens and its history is "always informed by suppositions and judgements." 3 Since then, in both conceptual and empirical terms, the separate spheres paradigm has come under considerable criticism. 4 Among scholars, the main sources of contention have been its chronology, location, and actual practices. A new generation has now shifted their focus from the nineteenth to the eighteenth century, to the world of politics and civil society and to the level of the aristocracy, gentry, and upper middle class. 5 "Racial" and national identity have extended or overtaken gender as a focus of historical analysis, issues where the separate spheres approach seems irrelevant—although, in fact, the division between public and private, as a central part of Western culture, has been a key factor in the imposition—and attraction—of colonial encounters. 6

The debate over separate spheres has been complicated and the terms slippery. Historian Amanda Vickery has argued that "the polarity between home and world is an ancient trope of Western writing." 7 Was, then, the [End Page 11] late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth-century usage mainly a reaction against privileged women's increasing incursion into the public, as Vickery has argued? Or has this interpretation overemphasised the unchanging aspects of the division itself? Ann Summers points out that although late-eighteenth-century Enlightenment liberal intellectualism may have opened doors for women, those doors closed with the onset of new forms of professionalism and the growth of more bureaucratic institutions. 8 If we move beyond tracing women into undifferentiated public realms, the discussion may be clarified.

The separate spheres paradigm has to be put into context as a special case of the "great divide" in Western culture between the public and the private realms. In this essay, I examine the nature of these fundamental concepts and how they were mapped onto concepts of gender. There follows a brief survey of expectations and practices of gender relations in eighteenth- and nineteenth-centuries Britain and how they have interacted with the public/private divide.

Many of the problems scholars have with separate spheres stem from some basic misunderstandings about the parent terms. As the philosopher Jeff Weintraub points out, in discussing public and private, "people not only talk past each other . . . but confuse themselves as well." 9 "Public" and "private" are categories of relationship posed as opposite and mutually exclusive terms. Such a formulation inevitably connotes hierarchy; one condition is evaluated more positively than the other. Within this dualism, people are limited by a falsely universal position. When they are assigned to either category, differential consequences follow in terms of power and access to resources. Such categorizing marks boundaries, providing opportunities for some, constraints for others. Bounded categories...


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