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Journal of Women's History 15.1 (2003) 43-51
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Refashioning the Concept of Public/Private
Lessons from Dress Studies
As a veteran of the U.S. women's liberation movement in the 1960s and 1970s, I welcome this retrospective on public/private because I have worried about the fading of a concept that was at the heart of second-wave feminists' political project of revealing the nature and consequences of patriarchy and forging true sexual equality. The notion that the public/ private concept has been modified beyond recognition and has all but faded from view is more than an academic issue but raises fundamental questions about the future of feminism as a social movement. In short, does current feminist thought no longer reflect the political project of second-wave feminists that inspired feminist scholarship?
Feminist scholars who introduced the concept in the 1970s were drawn to explaining relationships between public (work) life and private (domestic) life because they witnessed shifting boundaries between home and work in the 1960s as large numbers of married white women entered the work force and the family wage declined. They theorized that male domination/ female subordination, the analytical equivalence of patriarchy, was structured by the strict separation of hierarchical spheres, male (public) and female (private or domestic). This division, taking on varied forms and ideologies according to time and place—for example, the cult of domesticity in the nineteenth century and "maternalism" in the Progressive Era in the United States—became for feminists as central to understanding sexual inequality as social class was for economic and social inequality. But by the 1980s, many scholars realized that their original conceptualizations were simplistic. Responding to studies revealing that, for example, black women in slavery were at risk in the domestic sphere and most working-class and immigrant women expected to earn wages if not permanently then at some point in their lives, feminist scholars incorporated modifications and complexities that reflected contradictions, exceptions, and the multiplicity of subcultures, ethnicities, and races. At the same time, many feminist writers embraced Foucault's work, which, because it regards culture as imprinted upon the body, challenges the public/private dichotomy. 1
As the public/private concept became more complex and intricate, it lost analytical and political clarity and became less central. Some scholars continue to use and redefine the individual terms "public" and "private," but most forged new perspectives reflecting innovative modes of gender [End Page 43] analysis. Yet if we look forward at newly emerging conceptual territories, as well as backwards, retrospectively, new possibilities take shape. The new significance of public/private life is related to other definitions of the duality's terms that appear, at least superficially, unrelated to gender, such as public (government) and private (market) and the public of personal self-representation in sociologist Erving Goffman's Relations in Public. 2 Some scholars in the emerging field of dress studies build on the latter use of the term to reveal nuanced, non-dichotomous links between the terms "public" and "private" that incorporate hierarchy, subordination, and domination inherent in gender ideology. Their work has forged more analytically powerful definitions of "public" and "private" and reconceptualized their relationship, giving the concepts new relevance for current feminist scholarship and politics.
It is not surprising that dress should contribute to a concept that was central to the origins of woman's history, which explored the gendering of women's (and men's) lives from everyday experience to links to the economy, state, and culture. Clothing is always with us, literally carried about on our backs, consumed on a daily basis, and is one of the most consistently gendered aspects of material and visual culture, and thus often emotionally charged. Because both men and women wear clothing and were and are enthusiastic consumers of garments and accessories, clothing is ideal for gender analysis that systematically compares women and men (directly or by implication). 3 Dress studies is interdisciplinary and scholars represent diverse fields, including not only women's and social history but also dress history, art...