Separate Spheres ideology

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Separate Spheres ideology (also the Cult of Domesticity or Cult of True Womanhood) is a sexist ideology defining and prescribing gender roles that arose during the Industrial Revolution in Europe and America. The prescribed roles are familiar — the man brings home the bacon while the woman stays home to bring up the baby.


Although what is known as the Separate Spheres ideology came about during the Industrial Revolution, the idea that women were more suited to the domestic sphere has a long tradition in Western thought. Aristotle divided community into the oikos (family or household) and the polis (the city-state or political community) and argued that women should stay in the damn kitchen oikos.[1] During the Middle Ages, however, these "spheres" were not seen as entirely separate as many jobs (e.g., farming, craftsmanship) were done in or near the home. While a gendered division of labor existed, it was not as explicitly prescribed as it would later become. The separation between the two spheres became more prominent among the merchant class during the 14th century.[2]

"Different but equal"[edit]

The phrase "different but equal" can describe "gender equality" that actually espouses gender inequality — usually through the enforcement of traditional gender roles, much as "Separate but equal" was used as an excuse to segregate blacks into inferior facilities and accommodations. Sometimes this appears in religious terminologies, such as complementarianism — a Christian doctrine that says that, although men and women have the same "worth" in the eyes of God, they must assume totally different roles, with the man as breadwinner and the woman as a homemaker. It has also made its way into more secular advice, such as in John Gray's famous 1992 book Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus.

Industrial Revolution (19th century)[edit]

Following the aforementioned trend, the Separate Spheres ideology during the 19th century became more common among the middle and upper classes. The trend of industrialization fueled the rise of this ideology as men increasingly left home to work in factories. Alexis de Tocqueville noted this during his time in America, writing: "In no country has such constant care been taken as in America to trace two clearly distinct lines of action for the two sexes and to make them keep pace one with the other, but in two pathways that are always different."[3] The historian Barbara Welter defined the four traits of the "Cult of True Womanhood":

  • Piety: Religiosity in women was valued, and they were thought to be more credulous religious than men.
  • Purity: Women were to keep themselves "sexually pure" and avoid horrid things like enjoying too much sex.
  • Submissiveness: Women were to obey their husbands and not get too uppity about anything.
  • Domesticity: Women's place was in the oikos home.[4]

20th century[edit]

Separate Spheres ideology had become firmly entrenched in society during the 19th century and remained so into the 20th century. However, the nascent women's liberation movement of the late 19th-early 20th century began to challenge it. Probably the most famous deconstruction of domesticity was Betty Friedan's 1963 book The Feminine Mystique.[5]

Religion and pseudoscience[edit]

Religion and pseudoscience were and still are, used to rationalize the exclusion of women in the public sphere. As noted above, the connection of women to religiosity plays a role in this. Ephesians 5:22-24 is a common invocation: "Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord." On the pseudoscience side of things, forms of biological determinism have been the weapon of choice.[6]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. Vernon L. Provencal. The Family in Aristotle. Animus, vol. 6, 2001
  2. Arlene Sindelar. Review of Medieval Domesticity: Home, Housing and Household in Medieval England. The Medieval Review, 9.10.11
  3. Alexis de Tocqueville. How the Americans Understand the Equality of the Sexes. Chapter XII in Democracy in America.
  4. Barbara Welter. The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860. American Quarterly, vol. 18, no. 2, 1966.
  5. Katherine M. Osburn. Review of Horowitz, Daniel, Betty Friedan and the Making of The Feminine Mystique: The American Left, The Cold War, and Modern Feminism. H-Women, H-Net Reviews. January, 2000.
  6. The Cult of Domesticity and True Womanhood, Catherine Lavendar, College of Staten Island Library