‘Golden Age to Separate Spheres? A Review of the Categories and Chronology of English Women’s History’ by Amanda Vickery, Article Review
Amanda Vickery’s article presents an interesting dimension to the debate of separate spheres, although published a while ago much of what is argued still remains influential to historians today. She chooses to tackle two important aspects of women’s historiography the first being the separation of spheres, and this being a middle-class phenomenon, and secondly the marginalization of women as a consequence of capitalism. Although as with all articles there are some failings and limitations, the overall vigour of Vickery’s article is extremely convincing. She refuses to accept Davidoff and Hall’s Family Fortunes, as the final word and leaves the reader questioning much of the previous historical trends when assessing women’s history.
Vickery’s article attempts to critically review the use of the term separate spheres, and assess the theory that domestic womanhood should be associated with the emergence of the middle-class.1 She focuses on the fact that the theory is over reliant on models of social and economic change, and also points to a problem of evidence with particular criticism on focusing on prescriptive literature. Another aspect of her argument is the idea that separate spheres points to a golden age, which seems unrealistic. These are all very powerful criticisms, and form a very real threat to the theory of separate spheres.
Vickery argues that the theory of separate spheres insinuates some sort of pre 19th century golden age or ‘egalitarian Eden’ in a convincing manner.2 It seems unrealistic to envisage the pre-industrialist economy, as an idyllic place where women thrived.3 She confidently starts the article by pointing out that the idea of separating the public and private is far from novel, this brings the reader to straight away question why it is that the 19th century is considered by many to be a pivotal stage in gendered history.4 She points to socialist writers such as Engels, and the assumption that the new capitalist man needed a domestic prisoner, suggesting that this new industrial society was directly linked to separate spheres.5 Vickery supports her argument by using examples of classics in English economic history, such as Alice Clark’s Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century (1919). Works such as this depict the deterioration of the woman worker compared to the rise of the male breadwinner and neatly illustrate her point.6 She presents a striking argument, which is cohesive and immediately makes the reader see the sense in it. The model of separate spheres being too heavily reliant on models of social and economic change is perhaps one of her most key arguments.
One of Vickery’s key theories is the problem of evidence, whilst Davidoff and Hall and other pioneering historians have chosen to almost solely rely on didactic and complaint literature. Vickery argues they put little measures in place to test the accuracy of such primary evidence.7 Vickery probes further asking why historians have neglected to fully investigate the reception such prescriptive sources had. Answering such questions is vital and in not doing so it undermines their interpretations. She points towards modernists who argue that people were capable of resisting attempts to dictate their actions, arguing that these historians were ignored as the mass of research continued to build on the ‘sands’ of prescription.8 Whilst Vickery’s argument for the faults of prescription are convincing, she could have made more use of the primary sources she advocates such as diaries to illustrate this point.9 Whilst Vickery is right to be wary of the use of prescriptive sources, to suggest that influential historians have taken such sources without questioning them is an assumption, even she admits that Davidoff and Hall recognise their limitations.10
A real stand out point in the article is Vickery’s questioning of the placing of the lower gentry and the possibility of far greater social cohesion amongst genteel, professional and commercial families.11 Whilst her evidence for such social cohesion is a micro-study of northeast Lancashire in 1750-1825, she recognises the limitations of this and admits that more work must be done.12 She argues that these three types of families dominated the area, and that they all socialised and had shared opinions about the appropriate behaviour of men and women13. If this was the case, then surely this makes Davidoff and Hall’s arguments of separate spheres being an exclusively middle class phenomenon seems faulty. The problem is that so few historians have researched the lesser gentry. Vickery has pointed to a gap in scholarly thought, she resists the temptation to claim that the rest of the country was similar without further research to back it up.
Vickery argues that there were instances of women using their vision as angels in the home in order to meet their own ends, allowing them to step outside the rigid private sphere. 14 This point is corroborated by other historians such as Kent, who uses examples such as women reforming the lives of the poor, or working on colonized projects.15 This brings you to question that if middle-class women were able to manipulate separate spheres to act in public were the spheres so heavily in place? She also points to the porous nature of the model of bourgeois femininity as there are females that are philanthropists and travellers for example that certainly would not fit into the model of separate spheres. 16 A key aspect that Vickery misses in this section is the legal limitations on women, there were many restrictions in place and women were not allowed to vote until 1918. This brings to question the legal aspect of separate spheres whilst Vickery focuses mainly on the social.
Vickery’s critique of Davidoff and Hall’s Family Fortunes is so thorough that it needs to be discussed on its own. Davidoff and Hall’s work is such a stand out piece that it is understandable why Vickery wanted to provide a detailed critique. However the critique takes up a great body of the article and removes a little of the clarity of her own arguments. Despite this a lot of what she has to say on their interpretation is impressive, she accuses them of failing to take correct account of newer debates and doubts and instead choosing to reassert the old theories leaving little open to debate.17 She also criticises the way they assume the ‘vitality of an oppositional culture of commerce versus land’, this goes back to the arguments earlier on in her article about the possibility of social cohesion between the gentry and commercial families.18. However her criticism of Davidoff and Hall’s overemphasizing the importance of the French revolution and the campaigning of evangelical’s role in the creation of this new moral class is less impressive. It would hold far more weight was she to include some more detailed points arguing why the French revolution and evangelicalism should not be considered influential, and then back this up with primary evidence.
Whilst much of Vickery’s argument seems cogent, some aspects of her argument certainly stand out especially in light of other interpretations. In particular her argument of there not being a golden age, seems to be the most accepted and supported of her arguments, with historians such as Barker pointing to the lack of debate on the issue.19 It is clear however that the argument over the public and private is still contested, and although Vickery’s argument is very influential she admits there is more to be said. There is also the key point that whilst Vickery presents an interesting case opposing Davidoff and Hall, as many other historians have it is slightly let down by her failings to fully assess the role of the Church on manliness and femininity. She seems to have missed out on an important part of the debate. This is a central part to Davidoff and Hall’s argument and by not addressing it further and not even mentioning cases such as the Queen Caroline affair seems porous.20 Vickery’s argument about the failings of prescriptive literature are impressive, a topic which has been continuously assessed by other historians of this period.21 When assessing Vickery’s argument in light of other interpretations it remains strong, with her points about the so-called golden age, and the problem of prescriptive literature being particularly influential.
Vickery’s hypothesis remains an extremely influential piece, and has added much to historical debate on the topic of separate spheres and the marginalization of middle-class women as a result of capitalism. Whilst she could have benefited from pointing to the very real legal restrictions of women, her arguments remain very powerful. However it cannot be said to be the last word on the topic. Even with Vickery’s valid attempts to critique Davidoff and Hall’s influential work, it still remains at the forefront of the separate spheres debate. It seems that whilst she certainly shows the limitations of separate spheres as a tool, it is just too embedded within the historiography of 19th century gendered history to be completely disregarded. However Vickery’s arguments about the absence of a golden age are generally undisputed and her arguments about prescriptive literature are also particularly impressive. She admits to the limitations of her article, and calls for more case studies on the personal preoccupations and economic contributions of women all the way from the 17th to 19th centuries.
Barker, Hannah and Chalus, Elaine. Women’s History: Britain, 1700-1850 (Abingdon, 2005). Davidoff, Leanore and Hall, Catherine. Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class 1780-1850 (London, 1987). Jones, Vivien. ‘The Seduction of Conduct: Pleasure and Conduct Literature’, in Marie Mulvey and Roy Porter (ed.), Pleasure in the Eighteenth Century, (Basingstoke, 1996), pp.108-132. Kent, Susan Kingsley. Gender and Power in Britain 1640-1990 (New York, 1999). Landes, Joan B. ‘Further Thoughts on the Public/Private Distinction’, Journal of Women’s History 15 (2003), pp.28-39. Rendall, Jane. ‘Women and the Public Sphere’, Gender & History 11 (1999), pp.475-488. Vickery, Amanda. ‘Golden Age to Separate Spheres? A Review of the Categories and Chronology of English Women’s History’, The Historical Journal 36 (1993), pp.383-414. Wahrman, Dror. The Making of the Modern Self: Identity and Culture in Eighteenth-Century England (New Haven, 2004).