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Home, Sweet Home: Gender in the Antebellum Household


      Introduction | Domestic Sphere | Men's Role as Head of Household | Call to War | Conclusion

Separate sphere ideology dictated different roles for men and women. While white men embodied bravery and strength, white women personified weakness and purity. Separate sphere ideology in the South meant adherence to a strict hierarchy based on race and class as well as gender.  This ideology excluded blacks from either sphere. The duties within the spheres differed due to class. Rich or poor, white women had different duties and expectations, while white men of either class had access to the public sphere. At the heart of the separate sphere ideology in the South was the duty of white men to protect white women from the public sphere. Without white men’s protection of the private sphere, the domestic sphere would not exist. Throughout the antebellum era, the rhetoric of separate spheres created ideal roles for men and women. The South’s call to arms invoked the ideology of separate spheres, but ultimately the Civil War challenged these roles.

The ideology of separate spheres has a complex historiographical past. Linda Kerber studied the use of the term in American historiography. The terms “sphere” became a trope that historians used to describe men’s and women’s roles in society.  In the beginning, historians used separate spheres to explain a rigid dichotomy for men and women’s roles. The public sphere meant formal politics and the private sphere involved exclusively domestic work, which ignored overlaps between the two spheres. Kerber argues, however, that the private sphere was not devoid of politics and vice versa, the private could be political and the political could be private. In addition, sloppy usage of separate spheres often overlooked the differences between “an ideology imposed on women, a culture created by women, a set of boundaries expected to be observed by women” as Kerber argues. [1] In the historiography, the private sphere often takes on an oppressive connotation, but due to the interaction between the spheres, the domestic sphere had power. By studying this power, we gain insight into how women could influence the world outside the private sphere.

In the antebellum South, separate sphere ideology represented a socially constructed ideal that enforced the existing race, class and gender hierarchy. Separate sphere ideology in the South differed from the northern ideology because of the structure of the plantation household. Historian Elizabeth Fox-Genovese argues that slavery created a unique household in the South. Both the public and private spheres were under the control of a white man, because the southern plantation household was not just a domestic sphere, but a political and economic entity. Plantations were both units of production and reproduction. The public nature of the plantation directed both white and black women’s roles in the domestic sphere toward economic success. Because white men controlled the public sphere they over saw all plantation life. Paternalism justified male dominance of both the public and private spheres in the South, unlike in the North were white women had increased authority in the domestic sphere. Therefore, while separate spheres dictated roles for white southern women in the domestic sphere, white women did not control it. [2] Thavolia Glyph continues Fox-Genovese argument by stating that because of the economic nature of the plantation, public and private blurred. The structure of plantation mixed economic and domestic with slave labor. While economically separate spheres combined, socially and politically the ideology dictated different roles for white men and women. [3]

“Home, Sweet Home” demonstrates that although separate sphere ideology excluded women from formal politics, white women’s roles and action still affected politics. The Civil War  transformed the private sphere into a political entity. White women in the domestic sphere used their position to make claims on the state.  This essay focuses on the expectations for white men and women in the public and private sphere in the South throughout the antebellum era. As the war approached, the household became an important political entity.

[1] Linda K. Kerber, “Separate Spheres, Female Worlds, Woman's Place: The Rhetoric of Women's History,”  The Journal of American History, 75, no. 1 (June, 1988), 10, 11, 13, 16, 26, 39. 

[2] Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the Old South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988), 38, 64, 60-61, 98-99. 

[3] Thavolia Glymph. Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household. (Cambridge, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 2,3.