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Separated by Their Sex: Women in Public and Private in the Colonial Atlantic World [Kindle Edition]

Mary Beth Norton
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)

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Book Description

In Separated by Their Sex, Mary Beth Norton offers a bold genealogy that shows how gender came to determine the right of access to the Anglo-American public sphere by the middle of the eighteenth century. Earlier, high-status men and women alike had been recognized as appropriate political actors, as exemplified during and after Bacon’s Rebellion by the actions of—and reactions to—Lady Frances Berkeley, wife of Virginia’s governor. By contrast, when the first ordinary English women to claim a political voice directed group petitions to Parliament during the Civil War of the 1640s, men relentlessly criticized and parodied their efforts. Even so, as late as 1690, Anglo-American women’s political interests and opinions were publicly acknowledged. Norton traces the profound shift in attitudes toward women’s participation in public affairs to the age’s cultural arbiters, including John Dunton, editor of the Athenian Mercury, a popular 1690s periodical that promoted women’s links to husband, family, and household. Fittingly, Dunton was the first author known to apply the word “private” to women and their domestic lives. Subsequently, the immensely influential authors Richard Steele and Joseph Addison (in the Tatler and the Spectator) advanced the notion that women’s participation in politics—even in political dialogues—was absurd. They and many imitators on both sides of the Atlantic argued that women should confine themselves to home and family, a position that American women themselves had adopted by the 1760s. Colonial women incorporated the novel ideas into their self-conceptions; during such “private” activities as sitting around a table drinking tea, they worked to define their own lives. On the cusp of the American Revolution, Norton concludes, a newly gendered public-private division was firmly in place.

Editorial Reviews


"As Norton notes, this book is a prequel to Liberty's Daughters. Norton had found that in 1750, men and women alike considered the 'fair sex' inferior and largely irrelevant to the world beyond their households. In Separated by Their Sex, she searches for the origins of this paradigm and specifically for its signature dichotomy of male/public versus female/private. . . . Norton's contribution is to chart in meticulous detail the political options available primarily to elite women and the subsequent eradication of those options. A little book that deals with big issues in an Atlantic world context, Separated by Their Sex is also an object lesson in the value of digital sources and methods for historians. Norton recognizes the importance of language: using full-text searches in massive collections of digitized materials enabled her to chart rhetorical innovations (and hence cultural trends) with remarkable precision."—Cynthia A. Kierner, Journal of American History

"Senior early American women's history scholar Norton, who also understands English sources, is ideally situated to ponder the intellectual worlds of early modern Anglo-Americans. Building on her work in Founding Mothers and Fathers, these essays interrogate the changing ways people understood the relationship of public to private, one of the most persistent issues in women's history. Recommended."—Choice

"Norton's book brings a welcome historical specificity with a focus on words and politics. For readers wondering what there is left to say about the public/private split, Norton reminds us that binary concepts have a specific political and cultural history. . . . The public/private splite, Norton argues, had one genealogy, the 'feminine private sphere,' and the idea that politics was an exclusively male domain had different ones, each deserving its own history. . . . It should, in the best way of provocative work, inspire additional comparative studies of women's words. . . . Norton's work provides an essential framework for future investigations."—Social History

"Mary Beth Norton is always bold, always challenging, always ambitious. In this stunningly researched new book, Norton reconfigures our thinking about women's status in Britain and America during the long century after the English Civil War by mapping a shift in worldview from hierarchy to gender. Separated by their Sex will stir interest and debate."—Edith Gelles, Stanford University, author of Abigail and John: Portrait of a Marriage

"Challenging previously held views, Mary Beth Norton shows that the growing exclusion of women from politics and public life at the time of the American Revolution had not always been the case. Through a brilliant analysis of English and American sources, Norton traces the complex changes that produced a more rigidly defined definition of sex roles. This is transatlantic history at its best."—Rosemarie Zagarri, author of Revolutionary Backlash: Women and Politics in the Early American Republic

"Separated by Their Sex grapples with a fundamental question in early American women's history and presents an important missing piece to aid our understanding of the creation of a private female sphere antithetical to a male public/political realm."—Clare Lyons, University of Maryland, author of Sex among the Rabble

Product Details

  • File Size: 1294 KB
  • Print Length: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Cornell University Press; 1 edition (May 18, 2011)
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B0051GY3DI
  • Text-to-Speech: Not enabled
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  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #937,668 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
By hmf22
Separated by Their Sex serves both as a sequel to Norton's Founding Mothers and Fathers, on gender in seventeenth-century America, and as a prequel to her classic book Liberty's Daughters, on American women of the Revolutionary Era. In the course of writing these books, Norton noticed that there was a profound disjuncture between the seventeenth century Anglo-American world, in which authority depended primarily on social rank, not gender, and the late eighteenth-century Anglo-American world, in which women were keenly conscious of their gender and tended to describe their spheres as "narrow" and "little." In Separated by Their Sex, Norton seeks to explain how the first mode of thinking turned into the second.

Norton's depiction of this process is pithy, cogent, and convincing. She warns the reader early on that this is primarily a work of intellectual, not social, history, but in fact she strives to balance the two, with detailed portraits of women such as Sarah Kemble Knight and Lady Chatham and a lengthy exploration of Frances Berkeley's role in the events surrounding Bacon's Rebellion. Norton resurrects some little-known texts, such as John Dunton's Athenian Mercury, to depict just how attitudes towards women's involvement in politics and public affairs changed with each passing generation. What astonished me, on reading this book, is how quick and emphatic the change was. Norton's biographical vignettes, taken as a group, suggest that there may have been a slight time lag from Britain to America, but by the eve of the American Revolution, the transition was fully realized on both sides of the Atlantic, and women across the Anglo-American world were newly and deeply preoccupied with how they filled their roles not just as daughters, wives, mothers, and mistresses of households, but specifically as women, women who would ideally confine themselves to a newly articulated "private" sphere.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
This book is on the Rorotoko list. Professor Norton's interview on "Separated by their Sex" ran as the Rorotoko Cover Feature on June 15, 2011 (and can be read in the Rorotoko archive).
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